Turn Your Backyard into a Real Theater

backyard theater

Bringing that drive-in feel to your backyard is easier and cheaper than you might think.

Jul. 23, 2008 — by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

Ahh, the great outdoors. Fresh air, starry skies, crickets chirping, and a pretty funny Dan Aykroyd/John Candy movie to boot. But no longer are summer nights reserved for ghost stories around a crackling fire. Today, the ghost stories come in the form of movies, and the amber glow of the fire is replaced by the cool blue of a projector shining Candyman’s image onto an outdoor screen.

Backyard theaters are a hit this summer. The winners for Electronic House Home of the Year - Best Outdoor Spaces showcase some of the amazing results that can be achieved outdoors, but what if your budget is a bit more modest, or you’re a diehard do-it-yourselfer? Anyone can pack up a laptop, a projector “borrowed” from work, and a white sheet and have a family movie night in the backyard. But as products designed specifically for outdoor use become more available and inexpensive, the dream of having a true backyard theater can become a reality.

The Screen
Options for screens abound, from the side of a barn to a motorized widescreen hung over an expansive deck. Erstwhile backyard theater owners used to spend a large chunk of time on the screen, crafting custom wood frames and stretching fabric over them. The growth in popularity of inflatable screens, however, has made acquiring a screen a cinch..

Companies such as Gemmy, Airscreen and Open Air Cinema offer inflatable screens in a variety of sizes. Simply plug the air pump in and within a few minutes and you have a fully-functional screen for as little as a couple hundred dollars.

Other options exist in the form of collapsible screens, and there’s nothing wrong with a home-built one, either. Do be sure to get the screen as matte as possible. Any light reflecting off your screen will distract the viewer.

Portability is also key for a screen. Unless you’re able to hide a screen in a watertight compartment, you’ll want something you can take down and put up easily.

The Projector
The key ingredient to an outdoor projector is lumens, or how much light it can output. When you’re tucked in a cozy basement theater, light control is easy. When you’re in your backyard, Mother Nature is in charge, and in some cases, so are your neighbors.

If you live in a rural area where the nearest house is a mile away, this might not be as big an issue. But even if your yard gets plenty dark, you still have to wait for the sun to set before starting the movie. The brighter the projector, the earlier you can start the show. If your throw (distance between projector and screen) is a typical 10-15 feet, look for a projector that has a minimum of 1,500 lumens. If you plan on shooting farther, 2,500-3,000 lumens might be a better choice. For extreme distances a “long-throw” lens might be in order.

You should also control ambient light where possible. Turn off lights in the house that might spill outside and avoid putting your screen on a reflective surface to prevent moonlight from bouncing off the ground and onto the screen.

Inside you can spend hours finding the proper placement for your speakers and know they will sound nearly identical every time. Under the stars, it’s a whole new ballgame. For one, the only thing your sound has to bounce off of is the atmosphere. You also have to account for elements such as wind and nearby traffic. Finally, you can’t soundproof the outdoors so if you hope to avoid visits from the local men in blue, you need to be able to distribute sound without waking the neighbors.

Randy Fisk, founder of Backyardtheater.com, says that many forum members on his site have taken to using more speakers at lower volumes to ensure the whole audience hears the film. Others use powered PA speakers in a two-channel setup. Most manufacturers make speakers designed to stay outside, making setup on movie night a lot easier. If you’re going with a stereo setup, adding a subwoofer can really spice a soundtrack up without a lot of extra work.

When it comes to components, you’ll want to avoid leaving these outside unless you can guarantee their safety during inclement weather. Some high-end setups feature equipment racks in the house that are wired to outdoor components. A less expensive solution is to build a portable rack for equipment that can be rolled out on movie night and quickly tucked away after the credits roll.

Good planning can save you hours of frustration on movie night. It pays to sit down and draw things out ahead of time. Where will everything go? Do you want to be able to move the location around the yard? How many speakers? Plan for every scenario before doing any building or buying.

If you want a surround sound setup, try to wire the speakers ahead of time. While PVC pipe acts as good protection for speaker wire, Fisk suggests a more flexible and possibly cheaper solution.

“I use a garden hose for my wires,” he said. “A lot of our site’s members have taken to doing that as well. PVC works great, but a garden hose is really flexible.”

If you don’t plan on leaving your speakers outside, using banana clips makes hooking up your speakers a lot easier, just be sure to clean the clips regularly.

Safety & Equipment Care
Always remember that you’ll be mixing electricity with the outdoors. In many cases that may be in close proximity to a pool. Ensure that electrical pieces are used far away from water. Don’t let the kids put their drinks on the equipment cart, for their safety and that of your equipment.

Find a way to conceal wires and eliminate cable clutter where possible. When the movies starts it will be pretty dark, and the last thing you want is someone from your audience tripping over a speaker wire.

Taking care of your equipment is crucial. Even if you manage to find a way to protect your components from wet weather, don’t ignore other environmental issues. Humidity and condensation can destroy electronics, so be aware of your climate when designing your backyard drive-in.

Clean connections regularly following manufacturer’s suggestions. If you live in a snowy climate, be sure to bring all your equipment inside and out of the cold when the weather turns. It’s also a good idea to have a spare bulb for the projector on hand.

Since you’ll be using all this equipment outside, it’s a good idea to shop for used gear. That will make it a bit easier to swallow when someone spills grape soda all over the projector.

Movie Night
Now that you’ve done all the prep work, it’s time to sit back and enjoy the fruits of your labor. To maximize your enjoyment, streamline setup and teardown procedures. If it takes you an hour to get set up for a movie, you won’t use it as much as you would if you can go from idea to showtime in 10-15 minutes. Find a common place to store all your equipment, either in a garage or a backyard shed (assuming its waterproof). Take time to come up with a good procedure for setup, one that you can use every time. This will make it easier to do every time.

There’s no hard and fast rule for outdoor theaters. Indoors, most people are examining picture and sound quality. Outside, while those factors are important, it’s more the experience that matters. Have fun with it by creating movie invites or downloading preshow animations from the web.

Then make a big bucket of popcorn, find a comfortable chair, a good remote, and a tasty drink and fire up the projector.

Suggested Reading:
Backyard Theater for Less Than $260
Open Air Cinema Announces Outdoor Theater
How to build a backyard theater on the cheap (backyardtheater.com)

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