Going premium in home theatre installations
Ultra Panavision 70 was arguably the grandest of the 70mm formats of the mid-20th century, combining 65mm photography with a 1.25 anamorphic squeeze to produce a massively wide 2.76:1 picture with amazing detail and brightness. 70mm was reserved for the most epic productions of the day. Only a few of the most elegant movie palaces with the best projection and 6-channel magnetic sound were equipped to show it. Screenings were a major social event, with films often going on the road to different venues, reserved seat engagements, ushers, overtures, intermissions, beverages and refreshments – the works. It was a premium cinematic experience that has perhaps been unequaled since.
The Next Echelon of Performance
With Mr Tarantino providing us an opportunity to reminisce, a question arises: What can we do to elevate home cinema to this form of premium experience? Say a returning client comes to you and says, “I want something new and different. All my friends have home cinemas now. I need something special.” What can you offer that gives him or her an experience that is an echelon above, like Ultra Panavision 70 was compared to a 35mm Panavision general release?
State-of-the-Art is the Starting Point
You must do everything that is state-of-the-art, and do it well. For the picture: 4K projection with a four-way masking, acoustically transparent screen; high dynamic range; careful design of the optical pathway and sightlines; control over the room’s lighting and colour; and calibration of the display.
For sound: immersive audio (Dolby Atmos, Auro 3D, DTS:X); a well-engineered sound system that covers all the seats evenly; four subwoofers in corners; manual DSP EQ (including individual channels for each subwoofer); and full commissioning and tuning.
And don’t forget the room. It must have a complete acoustic design, with attention paid to sound isolation, noise control, interior acoustic treatment and seating optimisation. All of this must be hidden away by an attractive décor that does not adversely affect picture or sound quality. Keep in mind, now, that all of this is the normal stuff. We’ve haven’t gotten to the premium part yet!
The Picture Gets Even Wider?
Are you doing 2:1 screens with four-way masking – something like PMI 2.0? Typically, a 2.35 Blu-ray image uses the full width of the screen, with a 40-50°viewing angle. Other ratios like 1.78 and 1.33 are masked down, with even smaller stops for lower resolutions or highly compressed streaming sources.
That’s all very good, but it doesn’t qualify as premium. Premium means all formats are presented in their native aspect ratio, with the largest formats filling the largest area of the screen. Go ahead and bust the edges of that 2:1 screen out to 2.3:1, because you’ll need the wings to create a 2.76 image even wider than 2.35. That’s a legitimate 4-4.5m wide screen with a 60 to maybe 70 degree viewing angle. But it’s not just about getting bigger. You need masking stops for a dizzying variety of ratios: 2.76, 2.55 (CinemaScope 55), 2.59 (Cinerama), 2.35, 2.20 (Todd-AO/Super Panavision 70), 2.0 (Univisium), 1.85 (flat widescreen and typically VistaVision), 1.78 (HDTV), 1.66 (some European or Japanese widescreen), and 1.33 (SDTV and Academy). This is a minimum, and more gives you greater exclusivity.
It will take at least 4,000 lumens to hit 55-70 cd/m² on such a giant screen. That won’t happen with any one 4K projector. Premium quality at this size requires a dual or quad stack of Sony 600 or 1,100 4K projectors producing 3,000-4,000 calibrated lumens. They are it on the market right now, and they offer software to simplify setup. They also support HDMI 2.0 and HDCP 2.2, which are required for transmission of Blu-ray 4K. Make sure your switchers, splitters, and cables are compliant with those standards as well.
They Were Doing Five in the 1950s?
Along with large 70mm screens came equally large sound – specifically, five channels behind the screen so that the increased space between L/R and Center would not cause a gap in the sound field. As multiplex screens went small in the 1980s, five screen channels fell into disuse. Only one of the digital sound formats of the 1990s (Sony SDDS) even offered five-behind-the-screen as an option. However, thanks to Blu-ray 4K and Dolby Atmos, a premium home theater can finally have a picture big enough to warrant five screen channels and an audio format that supports it. Surprised? No one really talks about five screen channels with Atmos, but they are part of the format. The usual suspects among microprocessor-based surround processors aren’t yet powerful enough to decode the full complement of Atmos channels – including five screen – but audio computing devices from the likes of Trinnov will. What about the majority of titles that have three screen channels? For those, you can drop off Half L/R, or use DSP by folks like Trinnov to synthesize them. Do keep in mind, though, that five screen channel processing, whether discrete of synthesized, is still evolving for home use, so YMMV until things settle down a bit. For a more old-school approach, e-mail me about add-on Dolby ProLogic decoding to produce Half L/R.
Premium sound is more than just extra channels behind the screen. The room is probably going to be large. Implement extra pairs of surround and ceiling speakers when the length bumps 12m. Plan on two or three pairs of Side speakers, two Wide and six Ceiling speakers for Atmos, and two-four Back speakers – along with amplifiers and individual EQ signal processing for each one. Subwoofers are also going to be a challenge. You’re using four in the corners – that’s a given – with the back pair preferably up at the ceiling. But they must produce reference level SPL of 115-120dB. Remember, this is premium, so whether or not the system ever gets turned up that loud is irrelevant. For that kind of output, think 18″ woofers with 1000W behind them. (We’re currently achieving this level of performance with the Grimani Systems Cinema One, and it even impresses someone as jaded as I.) Don’t risk under-powering the other channels, either. Switching amplifiers now offer huge power reserves in small packages with very little thermal output. Finally, time-alignment, EQ, and additional tuning of the system should be handled by a skilled craftsman, not an automated process.
The Room as Part of the Experience
In addition to the normal checklist for acoustic design, there are some enhancements that qualify a room as premium. Go with minimum 6″ and preferably 12″ deep acoustic treatments. No complaining. This room is premium, and that kind of depth is necessary for full bandwidth acoustic control. A frequently overlooked area is the floor in front of the screen where a nasty bounce occurs. Solve this by constructing an absorptive pit in the floor at the bounce point. While on the subject of floors, suspended wood is a nice and fairly rare upgrade from concrete that provides the audience with a more tactile experience. To further the physical impact, try some kind of motion system for the seating. Despite their generally well-deserved bad reputation, motion systems used at a level of 3 rather than 10 are a nice enhancement.
Take noise floor seriously. RC15-20 is the target for a nice room, but push the envelope. Strive to get a sub-basement low RC10-15. That is super quiet and super hard to achieve, but possible. HVAC wind and hiss from the electronics/speakers will become problematic. Run calculations beforehand and be prepared to swap out for lower noise components if necessary.
Finally, spend extra time analyzing the ratio of direct to reflected sound from the speakers, and the direct vs. sound power frequency response. This is something that we rarely have the time or budget to do even on high-end projects. It may require you to consult an outside acoustician and even contract with a laboratory to take anechoic measurements of the speakers beyond what the manufacturer provides. Essentially, you are striving to create a pleasing balance of direct sound from the speaker vs. reflected sound from the room so that the speaker sits inside a nice acoustic space. The soundstage isn’t too big, too small, too far back from the plane of the screen, or way out in front of it. A further step is to analyze how the off-axis frequency response of the speaker differs from the axial and custom tailor the acoustic treatment at reflection points to even out any raggedness in the off-axis response. See what I mean about this being expensive and time-consuming?
Miniature Movie Palaces
If it were up to me, the decor of a premium home cinema would make you feel under dressed in anything less than a tuxedo. I mean, seriously. Have you seen pictures of the old movie palaces? It was special just to sit in them for a couple of hours and look around, even if there were no show. Now, I realize that ornate and formal doesn’t appeal to everyone – it makes some folks downright uncomfortable. Regardless, the concept holds true. A premium home cinema needs a theme and decor to match. Whether its a starship from Star Wars, a cantina from Casablanca, a pirate ship from the Caribbean, MI-6 headquarters, the arena for a Roman chariot race, Hogwarts castle, or Lawrence’s tent in the desert, the room needs to be unique and memorable until the lights go down. And then it blows your mind.
Within those parameters, there are a few things to keep in mind. Primarily, don’t do anything stupid to mess up the sound and picture. Some focused lighting on the seats, potential tripping hazards, and special architectural elements is a great enhancement during the show, but keep it low and entirely off the screen. Ideally, surfaces would be a muted neutral gray. It’s ugly, yes, but colored and themed lighting can work wonders to create ambiance. Many elements, such as a domed ceiling, that would normally reflect sound can be constructed of acoustically transparent material with absorption and diffusion behind them. In practically ever circumstance, there is a creative way to achieve the desired visual look while maintaining performance criteria. Make sure on the front end that everyone – clients, architects, decorators, and especially you – are prepared to think outside the box. This is a one-of-a-kind environment that you’d like to see on the pages of Architectural Digest.
Caretakers of the Arts
I want to thank Quentin Tarantino for giving us this opportunity to relive the past and reflect on what has defined premium cinema through the years. Cinema is truly an art form, and there are patrons and caretakers of the arts who have the ways and means to preserve it and present it as artist intended. You may only get to work with one of these people in your entire career. When you do, hold on for an amazing, scary, fascinating, thrilling, ride. And give it everything you’ve got. That’s what people remember forever.