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Installer's Insight

Terry Paullin, founder of Front Row Cinema in Livermore, CA, has built more than a thousand home theaters over a 30+-year span. He shares projector installation and calibration tips, comments on new projection and display advances, offers up suggestions on what you should be watching now on your rig, and generally goes off on whatever pleases or irks him about the current state of front projection.

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Welcome...and Why Projection?

Welcome to Installer's Insight, a new periodic column at ProjectorCentral. My name is Terry Paullin, and I have been installing custom home theaters for more than 30 years now. Since 1988, when I established Front Row Cinema in Livermore, CA, I have done over 1,000 theaters—really.

About 15% to 20% of my installs involve front projection. Most are in dedicated theaters (what some might classify as "man caves") and the rest are in what I call "theater environments," less- than-ideal (for projection, anyway) living room-style spaces that do double duty for watching movies. I'm also very active with the Imaging Science Foundation as a senior instructor who teaches new and advanced calibrators the latest tricks for optimizing today's displays. I occasionally consult to industry on the topic of imaging science.

My industry colleague and ProjectorCentral's editor-in-chief Rob Sabin has invited me to offer an occasional insight into our collective hobby/passion and share observations from my catbird seat as an integrator and industry insider. Over time, I expect you'll get a little of this and a little of that from me: installation tips, calibration advice, general thoughts on new products I see at the trade shows or get to experience in client's homes, or even a few words about a particular UHD BD demo that I'm excited to recommend. Most of my columns will focus on projector/screen applications, but some will touch on related topics.

So let's get started. This time, let's examine...

Front Projection: Why?

As in... why do projection at home instead of a flat screen? I'll speculate the main reason is what I call "Movie Theater Drama"—done right, it replicates what we feel when we walk into a commercial theater: curtains, sconce lighting, and multiple seating arrangements. Home theater "drama" can include the same sconce lighting, art deco treatments, movie posters, in-room popcorn machines, pillows and blankets, and interesting little confectionery tables. You can even do "stadium seating" with a riser in the back of the room. I suppose you could do all that with a flat panel, but it just wouldn't be the same...and nobody does it.

Another reason, believe it or not, might be price. We saw a crop of new projector offerings at CES this year, bright enough for HDR and attractively priced compared to what will certainly be the serious premiums on 100-inch flat panels when they appear in Q4. Of course, those new projectors should be paired with appropriate screens...something I'll say more about in a future column.

One reason not to shy away from front projection is limited room size. My demo theater is simply a converted 13 x 17-foot bedroom. It has stadium seating, all the art deco accoutrements, an accessible equipment rack, and a wide front-speaker sound field placement. I even found some paisley "movie " carpeting.

Larger and larger (100-inch plus) flat panels may challenge projector/screen applications into the future, but always at a serious price premium to front projection and with, well, a lack of "drama."

Until next time...enjoy the movies!

Reader Comments(17 comments)

Posted Jan 28, 2019 1:15 PM PST

By Skyler Meek

Amen! I can definitely vouch for the big screen experience that can truly be felt by nothing other than... a big screen! Other advantages are things like the logistics of getting a large image into a room. A screen is relatively lightweight and can be rolled easily on a core prior to final installation so the shipping box is much smaller.

Also, you can roll up a motorized screen and make it go away!

Posted Jan 28, 2019 1:18 PM PST

By Rob Sabin, Editor

Great points, Skyler. I'd add to this the particular quality of the viewing experience associated with a projected image vs directly looking at a flat-panel set. Terry kind of touches on it when he talks about the familiarity we have with the cinema experience. Part of that comes from that fact that projected images feel unique among display options; they are easier on the eyes and less fatiguing, and in some ways more natural to us. I like to use the word "organic." I was fascinated to observe that some of the projector manufacturers promoting new UST projectors at CES were starting to show some savvy on this point and mentioning this in their pitch. I bet we'll hear that more and more now as projection steps up to compete with bigger and bigger panel displays. 100 inches projected is NOT the same as 100 inches from a panel TV.

Posted Jan 28, 2019 1:53 PM PST

By Sid

One thing is that any image, however large, "held prisoner underneath glass" is like watching it through the window. With a projector, the whole illuminated world is in front of you. For me it reaches the complete limits, in that I have no interest in 3D. Incidentally, old standard definition TV material shot on video takes a dimension previously unimagined on the big screen. Some of those shows were shot on film which again is very engaging (I actually prefer TV to movies).

Posted Jan 28, 2019 2:02 PM PST

By Tom Croly

The reason I went front projection many years ago and continues to be my primary reason to this day is that I have placed my roll up projection screen in front of my home’s most scenic view window. Most times, the screen is rolled up and I enjoy an ocean view from this window and when I want the big screen image, down comes the screen and the seating that enjoys the scenic view by day is already set up to enjoy the big screen image I project to the 120” screen. This room also has a 49” LCD flat panel display for TV watching while still maintaining the ocean view from the window.

Posted Jan 28, 2019 2:10 PM PST

By Terry Paullin

Tom - we see this a lot. My good friend Joel Silver lives in Florida. He does many calibrations for folks with big, tall windows looking out at the ocean or some other spectacular view ... drop down screens are almost the norm. Still nice to have a brighter back-up for when the ambient light demands it. Thanks for the input.

Posted Jan 29, 2019 4:55 AM PST

By Kevin Attwood

I looked at all the Ultra-Short projection 4K units at CES this year and moved on. Still love my guests to throw a shadow on the screen when they stand up in my cinema as it should be! Waiting for the right price point and features to move up to 4K but flat panels? ... great for some but only thing that comes close to the full cinema experience and tradition for me is a rear projection system.

Posted Jan 29, 2019 8:03 AM PST

By Suraj

Beside from cinematic experience, one thing I love about front projection is that it brings the whole family together. It's not the same with TV, kids kind of like to watch their own shows on TV. But when the projector is on, everyone joins and watches movies on the big screen together.

Posted Jan 29, 2019 4:09 PM PST

By Craig

To go a little deeper into "cinematic experience," I think one of the things that makes watching a movie on a projector special is that the necessities of the technology create a little ritual that makes the time and place you watch movies separate and special. My life is so full of screens I can watch movies on in practically any context; I might have something familiar going in the background while I make scrambled eggs or browse the news websites.

But even though the $300 50" TV I have going in the background is bigger and technically superior to any home theater equipment I ever dreamed of owning for most of my life, in a way it's a less engaging experience than a Saturday night Blockbuster rental when I was a kid - pan-and-scan VHS on a completely uncalibrated 19" screen, with mono sound, but you spent so much time and energy on the trip to pick out the movie that the watching of the movie became an anticipated event that everyone got together for, turned off the lights, made snacks, talked about afterwards.

Having a projector you're forced to replicate a lot of those elements - there's a special room, the lights have to be off, and in order to take advantage of the giant screen, you really have to go with a blu-ray rather than streaming, meaning that choosing a movie isn't the sensory overload of scrolling through Netflix with the ability to instantly start or stop hundreds of incredible options. I don't plan on giving up Netflix anytime soon, but there's something to be said for the fact that once you commit to watching a movie on disc, you can't change your mind without having to physically get up and fiddle with things.

Having a projector makes me commit to and get excited about specific films that I set aside time to sit down and watch and not just enjoy as a piece of entertainment, but as a MOVIE.

Posted Jan 29, 2019 9:38 PM PST

By Terry Paullin

Craig - ALL of your points are well taken. I feel exactly the same way. I'm new to this column and I didn't want to overstep my "word budget" or I would have made many of the same points. I would only like to add, relative to the Netflix issue, that the best images will ALWAYS come off the disc. Current compression algorithms are so aggressive they "bit starve" the data in the hopes that you won't miss it - but you do! Thanks for your well expressed input.

Posted Jan 30, 2019 1:29 PM PST

By Xander

For those of us old enough to remember renting home movies on 16mm film, front projection is the only way to replicate that experience.

The expectation and drama of renting the movie - it was relatively expensive in those days (although dad paid for it), taking it home, setting up the projector, putting up the screen, mounting the first reel and threading the film, setting the focus, ensuring the film loop is just right to avoid lip sync issues, the film breaking and needing splicing midway through the film, the light bulb or sound light bulb dying halfway through.... those were wonderful times.

VHS never got me excited.

Modern digital front projection is of course mostly automated and without the above mentioned hassles, but it certainly is the closest we can get to the real thing.

Although I’ve built two dedicated digital cinemas in the last 14 years or so and I’m about to build a third at a new house we just moved into, I still fondly remember the first night back in 2004 when I brought home a new Panasonic AE100 projector and set it up in the living room projecting against a sheet hung over the pelmet. Perhaps I remember this more than the opening shows at either of my dedicated cinemas. :)

I sometimes admire the technology of it all more that the actual movie... and yes, flat panel TVs do not do it for me.

Posted Jan 31, 2019 8:33 AM PST

By TOBY

I started out in the 70's with a collection of 16mm films ( many in IB Tech Scope). It was the only way to see movies on a big screen. I have been doing front projection ever since ( Advent, Kloss NovaBeam. Sanyo, and now Epson). The key is that what ever the wall size is, you want to fill it. Even if you have an 6 foot wall, filling it with a 6ft screen will give the illusion of a theatrical experience. If you have a 10ft wall and put in a 50" screen, you will lose the benefit. Match the screen size to the wall and have your eyes at the height of the center screen and you will be set!

Posted Jan 31, 2019 11:39 AM PST

By Jim McGall

Great article and comments. There is an old phrase that I like that points out a special attribute of our human experience, our receptiveness to wonderful storytelling: "The willful suspension of disbelief." This is a great term and it is certainly apropos when enjoying a film on a well-designed, ultra-large-screen home theater or at the local Cineplex.

Wikipedia comments about the Suspension of Disbelief:

'The term suspension of disbelief or willing suspension of disbelief has been defined as a willingness to suspend one's critical faculties and believe something surreal; sacrifice of realism and logic for the sake of enjoyment.[1] The term was coined in 1817 by the poet and aesthetic philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who suggested that if a writer could infuse a "human interest and a semblance of truth" into a fantastic tale, the reader would suspend judgement concerning the implausibility of the narrative.'

I love watching movies, TV shows and sporting events on one of our current gen large screen flat panels – and of course there’s the immersive home theater ready to fire up at a moment’s notice – but each has its place and each presents a very different experience in terms of how I engage with the story, show or action. The former rarely takes me on that special journey, while the projected image grabs hold of me and I completely forget myself and any personal needs (well, maybe the popcorn bucket and soda next to me, they do deserve attention).

When I sit back in the theater, the lights dim and the movie begins - for the next ~2 hours I'm carried completely along the journey. I become part of the story and the adventure unfolds all around me and with me. That feeling, that out-of-body experience rarely happens when I'm watching a flat panel - even a very large one in my home. But fire up the projector and I'm carried along within the adventure as it unfolds. A proper home theater is the best way to create that totally immersive experience, and if you don’t yet have a home theater then make even a modest investment to install one – you’ll be glad you did. Oh and call Terry to help install and calibrate it properly.

Posted Jan 31, 2019 12:55 PM PST

By Rob Sabin, Editor

Thanks for the great insights and observations, Jim. Makes me wanna turn off the computer right now and settle into a good movie in my studio. There really is nothing like the immersion factor of a well-tuned and sufficiently large projected image supported by high quality surround-sound.

Posted Jan 31, 2019 2:43 PM PST

By Terry Paullin

Jim, I'm well aware of your passion for this stuff - and I share it. I often use the phrase "suspension of disbelief" when pitching clients - they get it. The rest of your words were very apropos and I may "borrow" a few in the future. Wish now I had expounded a little more in the opener. So for now, let's just say:

Projector/screens FOREVER !!!

Posted Jan 31, 2019 2:47 PM PST

By Terry Paullin

Hmmmmm - I wonder if Rob knows anything about Sound or Vision ???

Posted Feb 1, 2019 11:57 AM PST

By Joe

Projection for me is 100% about a big, visceral, immersive experience. And I don't want to spend a fortune on it. You can get a very good and very big picture without spending a ton. I've spent a ton more on audio than video. It's great for a movie now and then. There's no amount of contrast or resolution you could get from a normal sized panel that I'd prefer to a good projected 100" picture. If I make an upgrade any time in the reasonably near future it'll be a bigger screen. I think I've got room for a 120" one.

Posted Feb 6, 2019 12:16 PM PST

By Adrian

Fascinating stuff. Never thought about a lot of it but it's true. Great to understand why we love the projected image so much.

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