Inside BFI London Film Festival’s Unique Embankment Gardens Cinema

Photos by Connor Ballard-Pateman

The BFI London Film Festival is the ideal time for Londoners to experience the very best in cinema before its official release. This year, not only was the London Film Festival the ideal time to catch the hottest upcoming releases, but BFI created the ideal place – the Embankment Garden Cinema.

Launched in 1956, the BFI London Film Festival has become has become one of the world’s best-known. While it hasn’t quite got the glamour of Cannes or Sundance, the BFI London Film Festival gives UK cinemagoers the opportunity to enjoy the very best of cinema, alongside some films that typically wouldn’t be played in multiplexes across the country, before their general release.

Some of the highlights of the 2016 London Film Festival include Ben Wheatley’s 1970s-set crime thriller, Free Fire, the Oliver Stone biopic, Snowden, and the much-talked-about Amy Adam sci-fi, Arrival.  

While those films were extremely popular with festivalgoers, it wasn’t just about the movies themselves that had some excited – as those who had the opportunity to visit BFI’s temporary Embankment Gardens were in for a treat that extended far beyond just the films.

Located just a stone’s throw away from Embankment tube station and on the opposite side of the river to BFI Southbank, the Embankment Gardens cinema served as a replacement for the recently demolished Odeon West End.

The Odeon West End is steeped in history, having originally opened in 1930 as the Leicester Square Theatre, and was often used by the BFI London Film Festival for some of its smaller showings. While the big blockbuster films tend to be located at Odeon Leicester Square, where BFI can confidently sell 1,600 tickets, the Odeon West End was the ideal location for smaller films where only 800 seats were required.

Despite the Odeon West End’s demise in early 2015, BFI only began looking for new venues in which to replace it for the 2016 London Film Festival earlier this year. The Embankment Gardens cinema almost never came to fruition, as BFI had wanted to find another venue in London in which to show films throughout the festival. The requirements for such a venue were quite stringent however – the former Empire Leicester Square was deemed unsuitable as 18 of the 25 titles destined for the replacement location were subtitled and with a 20m wide screen that was just unfeasible. BFI IMAX had similar issues in that respect.

Having realised that there weren’t any venues available that met the BFI’s requirements, nor were any venues available at the late stage enquiries began, BFI set on a course of creating a dedicated venue that it could operate throughout the duration of the festival.

The Embankment Gardens Cinema was an ambitious project that was spearheaded by BFI’s own Dominic Simmons. Speaking to Commercial Integrator Europe, Dominic noted that the project only had its genesis in April – and bringing a temporary cinema to the heart of London in time for the film festival was no easy endeavour.

CIE got the chance to check out the Embankment Gardens cinema before demolition began on October 17. Inside, CIE found a state-of-the-art cinema featuring some of the latest technologies one would expect in a permanent structure. This included a D&B Audiotechnik sound system, a Harkness screen, a Yamaha mixer and two 4K Christie projectors.

The technology behind BFI’s unique Embankment Gardens cinema

Technology was a vital part of BFI’s Embankment Gardens cinema, and while it lacked some of the latest and greatest technologies available on the market, festivalgoers were still able to experience the very best the movie industry has to offer, with amazing clarity.

A Christie CP4230 powered the entire visual experience, with a single back-up on site in case anything went awry during the festival. These projectors have the ability to project 4K DLP images onto screens up to 105ft (32m) at a brightness of around 34,000 lumens. They also have the ability to showcase 3D content when required. Thankfully for Dominic, 3D wasn’t a requirement for the Embankment Gardens cinema.

“We have an advantage that we haven’t had to show any 3D here. So we’ve been able to go for a full matte white digital mini perforated screen,” Dominic notes. Typically, a silver screen will be utilised in a 3D setting, but Dominic admits that his preference is matte white. That’s because silver screens can often suffer from hot spotting, while white screens boast more accurate colours, great looking whites and the most generous viewing angles of any screen.

Powell LED installed both the screen, which came from Harkness, and the screen frame into the Embankment Gardens cinema.

While there weren’t any 3D films shown at the Embankment Gardens cinema, there were a couple of 4K screenings which utilised the raw power of the Christie CP4230. There weren’t many however, with Dominic admitting that, while it was good to have the addition pixels for those particular screenings, the majority of the films shown were 2K. In fact, Dominic went so far as to admit that he would have preferred Christie’s CP2230 for the 2K content that was shown at the cinema.

So why Christie projectors? Well, it was quite simple really. Dominic explains: “The key reason we chose them is because we’ve had a long term partnership with Christie at the BFI, we’ve been working with them in partnership for about 8/9 years now. They’re a principle sponsor for us, they’ve sponsored the festival, they’ve sponsored BFI Southbank for a number of years and we’re a Christie partner, so it was actually a sponsorship deal that got the projectors here.”

In addition to the visuals, the Embankment Gardens cinema went big on sound – despite the unique constraints that come with being a temporary cinema located in a Westminster park.

BFI enlisted the help of audio specialists System Sound to install the audio system that would power the cinema. The company has long been a supporter of D&B Audiotechnik, and thus it was the manufacturer of choice when it came to outfitting the Embankment Gardens cinema.

Dominic explains: “[System Sound] do a lot of event cinema – they provide the audio installation on Somerset House and places like that, so they’re really experienced. They do other stuff as well, just kind of standard non-cinema audio installations, but they’re just really knowledgeable about what the needs of cinema are and they’ve set us up with a 5.1 and 7.1. They can do Dolby Curves, although they claim that they sound better than Dolby equipment.”

While Dolby Digital 7.1 was utilised to immerse festivalgoers in the films, in an ideal world a Dolby Atmos system would have been used. Dominic notes: “We’re not using Atmos because just the extremely tight installation schedule and obviously the cost. We had nine days to get it built and installed – and that’s from park to cinema – which was insane. We wouldn’t want to do it that quickly again to be honest.

“It was working around the clock and we had just two days to get all the AV in, lined-up, including all the theatre lighting. The thought of doing Atmos as well is just daunting.

“The other problem is because of the nature of the floor in there; you can’t have – and the fact that it’s only 10m high – you can only have a certain weight picker actually operating on top of the flooring. There’s cartridge flooring. So a lot of the installation work had to go in before the flooring went down and installing an Atmos system would just be very difficult to do.”

While it lacked Dolby Atmos, the sound system still delivered clear audio for festivalgoers to enjoy. All of the audio from the main projector also passed through a Yamaha QS5 desk.

Dolby Atmos wasn’t the only technology sacrificed due to budget and time constraints. Dominic explains: “Dolby Vision, well yeah. The thought of getting two laser projectors installed in two days would have been a nightmare. And I think slightly beyond the budget as well.

“If we had more time and we could come to some sort of sponsorship arrangement we would love to go Dolby Vision, because it looks amazing, but unfortunately again time constraints, budget constraints”

A difficult, worthwhile install

Installing the Embankment Gardens cinema was no easy task. While time was the constant factor, having taken nine days to go from park to cinema, there were other things that made this a difficult install.

“One of the key difficulties that we had was access. Everyone coming at once, just having no space in the schedule. It was a bit of a push at the end, there were some late nights and some early mornings – so time was the critical one,” comments Dominic.

“But, generally, the height of the build caused problems as well – being able to get speakers where you need them to be and being able to use pickers when you needed to use them; so a lot of stuff had to be done from towers.

“In terms of the actual AV installation – it went fine; it was pretty straightforward. We knew what we needed to do, it’s fairly paired back in there, we’ve got no scalers or anything like that – we’re just showing DCPs and we had some really good people that we were working with.”

To a complete nomad the BFI Embankment Gardens cinema seems rather pointless – why put up a state-of-the-art cinema in the middle of Westminster park for only 11 days? Well, the answer to that is quite simple – to promote film, which after all is the job of the BFI.

The London Film Festival is a world famous event and does wonders for promoting film in the UK, and everyone who attended the Embankment Gardens cinema left with the same positive feeling. “All the feedback has been generally positive about the venue, most people have been saying ‘why are you only doing it for 11 days?’” says Dominic. “It’s unique, I’ve had a lot of comments saying it’s better than the West End venues actually. That’s probably down to the fact that we can have a matte white screen. I know a lot of other west end venues have to cater for 3D screenings and that generally ruins the quality of their 2D screenings.”

So will it return? Well, Dominic says “wait and see”. The Embankment Gardens cinema can be seen as a pilot. The BFI would like to bring it back, but there are currently no plans on the table for a return next year.

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