A Media Room by Any Other Name
Making sure we have access to a high-quality movie-watching experience may become more important
now that our entire cinema experience may be our home cinema experience
In 2018, the last time I was in Paris, my wife and I were fortunate enough to visit the Musée de l’Orangerie before the crowds arrived. The Orangerie is where, along with many Impressionist paintings, Claude Monet’s extraordinary Water Lilies paintings are exhibited. Spellbinding! Unfortunately, many will never experience this in person; however, many will “see” these works in print, on screen, or via some other convenient conveyance. I assure all, until I visited Water Lilies at the Orangerie, I had not truly seen the masterpiece that Monet created. Being in the presence of the works themselves was indeed an advantage, but that is not all. The environment completed the experience. The artist knew this. In fact, Monet assisted architect Camille Lefevre with the architectural design. He even required skylights so the paintings would be viewed in natural light. The result, an experience I will repeat as often as I visit Paris!
What about Film? It has been called “the most complete, truly contemporary art form . . . a most marvelous machine for emotion” (Renzo Piano, architect of the new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures). Film, as an art form, has as unique a set of challenges. Its artistic value is in its effect on the individual, when tears, laughter, memories, or thrills materialize unforeseen. Does the environment play a part in this interaction? It might be said that those who want to experience the film art-form at its best should seek out those exhibitions dedicated for that purpose, the commercial cinema. Although, even if it
Claude Monet’s Water Lilies at the Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris
were possible during this pandemic (or advisable after), most commercial cinemas fall far short of that standard! Many may say that the right environment for viewing movies in the home is not a theater but a media room. But such blanket statements do not address important considerations, and labels such as commercial cinema, home theater, and media room do not unequivocally describe ideal solutions.
What considerations are vital in choosing the right environment to enjoy movies and other forms of entertainment in our homes? To truly get the most enjoyment from any media, be it movies, television series, music, or games, we need to become fully engaged. The state of full engagement is that magical time when the participant experiences the fullness of whatever media they are involved in. With music, the performance, timbre, rhythm, and mix coalesce into a whole in which a listener can be captivated. In games, the avatar becomes of greater substance than oneself. In film, the story, drama, imagery, sounds, and more create a realism that captivates us like no other experience. This “suspension of disbelief” is the essence and objective of these forms of entertainment art. It cannot be experienced when multi-tasking. It cannot be sustained when distracted. It is magic and is to be desired. This ability to be fully engaged should inform all considerations when determining the type of media environment to acquire for our home.
This engagement requires a distraction-free environment. It may surprise many that this quality is not exclusive to dedicated home theaters. It is certainly much easier to do so within that configuration; however, many traditional home theaters fall far short of that objective. Distractions can be caused by many sources, but the most commonly discussed is noise. Noise is particularly distracting because humans are designed to detect sounds, and once we do, it is very difficult to ignore them.
The damage to the state of engagement and the suspension of disbelief is significant, immediate, and persistent. Our experience is visceral, emotional, and transient. Once a magical moment is disturbed, it is lost. Think of how frustrated we feel when someone’s cellphone rings in a movie theater. That moment in time is lost and cannot be regained, even when the content is replayed. It is different.
This is where the discussion of the right media environment—dedicated theater or media room—can become confusing. The labels do not help. For instance, even a beautifully decorated dedicated theater that has inadequate wall construction, noisy HVAC, projector, and other equipment fans (to mention a few common oversights), will be fraught with distractions and as prone to destroy magic moments as any room. On the other hand, a media room that shares space with other activities has inherent distractions in addition to those mentioned above. If those activities produce any noise at all and will be engaged in while participants are attempting to enjoy movies, music, or other media, distractions will result. But if such a multi-use room is designed to be acoustically isolated, and HVAC
and other ventilation is kept to an inaudible level, such a room can provide a distraction-free environment. Of course, it will be necessary to limit competing activities when it is desirable to be fully engaged in a movie, music, or other program.
Distractions are not limited to noise. While sound quality is key to the experiences available in today’s movies, games, and productions, the quality of the visual imagery is just as important. Ever-increasing resolution, color gamut, and high dynamic range provide the tools to display astounding cinematography. Combine that with immersive sound, great stories, acting, and production, and you will want to get lost in the experience! Unfortunately, many popular design trends are not conducive to that goal. Natural light, light colors, competing design elements, casual seating arrangements, and other factors can compete with the visual experience. These are clearly desirable attributes for living spaces, but if the best media entertainment experience is a goal, they must be considered accordingly.
Many will point to the rapidly developing LED technology as a solution that negates abundant natural light and lightly shaded décor as an issue. While it is true that these displays can provide hyper-realistic imagery even in high ambient-light conditions, the viewer is still part of the equation. If the objective is maximum enjoyment of an art form, especially movies, but also games and musical performances, distractions will impede that goal. When we are distracted, the engagement is broken and the magic is lost. If that were not the case, Monet would not have insisted on the right environment for his form of visual art! In fact, to achieve the desired results, what may initially seem to be desirable may be counterproductive. An example of this is the recent advent of immersive sound. Notable film producers, directors, and sound editors caution the overuse of these “desirable” effects because they take the audience’s attention away from the screen and subsequently out of the “spell” or suspension of disbelief. It requires a higher standard and is a more difficult challenge to achieve the artful and appropriate application of immersive sound to achieve the desired effect. In the same way, if we are to create media rooms that perform, we must not blindly follow design trends or even personal bias but instead accept the challenge and create interior environments that both support the purpose and are aesthetically pleasing.
Distractions are not the only concern. There are many elements that need to be correct if the optimum media experience is the goal. This holds true in both dedicated-theater and media-room applications. In order to achieve the elusive suspension of disbelief, a lot has to take place. Of course, the production of the art itself must be well executed. Amazing cinematography and artfully crafted and often thrilling sound combined with compelling plots and talent is job one. But all that is for naught if it is not presented in such a way that faithfully reproduces the artist’s intent. Video imagery must be presented to viewers correctly and unimpeded. Listeners must receive the audio information accurately and as intended. Achieving these characteristics requires careful engineering and integration of the technologies with the design. This is required in either a dedicated theater or a media room.
Labels can obscure the objectives. Thinking that a dark room with rows of seats and acoustical fabric walls will necessarily provide proper sight lines, viewing angles, and balanced immersive sound is just as inaccurate as thinking that these considerations don’t matter as long as the room looks good. Whether in a theater or a media room, sight lines, viewing angles (horizontal and vertical), as well as light and color considerations must be planned. Speaker positioning, dispersion, sound power, and acoustics must be correct as well. When we have properly addressed all the design and engineering considerations, the difference between a well-designed media room and a well-designed dedicated theater is hard to distinguish. However, if the term media room is being used to describe a great room with a large screen over the fireplace and speaker locations compromised due to traffic patterns, billiard table, windows, and vaulted ceilings, the difference is unmistakable.
A great room as described above can be a wonderful part of the home, offering casual socializing, convenience to kitchens, patios, and access to other fun diversions. But if we were to modify the design of that space to support the performance we desire for our movies, music, and other beloved media, what would that look like? Would we be willing to lose the fireplace, the billiards, and the windows? Does the ceiling have to come down? But is that even necessary? What about those pivoting and invisible speakers, or a bigger screen over the fireplace, and doesn’t that room-correction system fix the acoustics? While these devices are available and even advisable for great-room applications, do not be deceived. There is a discernible and measurable difference between the entertainment experience in a multi-purpose room that includes the aforementioned compromises and that of a performance-engineered room that is not compromised, whether that room is called a cinema, theater, or media room.
All of these rooms serve a purpose. More important, though, is the question of whether the room we design serves the right purpose. The pathway to success is not labels but thoughtful, objective design, scientifically valid acoustical engineering, meticulous engineering of systems, mechanical, and ergonomics, quality assurance, and professional-quality workmanship.The key that will unlock that pathway is communication. If the audience is not aware of the difference, and more importantly, the value of that difference and the impact it will have in their lives, the audience will not listen. However, like Monet’s Water Lilies, once experienced, there is no acceptable substitute for the real thing in the right setting. We should accept no less.
Sam Cavitt is the founder & president of Paradise Theater in Kihei, HI and Carlsbad, CA.
Sam hails from Maui, where he can be found surfing, sailing, drumming, and paddling
when he is not designing.