4D at the Newseum: A Stitch in Time

At its new home on Pennsylvania Ave. in Washington, D.C., the Newseum is a seven-story, 250,000-square-foot tribute to the history of news reporting. The Newseum's Annenberg Theater is capable of hos 6/04/2008 4:59 AM Eastern

4D at the Newseum: A Stitch in Time

At its new home on Pennsylvania Ave. in Washington, D.C., the Newseum is a seven-story, 250,000-square-foot tribute to the history of news reporting. The Newseum's Annenberg Theater is capable of hosting event broadcasts, musical performances, and a 4D time-travel experience.

AV systems play a major role in the storytelling throughout the Newseum in Washington, D.C.

Credit: Courtesy Newseum

CHALLENGE: Create a truly multipurpose space that is aesthetically pleasing enough for a special event, yet technical enough to feature a 4D time-travel experience.

SOLUTION: Combine AV and broadcast technologies with special motion seats that blend in perfectly with the rest of the venue.

AT ITS NEW HOME ON PENNSYLVANIA Ave. in Washington, D.C., the Newseum is a seven-story, 250,000-square-foot tribute to the history of news reporting. It features 14 galleries and several theater spaces. As they arrive, visitors enjoy sweeping multimedia presentations in one of five Hearst Corp. Orientation Theaters. And throughout the Newseum, AV systems play a prominent role in the storytelling.

“This project was seven years in the making,” says Chris Conte, system designer for Electrosonic Systems, an AV and multimedia company in Burbank, Calif. “It is a conscious effort to integrate the technology across the entire building.”

Joe Cortina, president of Cortina Productions, an interactive exhibit and video production company in McLean, Va., says, “The new building is a model of how to incorporate all of the new multimedia innovations in one state-of-the-art facility. There are over 200 touch-screen exhibits and one touch screen for each of the founding partners.”

One of the most impressive features, the 535-seat Walter and Leonore Annenberg Theater—designed by John Jordan of Polshek Partnership Architects—is a prime example of how current AV and broad- prime example cast technology can come together to create a truly multipurpose venue.

The theater's $2.4 million AV budget went to build a venue that can host presentations, live broadcasts, and 4D movie experiences.

The theater's $2.4 million AV budget went to build a venue that can host presentations, live broadcasts, and 4D movie experiences.

Credit: Courtesy Electrosonic Systems


The $2.4 million AV budget called for a complex design whereby the Annenberg Theater could operate in several modes, including presentation, broadcast, and—several times each day—in 4D. The Newseum needed this last mode, which combines 3D AV with environmental effects, to accommodate the film “I-Witness 4D: A Time Travel Adventure” (see “Creating the 4D Experience,” page 24).

“The show has quality content without relying on cheap, gratuitous effects,” says Jim Updike, vice president of technology for the Freedom Forum and the Newseum. “[Cortina] produced the film from around the world. We can run the 4D show three times an hour and there is never an empty seat.”

Upon entering the theater for the 4D show, visitors' eyes are drawn to the side walls by images projected from a Doremi Nugget HD video server and two Christie Digital DS+65 6500 lumens DLP projectors onto 16-foot-wide scrims provided by Barbizon, a national lighting and rigging company with offices in Washington, D.C. The lighting and projection scheme defines the 196 custom-made motion controlled seats by drawing the attention away from the soaring balconies in the theater. The seats, made by Oceaneering International, an engineering firm, provide environmental effects like wind, mist, and motion that draw the viewer into the movie.

“Once the show starts, the front curtain pulls back and there is a huge change of scale,” says Cortina, referring to the full view of the nearly 60-foot-wide screen. The audience is immediately taken around the globe, from a rooftop in London to a mental institution in New York City.

“The content of the film stresses the importance of eyewitness reporters. There are three stories: Isaiah Thomas at the Battle of Lexington, Nellie Bly and her work as the first undercover reporter, and Edward R. Murrow, who conducted live broadcasts from the roof of the BBC during the blitz,” Cortina says. “The AV is used to enhance the stories and present them in a way that is memorable but not overdone.”

The 3D images are projected by two Christie CP2000X 25000 lumens projectors onto a 57-foot-wide by 28-foot-tall curved screen made by Stewart FilmScreen. The 3D effect was created using a traditional twin projector setup and polarized filter assemblies custom made by Electrosonic, with two DVS JPEG-2000 video servers for left and right eye video playback, in sync with each projector, Conte says.

“At the time of specification, the highest resolution projector available was the Christie CP-2000. Although we could have used a single-projector 3D solution, we needed two projectors to throw enough light on the screen due to the light loss caused by the polarization filters,” Conte explains.


The theater's flexible yet massive audio system plays a key role in its multipurpose functionality. “The audio system was designed to switch between 4D mode, a monaural speech reinforcement system, and stereo and multichannel modes for special presentations,” says Conte.

In 4D mode, one Renkus Heinz PN151T/12A and two Renkus Heinz PN151T/9A loudspeakers, chosen for their long throw and coverage pattern, are used for show reinforcement and as the main speaker cluster for presentations. Six EAW JF60 loudspeakers mounted on the stage lip provide front fill, while six Tannoy V12 loudspeakers provide surround reinforcement under balconies and support for the main cluster. Five Bag End S18E-I IF4 sub-woofers were chosen for their tight low frequency coverage pattern and their compact size. The audio system is powered by QSC CX series amplifiers.

In presentation mode, additional audio components help accommodate other events, such as speeches, panel discussions, or musical performances. Four Tannoy V15 loudspeakers flown in a LCR configuration provide main presentation support. Four Tannoy V12s are used for side balcony fills and four EAW Cis400s are for under-balcony fill.

An additional LCR system provides sound reinforcement for the rear section of the theater using a total of six Tannoy V12s. “Different speaker zones are used for different modes of operation. Also, the same speaker zones are used for different purposes,” notes Conte. “For example, side speakers are used as special effects speaker for the 4D presentation but are delayed and used for fill in speech mode.”

“Integrating the vast AV components proved to be a challenge,” says Dan Laspa, project manager for Electrosonic Systems. “Due to space constraints, it was almost impossible to entirely integrate the AV into the floors and walls. There are four loudspeakers visible on the side walls, but others are hidden behind the curtain system or mounted on the catwalk 27 feet above the floor.”

Laspa also notes that the presentation projector, a Christie Digital DW6K, is installed on the catwalk with such little space to spare that its light path is about 8 inches below the catwalk.

The series of tiered balconies in the Annenberg Theater also presented an acoustical challenge. Steve Haas, founder and president of SH! Acoustics, an acoustical consulting firm in Milford, Conn., worked with Electrosonic to address the issue using multiple audio zones and advanced DSP programming. The result was even, intelligent coverage patterns above and below each balcony, Haas says.

System control is handled using several Crestron touch panels installed throughout the theater. A Crestron CP2E touch panel serves as the main controller, with another Crestron TPS-6000 ISYS touch panel as an alternate interface. Matrixing and auto mixing are handled by a MediaMatrix Nion system.

As a convenience, the audio system includes patch panels connected to the facility's broadcast studios. “The broadcast studios are in HD with capabilities that can extend into the interior and exterior of the building,” says Laspa. “The Annenberg Theater has full broadcast functionality including broadcast lighting and floor boxes for camera hookups; they often call it ‘Studio C,' as if it were another broadcast studio in the building.”

Cortina adds, “Adding the broadcast technology to the theater enables the Newseum to stay up-to-date. They can invite the broadcast community to come in and see what the Newseum offers to the community. The AV and broadcast technology also gives them the ability to react to live news and send feeds all over the building.”

Racks of gear used behind the scenes at the Newseum's Annenberg Theater in Washington, D.C.

Racks of gear used behind the scenes at the Newseum's Annenberg Theater in Washington, D.C.

Credit: Courtesy Electrosonic Systems


On opening day, April 11, 2008, the Newseum had 12,000 visitors and not a single AV problem or failure. Conte and Laspa credit the Newseum and its staff for understanding the design and installation process, and working collaboratively to achieve their goals. “We installed the Stewart FilmScreen in the Annenberg Theater in September 2007, and had been refining the experience ever since,” Updike says. “We tested everything we could.”

In fact, the Newseum ran focus groups throughout the project totaling 30,000 people who tested the systems and got staff members ready for opening day. Despite the success, Updike is continuing to improve on the multipurpose Annenberg Theater. “Our third mode is the digital cinema setup using the Christie CP-2000 and a Dolby player. We have not moved to that level yet, but the theater is already outfitted with a 5.1 surround sound system,” says Updike.

So, why have all of these events in one space? “It just makes sense. The theater is the vehicle for our event-driven organization,” Updike adds, as he heads off to prepare for a live comedy music revue performing in the Annenberg Theater that night.

Linda Seid Frembes is a journalist for the pro AV community. Visit her at


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