Six Tips for Home Theater Demos

Want to show off your home theater? Use columnist John Caldwell's six professional demo tips.

A still from Vertical Limit

Demo scenes should tell a self-contained story while also stimulating the senses. "Vertical Limit" (c) Columbia Pictures.

Scholars have written countless tomes dedicated to cinematic theory and the psychology of the cinema. Perhaps no single art form has been so widely studied, postulated, dissected and critically analyzed.

As an undergraduate college student studying for my degree in psychology, I can recall studying how the cinema was prescribed as a substitute for psychotherapy. I kid you not. The cinema and the way it affects us are serious things, it would seem.

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And while home theater has a ways to go to match the experience of the picture palaces of the last century, the process of achieving a great cinematic experience, whether commercially or in your home, still boils down to three basic fields of attention:

  1. Architecture and design
  2. Technology
  3. Presentation

Today, there are a number of great sources for information on the first two fields noted above. Assuming you’ve got the room’s architecture, design and gear dialed in, the best way to prove to yourself that you’ve got it right is by being able to orchestrate a short but compelling demonstration of your theater’s capabilities for your neighbors, friends, relatives or just the wife and kids.

Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of working on the road with the Jedi Master of the home theater demos, Peter Tribeman, president of Atlantic Technology. We’ve conducted consumer and tradeshow home theater demonstrations together, and nobody does it better than Peter.

Here’s Peter’s tried and true golden rules on how to select the proper material for a great home theater demo session.

1. Demonstration length
Find a scene that is six to seven minutes long. Any longer and people start to get antsy. Especially if they have seen the material before in its full length. That’s why we always are trying to find tracks from films that flopped at the box office and that no one has seen before.

2. It must tell a story
Find a scene that tells a complete story. There’s nothing worse than coming into the middle of something and not knowing who the characters are or what is going on. The demo piece must have a beginning, middle, and end to it. By selecting a complete scene, you give the audience a sense of fulfillment. Don’t cheat them by cutting off the action or story mid-stream. Classic movie scenes are often too long to conform to both rule one and two above.

3. “Uplifting” always trumps death and destruction
You should leave people on an up-note. Bombs and explosions are cool –- especially for dudes — but don’t beat up your audience to the point that they’re exhausted. “Seabiscuit” = good. “Black Hawk Down” = bad.

4. “Sensory” stimulation
With the bar being raised every day by virtual reality rides 3-D movies and better audio at the local cineplex (yes its coming ladies and gentlemen …), there’s an ever increasing reference for what defines a great cinematic experience. To match this reference, a home theater demonstration should stimulate four senses: visual, aural, physical and imagination.

  • Visual stimulation: The video material should have great contrast and deep color saturation. Close ups of people and realistic skin tones are terrific. Great imagery will more readily create the “theater-like” environment you are striving for.
  • Aural stimulation: There should be a wondrous sense of the original “acoustic space” to the sound track. Look for good separation, good surround, and — this one is essential — a great musical score. An excellent score makes your audience feeling like they’re “at the movies” vs. “just watching TV.”
  • Physical stimulation: Audiences love the reproduction of deep bass in a soundtrack. The proper use of subwoofers and even tactile drivers in today’s home theaters will add a tremendous physical component to what’s being seen on the screen. Audiences “feel” what is happening and it has a direct bearing on their relation to the scene. While there’s a tendency to want to over do the subwoofer, appropriate bass reproduction and the right program material will leave your viewers with goose bumps.
  • Imagination stimulation: Look for compelling material that quickly draws the viewer into the story creating what scholars call “the willing suspension of disbelief.” For a brief moment they should forget that this is only a demonstration. This cinematic transcendence, or a shift in awareness in the viewer, is created through the specific and delicate combination of audio and visual events in the material. When done right, it’s no wonder that movies are prescribed and described as therapeutic for many.

While having less to do with the actual demo material, here are two additional golden rules that have served me well in creating the perfect home theater demo:

5. Tell them what to look for
Just before the demo begins, tell your audience what they are about to hear or see that’s noteworthy from a performance standpoint. Example: “Listen for how the dialog can be clearly heard over the score and the explosions” or “watch for how black the main character’s shirt is against the black background” etc. Then let ‘em hear and see it. When the demo track is over, remind them of what they’ve just heard and seen.

6. Use proper lighting
Fade the lights down slowly to begin the demo. At the end of the scene, fade to black and leave the audience in the dark for four to seven seconds before fading the lights back up again. Abrupt changes in the environment — like lights going on or off quickly — aren’t conducive to creating the willing suspension of disbelief.

Looking for material to demo? Here’s a short list Peter and I often use:

Go ahead and start searching for the next great demo piece. Now that you’ve heard the “rules” explained, feel free to add your own demo suggestions through the comments area. Don’t be bashful with anecdotal stories — great demo cuts often have a funny way of bringing out just such stories.

Good listening and viewing!

John CaldwellJohn Caldwell is a 28-year grizzled veteran of the A/V business
and co-founder of StJohn Group, Inc.


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