Film Viewing

Film viewing equipment and spaces

There are several contexts in which film viewing can be used in school, for example:

  • you can show short films, or excerpts from films, for a whole class
  • pupils can view them on computers, either as individuals or groups
  • you can screen full-length films, perhaps as part of an after-school film club .


Basic requirements

You need a room with some control over light levels; a data projector, screen and speakers; and a player, either a standalone DVD player or a computer. You can also use an LCD screen as a replacement for, or complement to, a data projector.

Using a data projector and whiteboard

You can show films using a standard classroom data projector, a computer with a DVD drive, and a whiteboard. This makes it easy to integrate film viewing into normal teaching, but image size and sound quality may be compromised.

Player

You can use a standalone DVD player, or a computer with a DVD drive.

Using a computer makes it possible to screen films from video-sharing sites, show clips which are stored on your hard drive or intranet, and (with interactive whiteboard software) annotate clips and stills. (Be aware of copyright). Some DVD-playing software, and some standalone players, allow you to ‘bookmark’ sections of a disc so you can go straight to them.

Currently there is little advantage in using the high definition Blu-Ray format: players and projectors are expensive and many useful films are only available on standard definition DVD. But it’s worth considering high definition to ‘futureproof’ a new installation.

Projector

If you use a data projector, you need it to be bright enough for the room size and the lighting conditions. If you can’t black out the room you will need a more powerful projector.

Projector brightness is measured in ‘lumens’. As a general guide, for a classroom you need a minimum of 2000 lumens, and for a hall or auditorium with a 4m by 3m screen you need around 7000 lumens. You can get higher-powered projectors but they are very expensive, as are replacement bulbs. ‘Short-throw’ projectors, which have special wide-angle lenses, are useful if there are limitations on projector position or space.

Check that the projector is easy to use and adjust. If it is to be used in different spaces, make sure that it’s not too heavy to move. For a fixed installation, make sure that the projector can be accessed for focusing, adjustment and maintenance. Make sure that the remote control is kept in a safe place.

You may need to make adjustments on your DVD player or computer to get satisfactory image quality from a projector or LCD display: follow instructions for ‘calibrating the display’.

Screen

The larger the screen, the more cinematic the experience will be for the students. Pull-down projection screens are normally better than whiteboards, and silver screens will provide better contrast than white screens. 4m x 3m (12’ x 9’) will provide a good viewing experience in most halls.

Alternatives to projectors

You can use wall- or ceiling-mounted LCD screens as an alternative or complement for projectors. These will provide a watchable picture in normal classroom lighting, so students can view them while talking to each other and writing. They are also useful for camera training: you can connect the video output from your camera to the screen, so students can practise setting up shots while the class views the image.

Sound

Most films have complex soundtracks. Some parts are very loud and some parts are very quiet (a wide dynamic range). If your sound system isn’t good enough, students can miss details which are important to their understanding and enjoyment.

You may not need to buy new speakers. Most schools have good speakers somewhere, perhaps in the music department or the hall: can you borrow them?

The most straightforward way to improve the sound in a classroom is to replace basic computer speakers. An 8 inch ‘dynamic’ speaker system will provide a much better experience. (Dynamic means they have their own built-in amplifier). For a hall, a PA system with an amplifier and 12 inch speakers should be enough. (Speaker size is a better measure than manufacturers’ stated power output, which is often misleading.)

For occasional film viewing, you probably don’t need surround-sound as it needs expert setting up. Unless you have the technical expertise (and a sound meter) you are likely to get better results with a stereo sound system.

If you are playing your film from a computer, you may need to buy leads or adaptors, as PA systems tend to use ‘RCA phono’ leads or full-size jack sockets, rather than the minijacks used by most computers. A wide range of adaptors is available from electronics suppliers.

Speaker positioning

Speakers should be positioned close to the screen. They shouldn’t be mounted high on the wall, as this will cause some of the high frequencies to be lost. If they are mounted high up, they should be angled down towards the students.

Wall surfaces

Curtains can cut down sound from outside and prevent reflected sound from muddying the sound from speakers.

Sound levels

Sound levels should be set in a full room. If you set levels in an empty room, the sound will be noticeably quieter when the pupils come in. Sound is sometimes not loud enough because teachers are worried about damaging students’ hearing, but this is not a problem when playing a feature film at cinema volume. Hearing damage is caused by sustained exposure to loud sound, and normally in a film only part of the soundtrack is really loud. A recent research study found no evidence that normal cinema volume levels cause hearing damage.

Positioning the chairs

If you have a choice of positioning the chairs, it is best to move the front row further away from the screen so that the sound levels don’t vary too much between front and back rows. You can also curve the seating so that chairs in each row are at roughly equal distances from the speakers .

Comfort is important for viewing feature films. New chairs should have padded seats; you could buy cushions if you are using standard hard chairs. Beanbags are more informal (but take up a lot of storage space).

Other factors

Sound and picture sometimes go slightly out of synchronisation, because digital images take longer to process than sound. Many adults won’t notice this difference but children are more sensitive to it. You can solve the problem by using a ‘digital audio delay’ device costing less than £100 (though you may need to employ a trained specialist to set it up).

If you have a choice of where you locate the film viewing space, you should keep it away from outside sources of sound which can disrupt the viewing experience.

Blinds

Blackout can be a real problem. Low winter sun, in a room with no blinds, can make an image on a whiteboard impossible to see. Improving the blackout is often cheaper than upgrading the projector.

You don’t have to buy expensive blinds that produce a full blackout. You may be able to use domestic blackout roller blinds which are widely available (they must be properly installed with cord retainers to avoid a strangulation hazard). They are not particularly durable, so if they are to be used regularly you may be better off buying higher-quality blinds. If you are using standard vertical blinds in an ordinary classroom, swivel them so that the light is pointing away from the students.

Access to online films

Online films are a valuable resource, and it is important that staff and students can access them where necessary. Many schools are concerned about some of the material shown on video-sharing sites, and about the bandwidth they require, but infrastructure and policy should allow them to be used for legitimate teaching and learning purposes. Some schools maintain control by allowing video-sharing sites to be accessed only within specific teaching spaces or by specific users.

You need to be aware of copyright when showing online films, as many clips on video sharing sites breach copyright.

Film viewing in newbuild or refurbished spaces

Large-scale film viewing can take place in a dedicated cinema space, in a theatre space, or in a multipurpose space such as a hall.

Seating

Sightlines are important: can all audience members see the screen comfortably?  A dedicated cinema or theatre space should have a rake (sloping rows of seats) to ensure this. In a multi-use space you could consider retractable padded ‘bleacher’ seating.

Sound and acoustics

If possible, the room should be located away from external sources of noise (eg playing fields, roads, plant) and it should be isolated by using high mass wall construction, sound lobbies, damped pipework and airtight service junctions. This will also prevent cinema noise from disturbing other activities. A projection booth needs to be acoustically isolated from the auditorium.

Within the room the priority is to limit sound reflections which can make it hard to hear details. You can avoid this through damping (the use of curtains, drapes and sound panels). In a multi-purpose space it’s best if the acoustic properties of the room are adjustable, as cinema screenings require different characteristics to music or theatre performance.

Uneven wall finishes, shelving or special panels can be useful for providing diffusion, which ensures that the sound is evenly spread around the room rather than concentrated in one space.

Services

Heating, lighting and ventilation need to be adequate for the size of the space. In multi-use spaces they should be adaptable for different requirements (eg warmer but with lower lighting for cinema use). The ideal cinema ‘house lighting’ can be adjusted smoothly to blackout levels (which requires tungsten lighting), while other activities such as sport require much brighter fluorescent lighting. Separate lighting sytems for different activities may be best.

Windows

Where windows are required, these are best positioned at high level, at the sides of the room, with easily controlled manual or automatic blackout blinds. Rooflights are best avoided as they are difficult to black out.

Storage

Storage space will be required for films/DVDS and may be required for movable seating.

Projection booth

The projection booth may need to be larger than in a traditional cinema so that several students can work in it, together with a teacher.

Public access

Some schools have halls, or purpose-built auditoriums, which they use as public access cinema and theatre spaces. Providing an occasional public screening can be relatively straightforward: if you don’t already have an appropriate premises license, you must notify the local authority in advance (in England and Wales you use a Temporary Events Notice; Scotland and Northern Ireland have slightly  different requirements).

If you want to set up and use a space for regular public screenings, you will need to ensure that public access does not conflict with the school’s everyday activities. You will require a Premises Licence from your local authority if you regularly charge for ‘regulated entertainment’ (which includes film screenings), so you should consult them early in the process.

Spaces used regularly as public access cinemas may need:

Cinemas are more likely to be economically viable if they also include provision for the sale of sweets/refreshments and a bar.

Filmbank’s Single Title Screening Licence is a way to get recent films (some as little as 10-12 weeks after their cinema release) before they are available on DVD.

Saffron Screen is a public cinema at County High School, Saffron Walden. The district council provided funding so that the school’s new auditorium could be developed as a cinema. In the evenings and at weekends the cinema runs a popular programme of evening and public screenings and film education activities for adults and young people, and provided National Schools’ Film Week screenings for local Primary schools. The school now offers Film Studies and runs a FILMCLUB.


Film viewing summary

Basic Intermediate High spec Cinema spec
Space Classroom Classroom Hall Purpose-built space with controlled lighting, separate projection booth, sound isolation
Player Computer with DVD drive, or DVD player Computer with DVD drive and bookmarking software, or DVD player with bookmark feature Computer/player with Blu-Ray and bookmarking feature Blu-ray/DVD player
Screen Whiteboard Pull-down white screen 4 x 3m silver screen Built-in cinema screen with curtains/adjustable masking
Projector Standard classroom projector 2000 lumen projector 7 000 lumen projector 10 000 lumen or better high-definition projector

Possibly16mm or  35mm film projector

Sound Computer speakers 8 inch dynamic speakers PA with 12 inch speakers Dedicated surround sound system
Seating Standard classroom chairs Chairs with cushions, or beanbags Padded chairs Raked cinema seating
Blinds Standard classroom blinds Blackout roller blinds from DIY store/furniture superstore Purpose-made blackout blinds Windowless room

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