THE UNSEEN STORY: INVISIBLE IMPACT AT ACADEMY MUSEUM
Our team of specialty consultants share their role in bringing the Stories of Cinema galleries to life – from innovative feats of engineering to the vital importance of inclusive audio
Click here to read more about the design thinking behind the project
The Stories of Cinema Galleries at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures are designed for full-sensory engagement. Dive into a sea of Almodóvar blue, lose track of time in extraterrestrial soundscapes, explore the cinematic pyrotechnics of The Wizard of Oz… It’s all there to be enjoyed. But what about the technical tricks and design considerations that exist beyond immediate perception?
In a previous article, members from our team of specialty consultants shared their top highlights from the galleries – including early magic lanterns from the dawn of cinema and the hyperreal phenomenon of The Oscars Experience. Beneath the wonder and glamour of these exhibits is an underlying infrastructure that is crucial to the visitor experience, and we caught up with our colleagues in engineering, casework, A/V systems, and inclusive audio , to hear their perspectives on creating a compelling visitor experience. As anyone who’s ever watched a good thriller will tell you – the things you can’t see are just as important as what you can. There’s a whole show going on behind the scenes.
“Buro Happold’s team of structural engineers started out by looking at the museum as a whole, examining how this high-performing building would work and function from a structural perspective. Then, as the design progressed, we began zooming in on the details and the texture of the architecture – one of my favorite elements is the S-shaped glass wall in the Spielberg Family Gallery on the ground floor, which ultimately led to some pretty innovative engineering. I love the way that the architectural vision ended up informing the engineering solutions and visa-versa – it was a real meeting of minds.
The gallery serves as an initial immersion into the history of cinema, and the S-shaped wall plays an important role in guiding circulation as well as reflecting and playfully distorting the images on the screens. Given that the glass wall is just half an inch thick and it cantilevers up from the floor by about twelve feet, advanced analysis was required just to prove feasibility – a process made all the more complex by working in a historic building.”
“In the end, the solution turned out to be beautifully simple and intuitive. Typically, you would expect such a tall and thin sheet of glass to be brittle and flexible if you cantilever it from the floor. However, we found that even a slight curvature made the glass substantially more rigid and allowed us to cantilever without having to add vertical supports or structure along the top tying the panels together. In short – the curvature is integral to the architectural vision, and it’s also the solution to the structural success of the wall. There’s something so satisfying about that!”
– Andrew Rastetter, Buro Happold
THE ART OF ACOUSTICS
“For me, one of the most exciting exhibits I worked on has to be the Raiders of the Lost Ark exhibit in the Sound Gallery, designed by Skywalker Sound. When I first found out about the project, 12-year-old me just exploded with excitement – I grew up obsessed with Star Wars, and so much of what I associate with movies is wrapped up in the Star Wars universe. It was incredible to have the opportunity to meet with the sound designers who originally worked on Raiders of the Lost Ark, to hear them explain what the installation experience would be like, and then to engineer a room that would meet that quality, that would really wow people and reveal how the sound in a movie comes together.
The goal was to create the optimum conditions for critical and high fidelity listening in a music environment – and this isn’t just any a music environment, it’s full 5.1 / 7.1 surround sound. At the same time, the installation needs to be barrier-free and it needs to exist within a context of multiple galleries, so it can’t be too crazy. To prevent noise intrusion in and out of immersive sound spaces, careful attention was paid to entryways. It was important to keep access open so that visitors could freely walk in and out, so for the Raiders of the Lost Ark exhibit and the Hildur Guðnadóttir sound bath, we created labyrinth-style openings and provided acoustical finishes and specific angling to help control light and sound as visitors entered and exited the spaces.
So, we were constantly asking ourselves – how do we express a cinematic room? How do we express cinematic sound? How do we create the proper palette so that every visitor can experience an acoustic space free from distraction, free from coloration, and artifacts from other environments? So that, ultimately, every soundtrack and score can be experienced for the art that it is.”
– Scott Hamilton, Aercoustics
“Project after project, it’s always an intriguing challenge to create high-performance display cases that meet strict conservation standards and a design intent previously defined by the architecture firm. For this project, was a real pleasure to collaborate with the WHY design team on a series of display cases for the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.
The Encounters Gallery in particular was an ideal opportunity to consolidate our mission – to prove that display casework can be both technically efficient and visually unobtrusive, even invisible. The pre-conceived configuration and casework layout created the ideal setting for our frameless showcase, fitted with risers that give the artifacts the appearance of floating within a void (Case 1).”
“The gallery also prompted an interesting technical challenge: a wall case 56 foot long and 6 foot deep. Our objective was to create the impression of a seamless glass wall, while also creating the necessary supporting structure and integration of sophisticated lighting and other accessories to maximize the impact of the display. Through a process of careful material resistance calculations and CAO simulations, we were able to considerably optimize the structure and obtain an interior volume which met and even exceeded expectations (Cases 2 and 3). We’re very pleased with the result, especially given that there wasn’t time to make a prototype within the tight turnaround time. A testament to great teamwork!”
–Florent Gauthier, Zone Display Cases
“When we were brought in to develop inclusive audio systems for the museum, we knew that this meant more than just meeting the ADA requirements for assistive listening. Our goal was to really bring out the sonic qualities of the different exhibits, creating the best possible experience for visitors who use T-coil hearing aids.
Our work involves designing induction loop systems – essentially a coil of wires with a magnetic field that can be modulated in size as visitors walk in and out of an exhibit’s range. In a typical gallery, you might have one central presentation with audio content that is sent into the induction loop system and received by T-coil users. So, a fairly simple process. But in these larger and more complicated cinematic spaces, there can be multiple speakers with location-specific directed audio – and there’s often an ambient sound bed of background noise, same as what you’d get in a movie theater. We had to strategize ways to replicate that experience for T-coil users, and in many cases – such as the sound installation about space movies, Behold, and the sound bath featuring the work of composer Hildur Guðnadóttir – we actually ended up creating custom mixes specifically designed to be transmitted via the induction loop system.”
“And there’s another challenge worth mentioning – it’s possible to build a concrete wall as an acoustic buffer, but that’s not going to stop a magnetic field. To address this, we assembled a tetris block layout of all the spaces and their vertical and horizontal adjacency, for the purpose of understanding what type of loop we could deploy in each area. That was where things got really fun – the initial planning and layout process, looking at all the heat maps of the magnetic simulation graphics and designing the systems accordingly. Overall, this was a project like no other and it gave me a whole new perspective on what it means for audio experiences to be truly inclusive.”
– Ben Bausher, Jaffe Holden
“Our team at ATK Audiotek worked with Jaffe Holden and Ampetronic to integrate the induction loop systems for inclusive audio. When you visit the museum, you can go and see the ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz, you can see the iconic movie costumes, the Oscars gowns, the models for R2-D2 and ET, and all the rest of the incredible artifacts. But when you approach the exhibits from the standpoint of assistive listening, that’s when you really start to get a feel for the importance of sound as a vital part of the museum experience.
Take the exhibit in the Sound Gallery, for instance – the installation that explores how a soundtrack is put together, using a scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark. As the same scene repeats on the screen, each layer of sound is heard separately until they’re finally combined into the finished soundtrack. I love that exhibit because I’m fascinated by the ways movies come together – but for someone who can’t hear what’s going on, the exhibit simply won’t make sense. So it’s incredibly rewarding to translate that experience through the integration of induction loop systems, making sure that each visitor feels included.
Given the huge variety of material on display, no two spaces are the same and they all require a different solution. Often, you’ll have little spots of directed audio where the sound is specific to a small screen installed in the wall or in a table. In those cases, we’ve had to make sure that the audio is highly localized so that the acoustic transitions don’t overwhelm visitors as they move between exhibits. And in the areas where the audio is in stereo or involves multiple speakers, it was extremely important to make sure that each part came together as a carefully combined monotrack. For me, the most thrilling moment of the project was when we were doing a test run and a member the museum team (who wears a T-coil) confirmed that she could finally hear the audio; one after the next, the exhibits were coming to life for her. It was a surreal moment, that recognition that everything was beginning to connect.”
– Erin Powell, ATK Audiotek
“Our role at Electrosonic was to provide the audio, visual, and control systems design and engineering for the Stories of Cinema galleries. That involved working with the creative team to come up with the technical design, systems engineering, and then integrating all the equipment and the final programming.
One of the most interesting and challenging spaces to work on was the entry sequence to Significant Movies and Movie Makers, a montage of clips from the history of cinema. The museum team wanted guests passing by the galleries to be able to have a sneak peek of the projected images through the title wall – but given the amount of natural light entering through the glass walls of the building, we also had to consider how that would impact the projection. Working with WHY and the graphic design team at INFO.CO, we came up with a great solution to cover a large percentage of the glass with semi-transparent, UV proof graphics. So you can see through the lettering to the moving images on screen, but most of the glass is covered to obscure that light.
Another space that I find compelling is the gallery with the Academy Awards acceptance speeches. Of course, a lot of those speeches are very emotional and it’s a powerful experience to witness the footage on those large wraparound screens. We chose to use ultra short throw projectors so that guests can be close to those images while still maintaining great resolution, telling those stories in a more dynamic way than a static monitor. The overall impact feels very up-close and personal.”
– Josh Cottrell, Electrosonic
As you explore the galleries, it’s worth taking a moment to wonder about the systems and design strategies just beneath the surface. How do light, sound, and space combine to create a different mood for each gallery? What skills are required to tell the many stories of cinema, and what stories are still to be revealed? The next time you’re in a movie theater, you might find yourself asking similar questions – how did it all come together? Nothing is as simple as it seems, but everything can be a source of wonder.
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