Home Theater
Turn Your Backyard into a Real Theater
Bringing that drive-in feel to your backyard is easier and cheaper than you might think.
backyard theater
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July 23, 2008 by Phil Lozen

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.

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