It’s only fitting for the room with the most drama to have the most dramatic lighting. If you want your media room to be a true home theater, expert lighting design is key to creating atmosphere, illuminating the way, and enhancing the overall movie experience.
A home theater presentation involves choreographed technology, in which lighting combines with immersive sound and dynamic video to transport you to another dimension. Home systems integrators create these experiences by implementing programmed scenes controllable by home automation systems from companies including AMX, Control4, Crestron, and Savant. Lighting provides the visual cues to guide you into the theater, signal the start of the show, and lead you out when the credits roll.
Pricing it Out
Estimating the cost of DMX control (explained in the main story below) is like figuring the cost of any lighting system. It depends on the number of lights controlled, labor time, and cost of designing scenes. Ilya Kandibur of Movietime, Corona, Calif., pegs the starting price of a DMX system at a “couple of thousand dollars” for a very simple setup. His tricked-out system (Watch the video), which combines an estate full of lighting panels and 18 pressure-sensitive bottom-lit glass steps, ran over $100,000, including DMX lighting inside and out. DMX “definitely requires specialty programming by someone who knows what they’re doing,” says Kandibur. That’s especially true when integrating DMX lighting with a home control system from AMX, Control4, Crestron, or Savant.
At The Sound Room in Chesterfield, Mo., home theater designers use Lutron dimmers— part of a whole-house HomeWorks QS lighting control system—to set the mood, says systems designer Steve Cole. Traditional home theater lighting includes can lights in the ceiling, step lighting to illuminate rows and paths, accent lighting for aesthetic appeal, and downlights for broad coverage or task lighting.
Cole typically programs scenes for different theater activities: lights are dim in movie mode to keep you focused on the screen. A brighter setting is used for watching sports and playing games, when you want more light for social interaction. Cole builds in a cleaning setting that kicks all lights to full brightness to catch every popcorn kernel when it’s time to tidy up.
The Sound Room integrates lighting control with a home automation system so that the lights perform their role on cue from other electronic triggers. It usually takes several minutes for a video projector to warm up, so Cole typically programs a warm-up sequence in the movie scene that can be set into motion before anyone enters the theater. The ceiling cans go on to a comfortable setting for settling in with popcorn and a drink, step lights activate to mark the pathways and aisles, and sconces illuminate for mood, while the A/V equipment clicks on to the right settings.
As LED lighting has become more popular, it has given home theater designers additional lighting tools with which to work. The color of an LED bulb can be controlled to get just the right shade of white or amber—or to infuse a home theater with a rainbow of colors. LED light strips, with tiny LEDs positioned at regular intervals on a flexible tape, can be tucked into places where light wasn’t possible before (like the lip of a cove ceiling) and bend into corners to illuminate a home theater more evenly. “Every inch or so on the tape there’s another LED so you get nice light uniformity the entire distance of the tape,” Cole says. LED light strips can also be mounted in the walls because they generate no heat.
The Future of DMX in the Home
Although DMX has been around for several decades, it’s still fairly new in the residential market. Home systems integrators are implementing DMX control at their own pace and comfort level. Keith Harrison, owner of Total Home Technologies, of Roseland, N.J., for example, has wired dozens of homes with DMX low-voltage lighting, which he sees as the future. Out of style is the lighting panel with heavy Romex that had to be installed by an electrician, says Harrison. In style is a single low-voltage wire that can daisy-chain to all of the DMX lights in the house without the need to run back to a central location. Total Home started down the DMX road to have more control over LED lighting and to eliminate complaints from architects, interior designers, and clients about the poor dimming capability and the unappealing color of LED lights. “Neither is the case,” he says, although both can occur when LED lighting is installed with high-voltage techniques. “It wasn’t that the technology of the LED wasn’t ready,” says Harrison. “It’s how we control them.” DMX gives him full control over dimming and color and is an off-the-shelf, open-architecture technology that’s widely available and “bulletproof,” he says. In the process of solving the dimming and color issues through DMX control, Total Home concluded it was also an “easier way to wire a home.”
Another lighting trend making its way into home theaters is DMX control, which brings the type of computer-controlled lighting used at rock concerts, dance clubs, and Disney World to home theaters and multi-purpose entertainment rooms. DMX is a communications protocol that allows lights, fog machines, and related accessories to speak the same language and work together. Add a MIDI bridge or video controller and your lights can change with cues from music or movies. With DMX, home systems integrators are able to program lighting scenes down to the individual light, which offers an infinite palette of possibilities.
DMX lighting is different from typical LED lighting because it allows you to create lighting shows and timelines and to manipulate color, versus simply turning lamps on or off or changing color, says Ilya Kandibur, owner of Movietime Pro, of Corona, Calif. Tapping a scene called “icy,” for instance, doesn’t just set colors to different shades of blue, says Kandibur. “It starts as one color, and over time different areas of the theater will flow into different colors.”
A favorite Kandibur installation is a DMX-controlled home theater with LED-lit steps that change colors individually, allowing light “to flow up the stairs.” Pressure sensors detect feet touching each step. This triggers a scene that Kandibur programmed into a Crestron automation system that adds color to each step as a person walks on it. When you step off, the lights revert to the normal state. “Once you integrate DMX with a third-party system (like an automation system), the sky becomes the limit,” Kandibur says. He and his team also design systems that analyze audio and sync lights to alter in color and intensity with music. And of course, Movietime Pro provides its customers with an easy way to change up the lighting on a whim by creating special scenes that can be activated from a touchpanel, handheld remote, or smartphone app. Integrated into the app is a color wheel that lets a user choose a specific hue for the room.
Jeremy Kumin, general manager of DMX lighting control company Enttec, says DMX is well-suited for home theaters because it allows integrators to mix colors for effect. Enttec’s DMX interface is part of Control4’s DMX driver, which integrators use to create a subtle aura around a flat-screen TV. The effect is similar to that offered by Philips Ambilight TVs, which marketed several viewing benefits: The aura was said to reduce the contrast between the bright screen and dark wall in a pitch black room, which has been attributed to headaches by some viewers. The ambient light has also been promoted as enhancing a particular color in a movie scene. An ocean scene might be enhanced with blue light, for instance, via DMX. “The idea is not to make a billboard but a little ambiance,” says Kumin. “If used sparingly, it’s quite effective.”
Cantara Designs, of Costa Mesa, Calif., has used DMX for stage lighting systems in multi-purpose rooms, says Adam Purath, engineering director. In one home, the company installed a fully functional performance stage capable of “small-scale productions,” with curtains, entertainment lighting, a hazer machine, and karaoke system, all orchestrated via DMX. Purath created 60 scenes combining the DMX-controlled gear, then recorded them to a rack-mounted player that can play back the files as scenes that a user selects from an AMX touchpanel. When a user chooses the “stormy night” scene, for example, the AMX home automation system tells the player to play back the DMX values and the lights will “snap into place and do their thing,” Purath says. Certain scenes are static and others play out as long as five minutes before looping. In other scenes, intelligent lighting on a motorized yoke creates patterns on the floor for a concert effect.
In Cantara’s setup, the DMX lighting is programmed as a separate source on the AMX home control system, and a Vantage lighting control system handles the rest of the house lighting. Tapping “stage” on an AMX touchpanel brings up the DMX controls. That scene also dims the Vantage lights in the room and kicks off a default DMX lighting program, although the Vantage lighting system acts as a master power switch for all of the entertainment lighting components. Purath used incandescent lights in the front of the theater to maintain the “warm feel.” Over-stage and side-stage lights, however, are LEDs to deliver the “flashy, whiz-bang” look. EH
Rebecca Day is senior editor of Consumer Electronics Daily and in addition to Electronic House has written for Popular Mechanics, Rolling Stone, Ladies’ Home Journal, and Robb Report magazines.