November 09, 2006
| by Steven Castle
William and Laura Wesson’s media room near Anniston, AL, isn’t your ordinary home theater. For one thing, it’s very high end, using audiophile-grade Lexicon processors and Triad speakers as well as a videophile-quality Stewart screen and a Runco projector. But even by those lofty standards, this 28-by-35- foot theater stands out. That’s because it has one more very cool thing.
When William and Laura fire up one of their 700 DVDs, their entire 13-foot-wide screen fills with an image resembling a picture from a good commercial cinema. (Although William would probably argue that his picture is better.)
To start with, he and Laura can see the movie in CinemaScope, the general term used to describe the really widescreen format that many Hollywood blockbusters are released in. Anyone who has been to a local theater to see a popular movie has likely experienced CinemaScope. It’s much wider than the squarish television screens many of us are getting rid of, and it’s even wider than the widescreen HDTVs we’re all buying now. You’ve also probably seen CinemaScope when you’ve watched a DVD movie on a TV, though with letterboxing—the black bars that appear above and below the picture.
Related: What You Need to Know about CinemaScope
Some of the recent movies released in this super-widescreen format include “King Kong” (the 2005 version), “Firewall,” “The Wedding Crashers,” “Syriana,” “The Constant Gardener,” and all the “Star Wars” movies. Get the very wide picture? And this isn’t a new thing. Movies have appeared in this format for more than 50 years.
2.35:1 Equates to CinemaScope
DVDs with the CinemaScope format are often labeled “2.35:1” or “Widescreen Anamorphic 2.35:1” or even “Original Scope Format.” The “2.35:1” is an aspect ratio, denoting the width of the picture to the height (or 2.35 inches in width to every inch in height). A standard squarish TV screen is 4:3 or 133:1; widescreen HDTV is 16:9 or 1.78:1. The majority of movies released today are in 1.85:1 (slightly wider than HDTV). And then there’s 2:35:1, or CinemaScope (wider still), which most blockbusters are presented in.
There are other aspect ratios as well. Some versions of “Lawrence of Arabia,” are actually in Widescreen Anamorphic 2.20:1 (slightly narrower than 2.35:1), and “Ben-Hur” (the collector’s edition) is in wide-wide-widest 2.78:1. But enough with the math class. How do the Wessons like their wider screen?
“‘King Kong’ was absolutely phenomenal,” says William. “It was three hours long, but sitting there in my own theater, the time flew by. The special effects were awesome. I love seeing movies that wide. When it takes up your whole field of vision, you feel more connected with the movie. You feel like you’re in it.”
CinemaScope Requires Special Projector and Screen
Now, you may be asking: If I can see CinemaScope on a TV, why would I need a high-end home theater with a front projector? That’s to get rid of those annoying black bars that mar the top and bottom of your TV screen. A projector that contains an internal 2.35:1 “scaler” and an anamorphic lens can retain the height of a standard widescreen (HDTV, or 16:9) image and see the full width of those glorious pictures. Of course, you’ll need a screen that can accommodate the full width of the picture as well.
The Wessons have a three-chip Runco DLP projector, which uses Runco’s CineWide technology and its AutoScope anamorphic lens. The projector takes the 2.35:1 image, which would normally appear with the letterboxing on the top and the bottom, and stretches it to fill up the height of the screen. If it were left at that, though, the picture would be distorted, and everyone would be really tall and skinny. (Too bad diets aren’t that easy.)
But before you ever see the world of unnaturally tall and skinny people, the anamorphic lens stretches the picture horizontally to fill the width of the screen so everyone looks normal. The result is a big, wide picture with no more nasty black bars.
And as we mentioned earlier, a screen wide enough to handle the 2.35:1 format is needed. Several screen manufacturers can accommodate this. The Wessons, for example, have a curved Stewart screen. Why curved, you ask? The Wessons’ home theater installer, Dennis Erskine, of Design Cinema Privee, explains that when selecting a CinemaScope projector, you have to be concerned with the throw distance, or the distance from the projector to the screen. “The shorter the throw distance, the greater the ‘pin-cushion effect,’ which is the top or bottom of the picture bowing out,” Erskine says. “So we calculate the curvature of the screen to eliminate that.”
Erskine also cautions about choosing projectors. “The picture’s going to be just as high, but wider. There are more square inches on the screen. So now you have to be concerned about the output of the projector. In order to do this, you’re using an anamorphic lens, and unless you’re using one of a very high quality, it can introduce some distortions into the picture.”
“The lens will also produce a slight reduction in light output of the screen,” Erskine adds. “But that’s only a small percentage.”
Erskine says most DLP and LCoS (liquid crystal on silicon) projectors are bright enough to produce larger images for the 2.35:1 format, so the rules for selecting a CinemaScope projector are really the same as selecting one for HDTV widescreen 16:9. The screen material will depend on the projector selected, so for a projector that has trouble with black levels, a gray screen may be used to help achieve higher contrast.
The Wessons didn’t want the projector in the room, so Design Cinema Privee placed the Runco unit behind the back wall, with a hole cut through the wall above two racks of equipment that slide out so they can be serviced. On the other side of the wall in the theater’s lobby, the whole equipment area is concealed with a mock ticket booth.
CinemaScope Enhances Gaming
Once the Wessons decided to do a full-blown home theater, William researched what he wanted and called Erskine’s company, but he didn’t know he could have real CinemaScope. “It rang true to him, but he wanted to see it,” Erskine says. “And once he saw it, that was all it took. We spent a week calibrating the room for audio/video. And the first thing he did when it was done was fire up some HD video trailers. I don’t think anyone left the room for a while. He was like a kid with a new toy.”
William not only loves movies in 2.35:1, he also loves playing video games on his Xbox in the superwide format. “Playing video games in that room is not like playing a game on the plasma or another TV,” he says. “You really feel like you’re in there. A couple of fighter pilot games are awesome. In “Ghost Recon,” you’re actually out in the field, and you have the 360-degree field of sound, and you can hear and feel people approaching from behind you in the game.”
You could say William and Laura are pretty sold on CinemaScope. “It’s definitely changed the way we buy movies. We get nothing but widescreen,” William says. “Sometimes we have to check the back [of the packaging] to see what format it’s in. But if a decent movie came out in just ‘full frame’ [standard TV 4:3, which cuts off the sides of widescreen movies], we wouldn’t purchase it.”
The Wessons are able to stretch HDTV widescreen 16:9 and 1.85:1 movies to 2.35:1, but they tend not to, because, especially when in comes to gaming, William says, you can lose a little of the picture on the top and bottom. “For the most part, I’d much rather watch a movie in a native [or original] format. But when you stretch out 1.85:1 movies, you hardly lose a thing.”
A Runco VX-2c CineWide projector shines from a hole in the back wall (red circle). Equipment racks are located below the projector and side subwoofers and surround speakers are concealed in the room’s pilasters. Photo by Lauren Rubinstein.
This theater’s Middle Atlantic equipment racks slide out so the backs of the components and the Runco projector (above, behind opening) can be serviced. Photo by Lauren Rubinstein.
eyond inviting visitors into the theater, this ticket booth also conceals the equipment rack and the projector housing. Photo by Lauren Rubinstein.
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Steven Castle is Electronic House's managing editor. he has been writing about consumer electronics, homes and energy efficiency topics for two decades. He is also the co-founder of GreenTech Advocates