The­ater de­sign mis­takes, and how to avoid them.

Sound & Vision - - CONTENTS - BY JOHN SCIACCA THE AU­THOR For the past 20 years, John Sciacca has worked as a cus­tom in­staller in South Carolina. In his free time, he en­joys drink­ing craft beer and watch­ing movies on his 7.2.6 sur­round sys­tem.

’ve spent the past 20 years in the cus­tom in­stal­la­tion in­dus­try, and it would be no ex­ag­ger­a­tion to say I’ve worked with more than a thou­sand clients dur­ing that time. A reg­u­lar part of my job is con­sult­ing with clients on the de­sign and in­stal­la­tion of me­dia rooms and home the­aters. (The dif­fer­ence be­tween the two: a me­dia room is a so­cial, multi-use space, while a home the­ater is a pur­pose-de­signed room for watch­ing movies.) Some­times the project is a new build (the best). Other times it in­volves re­pur­pos­ing a room or try­ing to fix and im­prove an ex­ist­ing room.

Over the course of my ca­reer, I have run across the same ba­sic de­sign and in­stal­la­tion is­sues. These not only keep sys­tems from achiev­ing great­ness, but some­times keep them from even be­ing good. Over the next few col­umns I will de­tail the top mis­takes that I see so you can avoid them in your in­stall. The good news is that many of the prob­lems are 100 per­cent fix­able af­ter the fact, and of­ten don’t cost much to cor­rect!


We may have a “more is bet­ter” men­tal­ity in the U.S., but seat­ing is a case where re­straint rules the day. Pack­ing too many chairs in a room will make it feel crowded and small. Also, with too many seats, there will be no “good seat” in the house: the front row will be too close to the screen, and the sides and rear seats will be crammed against the walls. In­stead of plan­ning seat­ing around that once-a-year big event, think about all the other times you’ll be us­ing the space. Com­fort­able, well-placed seat­ing for four to six peo­ple is far bet­ter than jam­ming 8-12 seats to­gether like sar­dines. If space is tight, choose nar­rower seat­ing that doesn’t re­cline.


In con­trast with a com­mer­cial cin­ema where the screen’s bot­tom can be po­si­tioned high enough for ev­ery­one to see ev­ery inch of the screen, in­stalling mul­ti­ple rows of seat­ing in a home the­ater re­quires risers. Some mod­ern the­ater de­signs are even go­ing to “sta­dium seat­ing,” which repli­cates the riser de­sign and helps get more eye­balls in the ideal sight­line. How­ever, I fre­quently see risers that were in­stalled with lit­tle thought as to how high they ac­tu­ally need to be.

Fac­tors that should de­ter­mine riser height in­clude: the num­ber of seat rows; the po­si­tion of the screen’s bot­tom edge (typ­i­cally de­ter­mined by screen size, front-wall height, and cen­ter-chan­nel speaker lo­ca­tion); chair height; and viewer height. It’s easy to fore­see any prob­lems with an ex­ist­ing room. With a new build, the best so­lu­tion is to mock up the room, mark­ing the po­si­tion of the screen’s bot­tom on the wall and then hav­ing peo­ple of dif­fer­ent heights sit in the front and rear seat­ing po­si­tions. If that isn’t pos­si­ble, a riser of around 18 inches will usu­ally be suf­fi­cient.


Re­mem­ber­ing that our de­sign goal is to repli­cate the the­atri­cal ex­pe­ri­ence, think of the last time you went to a movie the­ater and what it looked like. In most cases, the screen wall is masked with a black, light-ab­sorb­ing ma­te­rial. The en­tire au­di­to­rium is also black or a dark color, in­clud­ing the floor, ceil­ing, and seats. Why? First, with all of that black, your eye is drawn to where it’s sup­posed to be look­ing: at the screen. Sec­ond, the black mask­ing that borders the screen im­proves per­ceived con­trast— blacks look darker and whites brighter, which en­hances dy­namic range. Third, a dark room im­proves ac­tual con­trast by ab­sorb­ing light bounc­ing off the screen that would nor­mally be re­flected back.

Se­lect­ing a dark, neu­tral color for your front screen wall is one of the eas­i­est things you can do to in­crease im­age qual­ity. It will also add a nice de­sign el­e­ment to the room.

Use flat paint, stay­ing away from any­thing with a gloss or sheen, and avoid ap­ply­ing pri­mary col­ors near the screen as they will bias the im­age (e.g., a red wall will make faces on­screen look sun­burned).

In the next is­sue, I’ll tackle overly crowded man­caves, too-small pro­jec­tion screens, and in­ad­e­quate light­ing.

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