Behind Kookaburra’s Screen

Converting to stereo sound

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As a projectionist from the early 1960’s when Perth had many outdoor cinema venues (but killed off by dwindling patronage due to the start up of TV transmissions) original owner, Lindsay Morris, had identified a niche market for a local hills outdoor cinema during 1992.

Below you will find all sorts of facts about the founding and continuation of Kookaburra Cinema. Click on the titles for more information.

Behind the screen

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The largest hurdle was that many Councils then were reluctant to even consider such a proposal due to the noise factor from film soundtracks plus zoning problems as it was not a “hard top” cinema and thus not adequately covered in the Council bylaws. One rather amusing discussion arose over the insistence of a council officer that the cinema MUST have safety strip lighting in the “floor” installed. Had to be done as was a “requirement” under the Local Govt act but just how one would go about installing said strip lighting in a grassed area was entirely my problem. In the end common sense prevailed and the strip lighting was deemed not necessary.

Perth has an ideal climate for outdoor movies as the summers are generally long, hot and mostly dry so nights outdoors are well utilised in a variety of ways by the local population. The search for a suitable site continued until 1995 when The Hills Forest Discovery Centre was discovered equipped with a beautiful rammed earth ampitheatre which seemed ideal for film. However it was not possible to secure a continuos booking for a summer season at the ampitheatre and negotiations commenced for a natural bush site adjacent to The Hills Forest to ultimately become a new outdoor cinema. New meant renovating an old existing bush pole garage and adjoining “A” framed shelter into forming an entry area, ticket box and kiosk with the “A” frame providing a shelter area for the kiosk.

  • Case the builder wonders IF it can be done.Larger
  • Hmm bush pole construction going to be interesting.Larger
  • A bare & denuded site with potential.Larger
  • Good natural slope towards where screen will stand.Larger

As well the area had to be fenced, screen erected, biobox positioned and fitted out and the seating sorted out.

  • Bio Box ready for fitout.Larger
  • Kiosk floor is poured.Larger
  • Floor goes down in the foyer.Larger
  • Kiosk construction well advanced.Larger
  • Kiosk power cabling goes in.Larger
  • Jayson wields a brush painting the kiosk.Larger
  • Completed view of Box Office from front.Larger
  • View of box office area from lobby area.Larger
  • Old bush pole garage transformed into Box office & kiosk.Larger
  • Lobby area framed by lovely old Crepe Myrtle shrubs.Larger

One of the biggest challenges of the project was erecting the screen as apart from a hired hoist to lift the screen sections in place there was much climbing done so it was very much “hands on” in temperatures of over 38C. Painting the screen face was also challenging and done early in the morning as the reflection from the white surface in full sun made it almost impossible to see where the paint roller was going!

  • Setting up the first central leg.Larger
  • Three legs are up!Larger
  • Rails to hold screen panels bolted on.Larger
  • Jayson finds a better way to get down from the top.Larger
  • Just a couple more panels to go.Larger
  • Completed screen 10m wide, 9m above the ground level.Larger
  • All completed, just waiting for patrons.Larger

Within 12 weeks we were basically ready to go and after a couple of test runs to check out the projection quality the date was set.

However there was still plenty to do with lawn areas, general gardening, painting and tidying up. It has been a continual process of improvements from the day construction commenced.

Kookaburra opened to the public with the screening of “Gallipoli” on Saturday Jan 4th 1997.

Prior to the public opening night on the Saturday the official opening night on Friday (3rd Jan 97) was attended by invited guests which included the Director of CALM (now D.E.C.) Dr Syd Shea.

  • Some of the invited guests on opening night.Larger
  • Opening night crew, L-R Bronwyn, Stephen, Jayson & Paul.Larger

The name “Kookaburra” was inspired by the laughing Kookaburra’s as the lead in for Fox Movietone Newsreels of old and the large numbers of these birds present in the Jarrah trees about the cinema site. They are very cheeky birds and many a patron’s picnic has been disturbed by the rush of wings as one decides to do a raiding run on the food laid out below.

One night a very optimistic kookaburra misjudged his cargo carrying ability by stealing half a cold chicken from a table. He forgot the screen and in his hasty getaway he was unable to clear the top, collided with it and left a greasy mark about a metre down where his booty hit the steel surface. Undeterred he swooped again to retrieve his plunder and this time flew off under the screen to enjoy his stolen meal in the trees leaving the picnic table group still wondering what had happened.

Had it not been for a great Australian movie “Shine” which was screened in late January 1997 the cinema would have closed after the first season wound up at Easter 1997. Up until Shine was screened it was an uphill struggle to attract patrons and very few films screened covered costs. NO way to run a business!!

We had decided that as the land was leased for just one year and that attendances were very poor we would simply close at Easter and dismantle the gear, clear the site and forget the whole idea.

Shine was booked just prior to the Golden Globe Awards and when Geoffrey Rush won his Golden Globe for his portrayal of David Helfgott in the film interest picked up but we were not prepared for the surge in patron support when we arrived on the Friday night for the first screening. There was a HUGE queue of people patiently waiting to get in and we had to call in extra help to handle the crowds that night and subsequent nights as we screened the film.

After that reaction it appeared that Kookaburra could survive given the right choice of film so we decided to continue operating and took up the lease extension option and 15 years later Kookaburra is still operating.

Interestingly is that David Helfgott had his first commercial Gig at Mundaring Weir Hotel and he returns almost every year to perform there and Shine his biopic gave Kookaburra the support necessary to continue.

Thus on the anniversary of Kookaburra opening 15 years ago Shine was again screened at Kookaburra to celebrate the cinema birthday and the connection between Helfgott and Kookaburra. Was well received and in the audience that night was David Helgott’s younger sister (Susie) who introduced herself after the screening and it was interesting to hear her views of the way the family was portrayed on screen in the film.

Technical Information

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For the technically inclined the cinema is equipped with 35mm and 16mm equipment with the screen being 10m wide which is the size for Cinemascope features. 35mm Widescreen produces an 8.5m wide image and 16mm comes up to 7.5m wide.

Until 2004 the 35mm projectors in use were Simplex Standards of 1927 vintage with Westrex 206A soundheads in mono sound with a Westrex 35watt valve “toob” (EL34 output) cinema amplifier feeding a purpose built bass reflex enclosure with twin 300mm bass drivers.

  • HF horn on top of screen feeds into the seating area.Larger
  • High frequencies were initially handled by a Vitavox multicellular horn mounted on top of the screen. However a lightning strike a few seasons after it was installed left the driver unit a charred mess so it was replaced with the current Raycophone driver which although it predates the Vitavox unit by many years has a much warmer and more natural sound. (Raycophone was an Australian cinema sound equipment maker which ceased operation in the late 1940’s).

The early mono sound was good and customer feedback indicated that speech clarity was excellent and the bass unit reproduced the “bangs and thumps” of modern day sound tracks with ease, however I always felt that some measure of surround sound would enhance the presentation.

However stereo for film outdoors, can be difficult to handle as the stereo focus tends to be blurred by many factors such as the movement of wind in the surrounding trees, even the wind direction and the various seating positions. So surround sound and stereo was just a thought at that point.

With the early Simplex machines the light source for 35mm was from Calder (Australian made) carbon arc lamps fitted with 10″ mirrors burning 6&7mm carbons at just on 50 amps.

  • Bio box equipment being assembled.Larger
  • 35mm projection equipment installed and ready to roll.Larger
  • Bell & Howell Model 666 16mm projector.Larger
  • 16mm is handled by a Bell & Howell model 666 projector fitted with 6000′ spools for continuos play (unlike the 35mm plant which had reel changeovers every 20 minutes or so). B&H 666 machines are fitted with GE Marc 300 lamps which for their size at 300 watts produce a remarkable image on the screen.

All equipment was stripped and rebuilt prior to installation in the bio box and has proven very reliable running 7 seasons without a problem.

Screen advertising

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  • RCA Twin lens slide projector.Larger
  • Cinema screen advertising is also a feature and came about quite by accident using what is now considered “outdated” 83mm (3 ¼”) square glass slides utilising self made computer generated transparencies. The slide projector was “rescued” from a drive- in closure in Perth some years ago, given a good overhaul along with some modifications to suit the venue.

The light source is also carbon arc lamp. Primarily the intention was to simply screen the “housekeeping” type of slides but a few of the locals enquired about doing some screen adverts and it went on from there.

Changes in the wind

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Film presentation using 35mm film has been in use now for over 100 years. Initially silent films were the norm and then sound on film came along in 1927 and revolutionised the industry. In the 1950’s the industry looked for ways to enhance the screen impact and Cinemascope arrived on the scene and in some specially equipped cinemas patrons were to experience stereo sound with the inclusion of a magnetic stereo tracks added to the film.

There were other competing “widescreen” methods but none quite matched Cinemascope for overall impact and clarity. Due to many technical issues associated with the care and handling of magnetic sound equipped prints the use of “Mag” Sound stereo dwindled and it was not until the mid 1970’s that Dolby Laboratories developed an optical stereo sound system.

For the first time almost any cinema could provide patrons with crisp clear stereo sound with a very effective surround channel as well… again almost another revolution overnight. Hot on the heels of the optical stereo (Dolby SR) came other sound methods.

  • (a) Dolby Digital a digital track utilising space between the film sprocket holes.
  • (b) Digital Theatre Systems, DTS system which syncronised a special CD to the film by squeezing a time code track between the existing optical track and the image area.
  • (c) Sony’s, Sony Dynamic Digital System, SDDS which laid down 2 Digital tracks on the very outside edges of the film (beyond the sprocket holes).

Thus today many prints carry 4 discrete sound tracks for theatres to use and the Digital sound in all it’s 3 forms is extremely powerful as a much greater dynamic range is available from them than the optical track.

Interestingly all these changes were engineered around equipment many years old with upgrade modules available and even the most modern projector of today is capable of screening silent films with just a small portion of the image lost due to space taken by the optical sound track. The cinema projector is backwardly compatible unlike most modern computers where often the very latest will not run software just a few years old.

The industry began to become a little more “Green” when in the late 1990’s a move was made to try and reduce the amount of water required to process the film at the labs. AND at the same time remove some of the toxic chemicals used which are very difficult to recover from the washing water and could/did pose a threat to the environment. The group focussed on improving the processing of the sound track which since inception was black & white by using silver nitrate which is quite expensive and toxic. After many trials the concept of using a Cyan (blue) colored sound track evolved and this meant the film could be processed in one single pass through the lab where the image was developed along with the sound track. Up until then each reel of film had to be processed twice… once to develop the image and then a second time to redevelop the sound track. The use of Cyan tracks required a red light source to scan the optical track and this meant another upgrade from the white light exciter lamp to a red LED source of light or a Laser unit.

Implications for Kookaburra

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As the time drew near for the release of Cyan tracks the cost of converting 2 machines was looking rather prohibitive. Both sound heads were quite old (but very rugged) and besides the red light source a further upgrade was also needed to the actual sound pick up device in each head.

A year or so prior I had acquired a more modern projector (only 35 years old rather than some 60 years old) and with it came a long play system. Now the entire film program of up to 16,000 feet of film (enough for 3 hours screening) could be loaded onto a huge reel and fed through the projector and back again onto another same sized reel all controlled by a device called a double MUT.

The projector itself had seen a fair bit of work and neglect so it was given a complete overhaul and thoroughly tested and the sound head modified for Cyan tracks.

In 2004 a Century CC machine with a Westrex R3 sound head and a Lumex xenon lamphouse was ready to be installed at Kookaburra along with the Eprad MUT. The old Simplex machines were carefully recovered and stored along with the carbon arc lamps and power supply unit.

  • Century Projector & Lumex Lamp.Larger
  • The “newer” Century was installed and lined up to the screen and a test screening revealed that water cooling was required as the focus varied considerably due to the more intense light source now in use. With a recirculating cooling system installed focus was now very good and the machine ran very cool. The Westrex R3 sound head came equipped for stereo sound so the time was now ripe to convert from mono sound to full Dolby stereo surround sound.

Converting to stereo sound

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For this I had to build another sound rack to house the extra equipment and have continued the use of valve amplifiers as they are untroubled by lightning strikes of which 4 so far have burnt out screen speakers…. But never the amplifier. It is rather inconvenient when the high frequency horn mounted on top of the screen gets a “zapp” as it requires a cherry picker to get the thing down. Doing that is bad enough without having to find replacement amplifiers as well after a lightning strike.

  • Completed Amplifier Rack.Larger
  • The new rack now houses 4 valve amps of around 40watts each and are driven by a Eprad Starlet cinema processor which converts the left & right stereo signal from the optical track into Centre, Left, Right and Surround sound signals and are fed to the applicable amps.
  • Unusual styled speaker.. keeping with a bush theme.Larger
  • The conversion required Left & Right speakers on the screen in addition to the existing centre speaker plus 7 surround speakers mounted around the edges of the auditorium area. The original “home brew” bass driver unit was replaced by Raycophone twin 15”drivers “W” type bass bin below the screen and a small sub woofer also installed.

Stereo and surround sound had come to Kookaburra and has added that extra dimension to the sound I always thought was needed… the ambience now is magical especially with films like Master & Commander and Phantom Of The Opera.

Further developments

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  • Old Carbon Arc slide machine about to be removed.Larger
  • Plans are in hand to retire the old slide projector which used carbon arc as the light source with a more recent model of machine acquired from a cinema closure elsewhere. The current machine required that the slides be inserted one by one into either of 2 slide carriers and the light source was “wiped” alternately between those 2 carriers. This gave the appearance of the each slide running across the screen L-R and R-L as each was screened.

The replacement projector is a Cinemeccanica GPG 4 unit which is automatic in handling the slides. The slides are loaded in the required sequence into a special chain like loop hanging down below the lens. Once the Start button is pressed a small motor and timer work together to step each slide in turn through the lens area and the light from the lamp is briefly cut off by a small flap like shutter. The overall effect is that each slide blinks onto the screen.

Once the last slide is reached the light is cutoff from the screen and the machine automatically moves all the slides around until the first slide is detected and it then stops ready for the next screening.

  • New-er Cinemeccanica Slide Machine.Larger
  • Side View.Larger

Light source is also xenon lamp and thus the last of the carbon use at Kookaburra will cease which is timely as carbons are now becoming rather hard to source. They are still made but in limited quantities and sizes.

The entire project has become a very rewarding experience meeting many wonderful people who are frequently enchanted at the end of a performance by the small western grey kangaroos who have managed to squeeze under the boundary fencing to graze on the lawns during the show. This is especially so at the end of summer when the only green grass around is in the cinema. Surprises all round when the auditorium lights go up!

Over the seasons many “different” film nights have been run at Kookaburra ranging from a Wedding reception (because the groom met his bride at a cinema), birthday parties, a Wedding Anniversary and even performances by a local school band.

  • One happy Birthday Party Group.Larger
  • Local School Band performs.Larger

A very relaxed and pleasant way to view a movie outdoors in the hills of Perth WA with only the natural bush noises adding to the movie sound track.

The switch to digital

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  • Installed and commissioned on August 28th 2014, the new NEC NC1600C digital projector ushers in a new phase in the presentation of movies at Kookaburra. Once programmed a day or so prior to a screening, the digital unit only requires to be powered up each night to be able to fully take over the screening process. NO operator is required to be in attendance and all functions to do with a screening , such as lighting and sound, besides the projection process, are automatically handled entirely by the system. The unit is equipped for high quality 3D presentation of selected movies at Kookaburra. The first digital movie publically screened at Kookaburra Cinema was “The 100 Foot Journey” on December 26th 2014.