What Makes a Projection Screen Luxury?
The natural followup to my post “What Makes a Video Display Luxury?” is to talk about projection screens. There is a reason why projection systems—whether front or rear—are often referred to as “two-piece,” because the projector and screen play near equal roles in delivering the best image quality possible.
Fact is, no matter how fantastic your projector is, the image you‘re watching is reflected off of a screen, and an inferior one will rob a projector of its maximum performance potential by actually introducing artifacts or color shifts to the image or by just not delivering all the detail and resolution the projector is capable of.
For some assistance with this, I reached out to Robert Keeler, Vice President of Sales at Stewart Filmscreen. Stewart has been building high-performance screens for the luxury commercial, professional, and home cinema markets for the past 71 years, and is widely regarded as a leader in the premium screen category.
BETTER BUILD QUALITY
Like any premium product, a luxury screen will exhibit better build quality. This means frame corners that meet perfectly and screen material that’s tensioned to remain perfectly flat. A fixed screen (as opposed to a motorized model that rolls up and down) will have a velvet-like coating around the frame to absorb stray light and enhance contrast, and motorized models use quieter motors. And, since the screen is the most visible part of most theater systems, it’s important to have one that looks good whether the lights are on or off.
While not part of build quality per se, luxury screen systems also offer more ways to interface with advanced control systems, say either via contact closures, relays,
infra-red, RS-232, or IP. This ensures that the screen can accept the correct cues from, say, a Kaleidescape system when you’re switching between movies that have different aspect ratios.
Speaking of aspect ratios, the best luxury projection screens incorporate masking, which is black material that closes off, or “masks,” the unused screen area so just the projected image is visible. This eliminates any distracting white space around the image.
According to Robert Keeler, “The majority of [TV and projection] screens sold are 1.78 to 1, 16 by 9 aspect ratio, so we are used to seeing black bars either on the top and bottom or the sides of the image depending on the content aspect ratio. As good as projectors are getting, they are still widely based on a 16 by 9 chipset, so content with any aspect ratio other than 16 by 9 will have visible black bars showing.”
With front projectors, these black bars aren’t truly black because the projector is emitting some stray light. This ends up lowering the contrast ratio of the image. So having masking to cover these unused parts of the image visibly improves the picture quality.
But, aspect ratios can be tricky, since filmmakers choose different ratios based on the look they’re hoping to achieve. (See the diagram below.) For example, older films like The Maltese Falcon or Casablanca are 1.33:1, many documentaries like Free Solo are 1.78:1, some directors prefer using 1.85:1 such as Spielberg for Saving Private Ryan, E.T., and Jurassic Park, and you have “widescreen” films like Lawrence of Arabia at 2.2:1, Star Wars at 2.35:1, Bohemian Rhapsody at 2.4:1, and Ben Hur at 2.76:1.
The ultimate solution is a system that can adjust all four sides of the screen image, like Stewart Filmscreen’s Director’s Choice, which uses a 4-way masking system.“This is the epitome of Hollywood,” Keeler says, “with the ability to frame the content so the black bars are invisible and only the content is being shown, whatever the aspect ratio.”
Choosing the correct screen material is about more than just its color. Screens use something called gain, which can increase or decrease the amount of light coming off the screen, but can also limit the viewing angle. Also, screens with high amounts of gain can introduce artifacts known as “hotspotting,” where images are brighter in the middle of the screen than at the sides, and “color shifting,” where colors can look different depending on where the viewer is seated. Discussing your media room needs based on its size, seating layout, and lighting conditions with a qualified installer will allow them to guide you in selecting the correct screen material for your installation.
“With more than 25 material choices, Stewart Filmscreen can offer end users the right material for the task at hand, rear projection and front projection alike,” Keeler said. “While some may choose not to go with the ultimate cinematic experience, they can at least purchase the very same screen material used by Hollywood directors, post-production departments, colorists, studios, etc.”
DIFFERENT SCREENS FOR DIFFERENT CONDITIONS
Say you have a room you use for a variety of activities. Maybe for a lot of gaming or TV watching during the day, but mostly for movie watching at night. Or maybe sometimes you like to watch with the lights up, and other times you want it pitch black. A screen that works best for one of these situations might not be right for the other. One incredibly innovative solution for this is Stewart’s Gemini.
“Gemini [shown above] is a unique product that addresses a varied usage model,” Keeler explains. “While masking screens exist to accommodate a variety of aspect ratios, Gemini addresses the variety of usage model. Watching movies [usually] suggests a completely light controlled environment and the content is often in Cinemascope, 2:35 to 2:4. Whereas watching TV suggests the lights are on and the content is 1.78, 16 by 9. The screen material choice for one activity is likely the wrong choice for the other activity. With that in mind, Gemini is a dual-roller motorized screen that deploys a reference-grade material for movies, and an ambient-light-rejecting material when watching TV, giving viewers the best performance whatever the situation.”
Another potential benefit of a luxury screen is using a material that’s acoustically transparent. Initially acoustically transparent screens used lots of tiny perforations to allow sound to pass through, but all of these holes allowed the projector’s light to pass through as well, resulting in a loss of brightness. Also, the holes would actually interact with the pixel structure of the projector and introduce a video artifact known as moiré.
While perforation technology has advanced to address these issues, another option pioneered by screen manufacturer Screen Research is to use woven material that allows sound to pass through without being degraded by the screen. Kind of like a special-purpose speaker grille cloth, these screens let you position your main three front speaker channels directly behind the screen just like at a movie theater. The benefits of this are twofold. First, you don’t have to worry about the speaker’s look or style impacting the overall look of the room, which can allow the installer to use a larger/better speaker that otherwise wouldn’t fit with the room’s décor. Second, with the speakers located behind the screen, the audio cues precisely track the onscreen action, perfectly marrying the picture and sound.
To wrap up, Keeler commented, “There is some science behind integrating the projector and the screen along with the room and viewing habits, and a luxury brand should be able to not only help with selecting appropriate screen size and material choices, but be well versed in other aspects of the project such as audio and video, and the rest of the package and maintain relationships with all sorts of ancillary brands to support the Big Screen Experience.”
Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at
@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.