For every integrator, there's that one project that you always look back on with equal amounts pride and disbelief. It's that once in a lifetime project that demands the most from you and leaves you with a newfound appreciation for your work.
For Guy Singleton, owner of custom installation firm Imagine This, the project that puts the cherry on top of his career sundae is a home theater in London that Singleton designed and installed for a high-profile client, a well-known film director who he cannot name, having signed multiple NDAs.
Singleton won a CEDIA award for Best Home Cinema over £100K for the project, along with CEDIA's prestigious Special Recognition accolade for his achievements within the custom install industry. He knows his stuff, to say the least.
The client contacted Imagine This in March 2010 looking for a home theater that would double as a screening room in his London home. He had a deep understanding of the technical aspects and deliverables of a screening room and made it clear he wanted the theater to perform at the highest technical level, while also being suitable for use by family and friends.
There was no budget for the project; the sky was the limit.
“I met with the client briefly and his brief to me was, 'Give me the best you can do. There is no budget; give me the best you’ve got,'” says Singleton. “He trusted our judgment and what we were going to do.”
“There were some performance objectives,” Singleton adds. “One of them was the high frame rate (HFR), due to something the client was working on at the time. As long as we ticked those performance objective boxes, we were free to design and specify what we wanted to do, which was remarkable really.”
The project evolved over the course of the next two years. The initial request was for a design that would convey a classical elegance and comfort through the use of authentic materials and architecture. The aspiration was for a private screening room which would be opulent and luxurious; one that would look and feel on par with the best in the world.
Following a technical evaluation of the space, the team made some initial suggestions for the design of the electronics, projection, loudspeakers and for the aesthetics of the screening room, creating CAD drawings for the layout of the space and a mood board to show aesthetic ideas.
The final project totaled £4.5 million (over $4.7 million).
Designing the Theater
Because the screening room was going to be such an important addition to his home, the client agreed that a new, purpose-built space would need to be built.
“We looked at a number of rooms in the house and none of them appeared to be appropriate,” says Singleton. “They all had something that would have meant a compromise that we weren’t prepared to make. I suggested building something entirely new or digging under the ground, and they said it was no problem. However, when the client was flying home, he realized it would delay the project by about a year.”
Imagine This proceeded with aesthetic plans for the space (which included the foyer), detailing initial ideas into a fully-modeled 3D design, which allowed the team to demonstrate in detail how the screening room and foyer would be presented. Before the start of the project, Singleton sent wireframe images, photographic renders and a full motion video.
“Necessity is the mother of innovation,” says Singleton. “Everybody has a little widget or a spreadsheet that will create a number-crunching format for them to do some of the heavy lifting for cinema design. I used software that I wrote for this called The Cinema Designer (TCD). I used all of the known parameters that we work to, input them into some software and, in what would take me three or four weeks to create CAD drawings and renders, the software will do it in about 30 seconds.”
More about TCD: Software Designs Custom Home Theaters in Minutes
“We completed calculations to determine the optimum size and placement of the projection screen using guidelines from Imaging Science Foundation. We also calculated seating distances and the rake of the flooring,” says Singleton. “Whatever it is I’ve got to do to make sure that the cinemas that I build meet the required standards, is the key thing to me. That’s not building a subjective room, but building a room that I can predict is going to deliver an amazing experience.”
The systems provided would need to be scalable in order for them to accommodate any emerging technology later on, thus the team also considered the infrastructure and space required to insert them. Singleton undertook a full lighting design, encompassing the technical and aesthetic features, as well as advising on light sources, prepared schematics and designed the control equipment.
“We sourced a quantity of reclaimed oak paneling; the client had expressed a strong preference for authentic materials and this paneling would prove pivotal to the direction of the ongoing aesthetic design. We were able to calculate the quantity of oak required for the foyer and ascertained that, with careful redesign and installation, the reclaimed oak would be perfect for the space.”
A room of this size underground needed a fire door, but Singleton did not want it to detract from the aesthetics in any way.
“When we first set the design out, we had to include a fire exit as part of the British standards. We’d always planned for that. We got through various incarnations of how the door would look: dressing the door, covering the door, different framework and fixtures, but nothing we did seemed to work. So we decided to move the wall rather than the door. We created a hinged wall, which weighs over two tons and was a feat of engineering in itself. The hinges for that are huge – everything about it was a monstrous engineering undertaking, but it did allow us to create a really clean-looking room rather than having a really prominent-looking door in the middle of the theater, which we didn’t want.”
Equipment to Meet High Standards
Because the client was in the film industry, the home theater was to be the pride and joy of his home. Standards were high and Singleton's reputation was on the line.
Imagine This made sure to integrate fail-safe and specialist hardware such as power conditioning on all electronic items (both in the equipment rack and the active loudspeakers), reset equipment for the Sky decoder (which can be prone to locking) and redundancy by separating the AV and the lighting control processors.
“I use the phrase, ‘All of the equipment picked itself.’ I didn’t pick it,” says Singleton. “And I stick to that.”
Crestron control consolidates and automates the functions of the screening room. An RF touchpanel and an IP-based iPad control app are used for the screening room controls, while a rack-mounted Cresnet hard-wired touchpanel (located in the equipment room) takes care of the maintenance functions. This multi-platform approach ensures that control will be accessible using all available mediums.
Singleton designed a tailored GUI (graphical user interface) for this project, using custom visual elements inspired by the client’s line of work.
“I can honestly say I have never been on a project with this level of detail. Even as far as the Crestron user interface, every graphic file, every icon was created uniquely and has only ever been used on this project,” says Singleton. “We 3D modeled in a liquid gold color everything from consoles to projectors.”
That includes an image of his projector specifically, not a random console.
“We provided a dual control approach to the AV programming: one to give the less technical members of the family and the client’s visitors an automated experience, and the other to give our client manual access to the settings he might require,” says Singleton. “This included things like the projector and lens modes and audio codec selection. The client preferred to be able to set and change these during a screening.”
For video sources, Singleton included a networked movie server to manage the extensive movie collection.
“The client brings with him his own media server that has his own specific industry-related content, but as far as domestic sources, he had a huge existing movie server system (we added to it),” says Singleton. “Also in the rack is Apple TV, NAS drives, Plex and multiple Oppo Blu-ray players with various regions, allowing him to watch regional-specific content. And he doesn’t have to press and hold a shift button and hold another key to do it. This gives him quick, easy trouble-free access to anything that he has. Add that to the family’s game consoles and I don’t think there’s anything in there that isn’t provided for.”
Singleton implemented a comprehensive range of acoustic treatments including green glue and absorption, reflection, diffusion and bass management materials from RPG. The acoustic analysis pre-treatment predicted that the mid- and high-frequency response of the room might be very poor. The room model also xhibited bad separation of the modes between 80 and 150hz.
By using the acoustic treatments, the team greatly improved modal response and pressure was more evenly distributed, giving a better sound overall.
“The room isn’t so absorbed that it kills everything; it’s not like an anechoic chamber, and equally it’s not like sitting in a library or a church where everything is reverberant,” says Singleton. “If anything, the feel of the room is one of the nicest things about it.”
In order to achieve THX Reference level performance in such a large room, Singleton used products from Procella’s range of THX approved loudspeakers.
At the front, balanced active P815 bi-amplified loudspeakers were mounted in the baffle wall, which was specially constructed to enhance their output. The rear sound array consisted of six passive Procella P8s. This allowed Imagine This to reproduce full DTS-HD sound.
In order to deal with MSV (mean spatial variants), wave collisions, standing waves and nuls, Singleton installed two Procella P18 high output subwoofers into the baffle wall.
“We approach everything in a brand-agnostic way,” says Singleton. “Of course I have favorites, but we approached this in a way that was, we needed to hit certain performance objectives such as reference audio, the seating, the right foot lamberts – all of these numbers that we needed to hit made the room far more predictable.
“At a design stage we knew if we designed with math driving the design, we were going to be well within the ballpark and that we were going to deliver a room that not only met their expectations, but also in many ways exceeded them. And believe me when I say this, the performance objectives that were set out to me for this project, I have never encountered before or since.”
No Immersive Audio — Why Not?
At the time of install, immersive audio was in its infancy, and as such the home theater does not cater for this, although that’s not to say that it won’t be able to in the future.
“We looked into it, we knew what was coming,” reflects Singleton. “There were some decoders available, but we didn’t want to go down that route at that point. Don’t forget this was 2009 or 2010 when these conversations started happening, so all of these things were in their infancy, if not in the conception stages, even at a commercial level. We’d spoken to people at other post-production facilities and we knew what was required as far as the performance objectives went, so we made sure that our cabling covered as many of those aspects as we could.
“We have the ability to add Dolby Atmos, Auro 3D and DTS:X up to 9.1.4 – it’s just a case of looking at an updated processor with the relevant codec cards and then getting the go-ahead from the client. Had this been the client’s main residence it would have been our primary focus, but when you’re here two weeks in a year, it’s hard to get them enthusiastic to invest in more.”
Amplification and processing comes from Anthem, providing DTS-HD and all relevant HD formats. This ensured that the audio framework would be able to process future releases or new sound codecs; as the Anthem products were firmware and hardware upgradeable.
12,000 Lumens Meets Custom Projection Screen
The client was keen to have as large a screen as possible, so an immense 260-inch screen was specially constructed by Screen Research for this project.
“We selected an ISF and THX approved acoustically transparent fabric, a 2.40:1 aspect ratio and vertical motorized masking,” says Singleton. “We used this in conjunction with the intelligent lens system and digital crop files on the projector and saved a variety of presets, so that our client could enjoy content in a diversity of aspects: 2.40:1, 1.78:1 and 1.33:1.”
One hell of a projector was required, so Imagine This chose a 12,000 lumens Christie projector to fit the bill. This had the ability to be upgraded with new technology via an IMB module and 3D, via external 3D processing units. To meet industry standards, the lamps were defocused to approximately 60 percent.
“At that point in time, the input media was one of the only HFR IMB modules available at that level,” says Singleton. “When you start talking about very, very high-end commercial theaters that need full AC cooling through the projector, all of those features exist. But when you are talking about 12,000 lumens it’s difficult to find something like that.”
Network & Cabling
The network provision was particularly important, as Singleton anticipated that the client might wish to stream video content to the new screening room. To ensure this was possible, Imagine This designed the cabling to ensure that a capable and robust link would be in place between the existing network in the main residence and the new screening room.
In order to efficiently and correctly deliver the cabling throughout the screening room and foyer, Singleton included a containment system to provide the appropriate location and segregation of the various high and low voltage cables.
“We finally performed a detailed electrical design for the entire electrical installation, ensuring that the installation was safe, suitable and compliant,” says Singleton. “We designed a local data network to link with the existing system in the main residence, providing fiber and copper links between the two, in anticipation of the data streaming that might be required.”
Singleton then configured the IP components such as the Crestron processor, Anthem, Christie projector, Crestron iPad touchpanel interface and the networked movie server to the network.
The equipment is housed in two Middle Atlantic racks in a separate equipment room with a Neutrik patch system for connection. This means that either rack can be independently removed for maintenance or additions, or redesigned, should it be necessary in the future.
The equipment room (and particularly the projector) was air-conditioned, to make certain that the equipment would be kept at the optimum operating temperature for correct functioning and longevity. A Crestron touchpanel was also installed into one of the equipment racks to provide a hardwired maintenance interface.
This was programmed with advanced setup functions and maintenance options such as a Sky reset function, plus a fiber cable for future video technologies.
Not So La-Z Seating Plans
The client wanted extremely comfortable seating, so Imagine This designed some very distinctive chairs specially for the project.
“The client had some La-Z-Boy chairs at one of his other homes and said ‘I don’t want to sit bolt upright on rock hard leather. I want a cinema chair with a cup holder like my La-Z-Boy recliner.’ The chairs were built for him, bespoke and modeled on the La-Z-Boy feel, which seems bizarre in our industry. But that’s what he asked for, so that’s what we delivered,” Singleton shrugs. “They’re pretty comfy!”
'It Doesn't Get Any Better Than This'
Although the client doesn't live in London, Singleton is still in regular correspondence with him for all things maintenance.
“They put a lot of trust in you and you spend a lot of their money, so you’ve really got to make sure that you can communicate the process as easily as you can,” says Singleton. “Being given this amount of responsibility was enormously worrying, if I’m being honest. You feel a huge sense of loyalty, gratitude and pride. The overriding factor is that you don’t want to let anybody down – you know it’s got to be good.”
And he did well. Singleton says when he returns to the site even today, he still quietly marvels at the results. “I’ve seen a lot of theaters, but I go back there and it still feels special to me.”
That reminds him, “I don’t know if this is indicative of the film industry as a whole, but a cinema in one of the client’s other homes was built by set-builders from one of his movies, and it’s indicative of a film set. It looks great at the front from 10 feet away, but when you get very close to it, there’s nothing behind it and it hasn’t got that luxury feel – its superficially built.”
The client had nothing but positive things to say once the project was completed. “He said ‘Look, I have cinemas in homes all over the world. I have some of the best post production facilities available at my disposal, but this is the best one I have.’ Maybe that’s all I needed to hear!”
“The room speaks for itself though,” adds Singleton. “The thing I’m most proud of is the design and that the client was comfortable with letting me do it. That, for me, is the single greatest achievement – to stand and say to somebody, this is the way it should be done, and have them put their hand on your shoulder and say ‘You have my authority to do whatever you feel.'”
“I do look back and have to almost pinch myself,” says Singleton. “I’m very humbled. Not to say that we fell into it by accident, we worked very hard on this. But if you’re going to learn your craft and your trade, it doesn’t get any better than this. I’m looking for another one of those jobs, but it hasn't come up yet.”