When you embark on an extensive second-story addition, everything can go wrong. And will. This story, however, is about how everything went right, thanks to masterful work conducted by First Impressions Theme Theatres.
“We certainly experienced all of the challenges we were warned about with the construction process,” says homeowner Dan Holmes, adding that he was skeptical about building a home theater since he knew it would be the most complicated aspect of the ddition. “Ironically, Jeff was the smoothest part,” Dan continues. “He took us by the hand and led us from start to finish. He lived up to my expectations times 10.”
First Impressions Theme Theatres owner Jeffery Smith designed this elaborate theater from top to bottom—from the acoustically designed room structure to the aesthetics. By the time Smith met the Holmeses, he had built 250 high-caliber home theaters since his first masterpiece in 1985.
The Holmeses braved I-95’s bumper-to-bumper traffic to visit First Impressions’ design and production facility in North Miami, Fla.—two mammoth mustard-colored buildings. A huge black semi bearing First Impressions’ colorful logo stood in front. The Holmeses didn’t know what to expect.
To their surprise, Smith and his effervescent assistant, Laura Elder, greeted the couple at the door, whisked them into the conference room and treated them to a lunch of sandwiches while discussing color palettes, design visions, and likes and dislikes.
“We had some idea of how we wanted the theater to look,” Dan says. “We wanted old Victorian with red velvet, dark woods and sconces.”
Smith showed the Holmeses how his meticulous design and building process works on the 20-minute tour of his 32,000-squarefoot facility, which Dan still describes as over-the- top.
“Jeff ’s operation is what sold me,” he says. “I never knew that aspect of the industry existed on that scale. To see all of his theaters in construction in various stages—ready to ship out—was quite impressive. One was going to Egypt, another to Montreal. We feel fortunate that we went the extra mile and drove to Miami to meet Jeff at his factory.”
Smith’s tour is a mini day-in-the-life documentary. His 62 artisans and technicians design and fabricate every visible element of every theater, as well as many invisible parts—from the columns to the doors, acoustical panels, lighting, theater curtains, starry ceilings and custom seating.
“We walk the customer through the process so they know what to expect,” Smith says.
It all starts in the production documents area, where detailed sketches are drawn up, some of which are rendered in 3-D drawings that are as lifelike as the real thing. The woodworking division is next, where the columns, molding and prosceniums are handcrafted. Wood chips are flying, machines are humming and artisans are polishing. Every completed wood item works its way into the paint/finish department.
Just as the Holmeses arrived in the fabrication and assembly area, a theater was coming together—like an old-fashioned barn raising—to ensure a perfect fit before on-site installation. Next, the theater would be broken down, labeled and boxed up for on-site delivery and installation.
In the next building, the CineCrafters soft goods division, Smith’s custom theater seating, theater curtains and acoustic panels come to life. Artisans are carefully cutting bolts of fabric and leather, and installing cup holders, trays and motors for the theater chairs. Each creation is personally tweaked and inspected.
“We pride ourselves on pattern matching,” Smith says, referring to the time-consuming upholstery process. “Everything lines up perfectly.” With 27 people working in the division, one custom theater chair—from the cutting and pattern matching of fabric to the assembly—can take a full day to complete.
Two days later, a color board was delivered to the Holmes residence. “It was phenomenal,” says Michele, Dan’s wife. “Jeff was right on the mark with colors. He keyed in on everything we liked and disliked. Everything was very detailed—applied moldings, the shape of the pillows.”
A few weeks later, First Impressions’ semi delivered the theater to the Holmeses’ front door and the assembly team went to work. “We watched it evolve throughout the process,” Dan says, “and it was an awesome experience.”
Ironically, the theater was the first completed room of the addition (oftentimes, the theater is the last finished room), and every detail was perfected on time, within budget and without flaw.
“When we’d walk out of the theater after watching a movie, it was like walking into the Twilight Zone,” Dan says, alluding to the never-ending, messy construction that surrounded the finished theater for six months afterward. “It was hard to believe—and still is today—that this room existed in the house. Especially when I’d walk out and see 20-plus laborers banging away.”
While the Holmeses are no longer in shock over First Impressions’ meticulous execution, they still wax philosophic about their customized CineLoungers. And they continue to rave about Smith’s priceless aesthetic and configuration recommendations.
“He suggested we do an inset on the back of the chair with contrasting fabric—we love the way it turned out,” Michele says. Smith also recommended using love seats on the front row so the kids could lie down. To divide the love seats into separate chairs, Smith custom-designed movable arm rolls.
The reversible cushions increase the longevity of the fabric. The chairs are texturally tied into the velvet draperies, crafted of the same fabric, and into the custom wool carpeting, which the clients had a chance to touch and inspect beforehand. The customized iron wall sconces are baked with antique gold gilding, which also highlights the dark mahogany woodworking.
“We work straight through, seven days a week,” Smith says of the two-and-a-half-week installation. “Clients are amazed to see people work that way. They say, ‘We never saw carpenters work that fast.’ And we were the first [contractors] in, and we were on time. No one else was.”
And the clients’ response?
“When we were finished with the home theater,” Smith continues, “Dan said to me, ‘You should have done the whole house.”’
THE HOLMES HOME THEATER
The story of how the front speakers were chosen for this theater—and how they eventually came to be implemented—is an interesting one.
“The owner wanted the speakers to go under the screen,” says system designer Rick Brindlinger, “which kind of restricted the height of the speakers.”
So Brindlinger and engineer/project manager Mike Reilly settled on Klipsch’s KL-650-THX LCR—a speaker that, at a mere 15 by 17 by 12.5 inches, packs a serious punch without chewing up a lot of real estate.
According to Brindlinger, the owner’s reason for wanting the speakers under the screen boiled down to the fact that “he had done a lot of reading on his own and had heard a lot of negative things about microperf screens; he was worried about moiré.”
Perhaps this is a good place to pause and explain what all of these menacing-sounding “m” words mean.
Microperforated screens are projection screens with tens of thousands of microscopic holes in every square foot of screen material.
These holes allow the sound from the speakers, placed behind the screen, to pass through the screen with a fair approximation of sonic transparency. Without the microperforations, the sound from speakers placed behind a screen would be muffled.
This was a wonderful solution until modern digital projectors came along with their rigid pixel structure, the pattern of which closely matched the pattern of microperforations in most home theater screens. And as any good physics geek knows, when two closely matched overlapping patterns nearly line up, the result is moiré: a nasty visual artifact that manifests tself in the form of funky, swirly, wavy lines all over the image (see here for more info).
Since the advent of digital projectors, manufacturers have concocted many remedies, including woven screens that eliminate the microperforations completely while still allowing the sound to slip through unimpeded.
Stewart Filmscreen projection screens—like the one used here—rely on a different solution; the pattern of their microperforations has been rotated to form more of a diagonal diamond configuration, which doesn’t match up with the horizontal pixel structure of digital projectors at all.
“He just wasn’t aware that we had reached a point where we didn’t have issues with moiré,” Reilly says. “We did eventually talk him into it, and I was actually able to get the KL-650s inside the framed wall, on shelves built right into the wall. So we didn’t have to bring the screen forward much at all, which most people don’t want to do.
The end result is that we had those 650s, with their beefy drivers, coming right through the screen, instead of coming from beneath. It sounds like a real movie theater. So he’s really happy that we talked him into changing his mind.”—Dennis Burger
Custom Installer: Audio Advisors of West Palm Beach, Fla. (561.478. 3100, audioadvisors.com)
Theater Designer and Architect: First Impressions Theme Theatres of North Miami, Fla.
Photography by Barry Grossman
“What I love about this theater is it’s not large, but we made it look that way by taking the ceiling off with our dusk-to-dawn feature.” —Jeffrey Smith, theater designer
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