Michael Gaughn Tag

Review: The Killing

The Killing (1956)

The staging is often stilted, the acting often laughably bad when it’s not just mismanaged, it’s a concatenation of crime-drama clichés that leans almost to the breaking point on John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle, the whole punctuated by pretentious, even silly, compositions and tracking shots that convey nothing, and yet Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing is one of the seminal works of American filmmaking, poised right on the pivot into what would become, for better or worse, the modern era of the 

movies. This is Kubrick’s first real feature, and he freely admitted that, in that time before film schools, he still had his training wheels on—and it shows. But, determined not to be a studio hack, aiming to be the first true independent within the studio system, he pushes the boundaries throughout. The results might be ludicrously mixed, but they’re a damn sight more interesting than what almost any other director was doing at that time, and their implications were, in retrospect, huge.

 

Critics did dismiss The Killing as a low-budget Asphalt Jungle knockoff—an accusation that was true as far as it went. And Kubrick might have seen himself as more of a Hustonian director at that point (although his affinity lay more with The Treasure of the Sierra Madre), but as he hit his stride as a filmmaker, it became obvious that if you created a Venn diagram of the two directors, any common 

THE KILLING AT A GLANCE

Kubrick’s first real feature is a bit of a mess—it’s also one of the seminal works in American film.  

 

PICTURE
Lots of grain, lots of noise—but not so much to make it unwatchable, and with enough clarity to allow you to appreciate Kubrick’s photojournalistic roots.

 

SOUND     

Oddly uneven dialogue levels that would be worth fixing if the film ever makes it to 4K.

ground between them would be minimal, and suspect. The more plausible explanation is that, in a bid to be palatable to the system, Kubrick donned a Huston disguise and used it as a Trojan horse to insinuate himself with the studio elders.

 

I can’t begin to do the film justice in this short review, just point out some things that might make the experience more interesting if you decide to revisit it—beginning with the fact that, while Jungle was a character-study-driven crime drama that was also about process, Kubrick decisively shifted that emphasis, not unsympathetically showing that his characters were pawns of much larger forces—not metaphysical but post-war societal ones defined by increasing dehumanization (a 

viewpoint well captured in the many meanings of the title—all but one of which is lost on contemporary viewers, with their blinkered fixation on bloodshed).

 

While Kubrick wanted to garner the largest possible audience, he had no interest in feeding them A-list pablum. He instead drew from the fertile muck of the B- (and often C-) movie world—a vital perspective on his work that’s rarely (actually, as far as I know, never been) explored. In many ways, his movies owe far more to Ed Wood and Burt I. Gordon than to William Wyler or Cecil B. DeMille. Just consider the recurring presence of actors like Timothy Carey and Joe Turkel or those godawful Gerald Fried scores (with Fried joined at the hip to the equally obstreperous Albert Glasser). And while it wasn’t deliberately placed there for the production, it’s not just pure chance that a poster for “Lenny Bruce and His All Girl Review” can be glimpsed on a seedy downtown LA wall when Sterling Hayden goes to buy a pawn-shop suitcase for hiding the loot. In a sense, Kubrick always showed an affinity with Bataille, constantly reminding us of the fetid underbelly that was essential to creating the Hollywood sheen—and driving the American engine.

 

And then there’s Jim Thompson, the roman noir King of the American Underbelly, whose work went through a very much lauded revival thanks to a seemingly endless string of film adaptations from the 1990s into the new millennium. Accepted wisdom has it that moviemaking wasn’t equal to Thompson’s material at the time he was an active writer. The truth is that none of those recent adaptations are worth the spit it took to make them. None of them grasped

Thompson but just pushed the more lurid elements for all they were worth. If you want to know his work, read his books—or watch The Killing or Paths of Glory. Or The Shining.

 

True, Kubrick didn’t know what to do with what Thompson was handing him—the scenes between Marie Windsor and Elisha Cook Jr. were great on paper but beyond what Kubrick was then capable of as a director. But they’re still meaningful, and amusing in ways that go beyond their status as kitsch, because they make it clear that Cook’s put-upon George Peatty is very much the heart and fulcrum of the film (which you would never know by looking at Kaleidescape’s cast list, where his name is oddly omitted.) 

 

There’s also Lucien Ballard, who’s a bit of a curious case. Known for shooting Three Stooges shorts, he lensed for Kubrick here with mixed but sometimes inspired results, then went on to do both Blake Edwards’ The Party and Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch—which officially qualifies him as a kind of subversive chameleon. The Blu-ray-quality transfer of The Killing—like the hit-and-miss 4K one for Dr. Strangelove—helps highlight the huge impact Kubrick’s photojournalistic work had on his films—something that was a lot harder to discern in earlier, lower-res releases. That documentary aesthetic lends an authentic grit to

the action that more polished studio noir could never capture.

 

Brace yourself for a lot of grain, along with a lot of digital noise, but The Killing is definitely viewable on a big screen, and it’s worth making the effort for the shots where those forces aren’t as much in play, such as the many tight shots, a lot of them—like most of the closeups of Sterling Hayden and those key exchanges between Cook and Windsor—quite striking. (As with most older films, the opening titles are overly enhanced. When is somebody going to figure out how to make those stop looking like bad student video and more like film?)

 

Not much to be said about the audio, except that nothing can really be done to ameliorate the impact of Fried’s clangorous blaring except to scrub it from the film completely. I noticed on this viewing, though, that there were big disparities in the levels of the actors’ voices, which I’m sure is a baked-in problem but one someone should address if this ever makes it to 4K.

 

I don’t mean to dump too hard on The Killing, but it’s in no sense a great film—but it is an infinitely intriguing one, with moments of undeniably bold camerawork, editing, design, sound, and acting that still hold up. And of course there are all those early indications of the filmmaker Kubrick would eventually be. Maybe what 

The Killing (1956)

most redeems the movie is that you can sense him trying to claw his way above all the then-current melodramatic and romantic clichés in an effort to find higher, more authentic ground. (The contemporary equivalent would be trying to make a film that’s not hopelessly fouled by adolescent fantasy and its attendant fascist notions of power.) He would continue that parlous ascent all the way through Paths of Glory and Lolita, with decidedly mixed results, before emerging a master artist with Strangelove. (Even Kubrick freely admitted that Spartacus doesn’t count.)

 

You don’t have to be a Kubrick—or Jim Thompson or Sterling Hayden—fan to enjoy The Killing. But you do have to leave most of the current cultural biases at the door—and there are so many of them—to even begin to appreciate it. It’s not mindless entertainment, a diversion—it’s a movie.

Michael Gaughn

Michael GaughnThe Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo ReviewSound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtable, marketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Review: Schmigadoon!

Schmigadoon! (2021)

I need to get a couple of formalities out of the way up front. I’d assumed I’d be able to binge this series and review the whole thing, but only the first two episodes were available upon launch. I’m not a fan of reviewing works in progress but I’d already put the time aside to write this up, so I’m going to give it a shot anyway.

 

Second, I’ve known Schmigadoon! director/executive producer Barry Sonnenfeld for a while and have interviewed him a number of times, including in these pages. That has in no way inflected this review. Oddly, and fortunately, once a movie or episode begins, the experience takes over completely and I’m able to consider it on its own terms. Anything I might have 

heard about it or any outside influences become irrelevant. That’s no great skill or anything—it just is.

 

Some series telegraph exactly where they’re going straight out of the gate and subsequent episodes become minor variations on what was laid down at the beginning. That’s not the case here, so my comments will very much pertain to just the first two episodes, along with some likely misguided speculation (i.e., blind guessing) about where the show will go from there.

 

It’s good Apple has two episodes out there at the start because if they’d launched with just the first one, the show would likely be in serious trouble. I realize that in a culture that’s given over its creative soul to fantasy, anything resembling plausibility is strictly optional, and even a sin, but given that this is supposed to be a series about relationships, it would have helped a lot if there had been 

SCHMIGADOON! AT A GLANCE

The jury is still very much out just two episodes into Barry Sonnenfeld’s deliberately pared-down take on classic movie musicals. 

 

PICTURE
The 4K/Dolby Vision presentation is (with the exception of a couple of soft frames) sharp and vivid throughout.

 

SOUND     

The Atmos mix is surprisingly tight and upfront, lacking the expansiveness you usually associate with big production numbers.

more of an effort to develop the core relationship and show how it necessitated the transition to a fantasy world.

 

But there’s a bigger problem: The dominant lead, Cecily Strong, is just unpleasant, both as a character and as a presence. I’ll readily acknowledge that, in her brattiness, she well represents some kind of current cultural ideal, but that doesn’t mean I necessarily want to go along for the ride. The idea of enduring her throughout a six-episode run is right up there with preparing my taxes as an inherently odious task. But I’m only two episodes in, so hopefully things will somehow get more interesting or in some other way improve—but I doubt anything will much change with her voice, which is a constant reminder that I need to get someone to come look at my garbage disposal.

 

It doesn’t help that her partner, Keegan-Michael Key, is as insubstantial as a wraith. He works hard to try to manifest himself but—so far—hasn’t been able to make much of an impression. It’s hard to have a show about relationships when half of the pair is barely there—but I have to wonder if, on some level, that wasn’t intentional. O, and I don’t believe for a second that either he or Strong are doctors. If you should ever find yourself with a physician as fundamentally immature as either of 

these two, it’s time to turn to prayer.

 

That’s not to say there’s no benefit to watching Episode One. There’s something fundamentally appealing about finding yourself lost in a world based on classic movie musicals, and the production numbers have an inherent verve and charm, even if some of them feel a little forced. And there’s a certain fascination to the overall approach to the production (about which I’ll have more to say below).

 

And even if you have to shield your eyes in the presence of the leads, focusing on some of the standouts in the supporting cast—in particular, Aaron Tveit as the town bad 

boy, Alan Cumming as the perpetually popular mayor, and Kristin Chenoweth as the scolding preacher’s wife—helps make the ride more enjoyable.

 

But Schmigadoon! doesn’t really begin to get interesting until early into Episode Two, when the ensemble breaks into “Lover’s Spat,” the first genuinely satisfying moment in the series and the first indication the hands at the levers might be able to steer the show someplace intriguing. It’s engagingly staged while bringing some new twists to the movie-musical conventions, and manages to strike the right balance with the somewhat treacherous equation that lies at the heart of the series without ultimately coming down on one side or the other.

 

About that equation: It seems possible the whole relationship thing is little more than a pretext for wading into the quagmire of the culture wars and, if true, there’s a chance Schmigadoon! could end up being bolder than it appears at first blush, and could ultimately redeem itself. The series places two moral systems in opposition: An archaic one, associated with movie musicals and rooted in a sense of community, and a more contemporary one that eschews community in favor of the individual. 

 

Putatively framed as a present-versus-fantasy-world-based-in-the-past thing makes the whole exercise seem pretty anodyne, but stand just off to one side and squint a little and it’s not hard to see it as what happens when smug urbanites happen to wander beyond the castle walls and go out into the countryside to mingle with the peasants. There’s so much I could say about that but I’m really biding my time and hoping the series has the courage to mix things up a little and show some understanding of those forgotten parts of the country and doesn’t become yet another exercise in coastal elitism (like, say, Space Force), just adding another echo to a chamber already deafening with noise.  

 

Maybe the most interesting thing about the production, though, is its claustrophobia. You expect a movie musical to feel big and lavish, but Schmigadoon! feels intimate, even squeezed, with no effort made to hide the scaled-down nature of the main set (or of the town’s populace) and with the dancers forced right up against the edges of the frame, with barely an inch of room to spare. Part of this is an extension of the aesthetic Sonnenfeld explored through his Series of Unfortunate Events for Netflix, shooting the whole series on a soundstage and deliberately emphasizing its staginess, which made it feel like a throwback to early cinema—as in really early cinema—giving it a Black Maria/Victorian feel. Deployed here, it makes the action seem constricted, like it’s all playing out inside a Cornell box. Again, it’s too early in the series to know if this will pay off, but it’s undeniably intriguing. 

 

So far, I haven’t been real happy with how that approach has been translated into the audio mix, where all of the voices are tightly focused and upfront, with none of the sense of space you’d expect with ensemble numbers. But it’s a strategy that may yet justify its existence. 

 

There are some surprising choices with the color palette as well. You expect Technicolor—what you get is a kind of candy striping, with pumped-up whites (of all things), which, again, makes this feel way more Victorian than Studio Era. (The 4K/Dolby Vision presentation, with the surprising exception of a couple of soft frames, is sharp and vivid throughout, although there have been a few moments that seemed a tad too video-like.)

 

Sorry to have hedged so many of my bets, but it’s impossible (or at least irresponsible) to say anything definitive based on incomplete information. Schmigadoon! is worth a look—it’s diverting enough and may yet morph into something more substantial. But at this point, your guess at where it’s going to land is as good as mine.

Michael Gaughn

Michael GaughnThe Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Home Theater’s Second Golden Age

Home Theater's Second Golden Age

There might be nothing to anything I have to say here. It’s all based on anecdote and speculation. The data might not ultimately bear me out. But, based on what I’ve heard from some of the top designers, it would seem that home theaters—or home cinemas or private cinemas or private theaters or whatever you want to call them—are going through something that could very well be considered a renaissance. 

 

Since this is more a rumination than a report, and since nobody has a better view of this particular part of the home-entertainment world than Theo Kalomirakis, I’m going to use his experiences of the past few years as my leaping-off point, and as representative of what I’ve been hearing from other, similar corners.

 

As the ’08 Recession took hold, Theo saw requests for luxury theaters decline dramatically, a trend that persisted for the next few years before settling into a kind of steady state. It was such a tremendous change from home theater’s Golden Age in 

the ‘90s that he began to wonder if dedicated theater rooms were going to fall completely out of favor, to be replaced by multi-use interlopers like media rooms and great rooms.

 

Then came the pandemic, which bore curveballs for pretty much every aspect of society, of course, but held some huge surprises in reserve for luxury home entertainment. As the enormity of the crisis sank in and it became clear things would stay dire for the foreseeable future, most people assumed we would all be hunkered down for the duration, personally, socially, economically, and culturally. But a few months in, I started hearing the same refrain from top-tier designers and integrators: Business was booming.

 

Forced to focus on a single residence, unable to enjoy entertainment anywhere but at home, and with some unexpected time available to contemplate their domestic priorities, many of their affluent clients were suddenly feeling the need for a movie-watching space that was not only completely up to date but also provided a refuge from both the increased activity in the rest of the home and from the outside world. A media room or great room, no matter 

how lavish, just wasn’t going to cut it. The desire for versatility had been trumped by the need for both escape and focus. An open-plan room meant to serve a variety of masters just can’t address those fundamental needs, no matter how well designed and constructed.

 

Based on the number of commissions the best of the best have been receiving recently, the evidence is mounting that home theaters are entering some kind of second golden age. But these new rooms aren’t just retreads of their movie-palace forebears but tend to embrace a more contemporary aesthetic, are much higher performance, and tend to be more accommodating to uses beyond movie-watching but without in any way compromising that defining experience.

 

As encouraging as all this is, my guess—and it’s just a guess—is that this phenomena will continue to play out almost exclusively at the very top of the market. Better and bigger (and cheaper) video displays and far better soundbars and streaming sources have made it easier for most people to settle for good enough in spaces that would need some serious work before they could even begin to approach great. For the broader market, where expediency rules, media rooms tend to make more sense. And, to be honest, the experience most of these people are having just isn’t that bad compared to what they were getting for the same money just five to seven years ago.

 

Maybe there isn’t a new golden age emerging. Maybe this is just a blip, an anomaly that ultimately signifies nothing. But it doesn’t feel that way; it feels like the core idea of a dedicated theater room still has legs and has returned to run another day by deriving strength from some completely unexpected places. If that’s true, it’s cause for celebration because it’s a chance to reinforce the singular importance of movies at a time when they’re in very real danger of becoming just another form of entertainment.

Michael Gaughn

Michael GaughnThe Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Review: Broadway Danny Rose

Broadway Danny Rose (1984)

Indulge me for a moment while I begin with a digression. I had been surveying Woody Allen’s films on Kaleidescape because its recent acquisition of the MGM/UA catalog had seriously upped the number of Allen titles on the service. But what had been a steady stream has recently trailed off to a trickle, and two of his most crucial efforts—Broadway Danny Rose and Zelig—have stubbornly refused to appear. Wanting to wrap up my perusal, which was always meant to be a prelude to writing an

appreciation of Allen, I turned, really, really reluctantly, to Amazon to bail me out.

 

To be blunt, HD movies streamed on Amazon tend to suck—bad. And when I watched Danny Rose on there a few months back when I’d first been toying with a review, the quality was so awful I couldn’t bring myself to write it up. But something has changed. I don’t know what it is, and I’m curious to hear if anyone has an explanation, but the HD movies I’ve watched on Amazon recently have looked pretty damn good. To deliberately mix things up, I watched a black & white film from the ‘40s (Murder, My Sweet) and a color film from the early ‘90s (The Fisher King) just to make sure this wasn’t a fluke. And while I haven’t yet dived deep enough to know anything definitively, it looks like Amazon might have finally gotten its HD act together.

 

Which means I can finally review Broadway Danny Rose without having to liberally sprinkle the text with caveats and

DANNY ROSE AT A GLANCE

Woody Allen’s droll, affectionate tale of treachery in the world of small-time show biz ranks among his best work.

 

PICTURE

Still far from reference quality, the Amazon Prime HD presentation is a surprising step up from how Amazon was delivering HD content just a couple of months ago. 

 

SOUND     

Once again, we’re talking about a Woody Allen film. The sound is content to adequately serve the dialogue and music and leave it at that.

apologies. Rose is undeniably one of Allen’s best films—which doesn’t mean it doesn’t have problems. It does. A lot of them. But the fundamental impulse behind it is so strong and so brilliantly realized that the many fumbles actually, somehow, enhance the experience.

 

For instance, the yarn at the center of the film is supposed to be set in the early ‘70s, but Allen shot it in mid-‘80s New York without changing a thing. Everybody drives those godawful 1980s cars, wears those godawful 1980s cloths, etc. There’s even

one shot that prominently features a marquee for the very un-‘70s Halloween III.

 

And it’s implausible that Allen’s character would pick somebody up in the early afternoon for an eight o’clock performance at the Waldorf Astoria, but he deploys just enough smoke and mirrors to keep you from focusing on something that could have easily sunk a lesser film. Equally implausible is Sandy Baron’s telling of the story that provides the movie’s frame, which veers from feeling like a raconteur’s show-biz tall tale to sounding like he’s reading from a Mailer novel.

 

And yet the movie somehow transcends all that—probably because its love for the sausage-making of show business is so obvious and runs so deep that it’s infectious, and you don’t really care how the story is told as long as it stays true to the roots—which it does.

 

This is probably Mia Farrow’s best performance in an Allen film—probably because she’s not allowed to get lazy and just play Mia Farrow again but actually has to develop a character; and not just a character but an against-type comic character that could have easily tumbled into jokey caricature if she hadn’t displayed enough discipline.

 

Allen isn’t quite as successful playing Rose—which became the basis for the annoying pipsqueaks he later leaned on in films like Small-Time Crooks, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Hollywood Ending, and Scoop. But he maintains a firm enough hold on Rose’s basic enthusiasm and decency, and blind devotion to the business, that you’re willing to roll with the shortcomings. Similarly, Nick Apollo Forte is just able to hold together the Lou Canova/Tony Bennett character, but it works partly because Canova is supposed to be something of a delusional dope—a level of acting Forte is easily capable of achieving.

 

Broadway Danny Rose is a yarn, a tall tale, a fable. Given that, it could have easily gone too broad. But Allen keeps it focused on the characters and not the action, and the film works best when he lets these slightly larger-than-life people just be people, when he gets beyond the backstage gossip to something that feels like what it must be like to be trying to get by in a business whose only meaningful yardstick is stupid levels of success.

 

Gordon Willis’s black & white cinematography goes a long way toward selling the film. Color, no matter how restrained, would have felt too big, too current. The black & white images help to place it someplace other—a kind of subsistence-level show-biz netherworld that, at the end of the day, is still better than having to hustle aluminum siding and storm doors and offers a hell of a lot more chances to brush up against greatness—illusory or otherwise.

 

In a lot of ways, Rose resembles Barry Sonnenfeld’s Get Shorty—another puckish fairy tale about the necessary muck of show biz that exists below—sometimes just below—all the glamor and pumped-up success. Both films capture the inevitable desperation, but both also make it clear why the denizens gladly inhabit these worlds instead of settling into a nice, quiet place in the suburbs.

 

Coming off the success—commercial and creative—of Annie Hall and Manhattan, Allen could have spent the ‘80s churning out archetypal Woody Allen films but instead used that decade to try on new clothes, seeing what, if anything, would fit; and it yielded some stunning achievements and 

some noble failures, but few efforts that weren’t worth the audience’s time. But as his inspiration started to fail, it left him with little to lean on as he approached the turn of the century. Rose was about the last time he was able to take a modest premise, keep the proportions right, and yet have the material yield something completely satisfying.

 

His most charming, and deeply felt, miniature, Rose is a kind of valentine to the part of the business no one gets to see, and a reminder that it is a business. No one but a long-time insider, and an eager collector of the lore, could have told the tale this neatly or compellingly. The best Allen films are the ones where you feel like you’ve been granted temporary access to a world just off to one side of the tedious, grinding norm, and Danny Rose offers that glimpse with wry writ, telling insight, and an endearing affection.

Michael Gaughn

Michael GaughnThe Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Working with the Best, Pt. 3: Steve Haas

Working with the Best, Pt. 3: Steve Haas

Mention acoustics, and most people think of concert halls. Some, but not a lot, might also think of home theaters and listening rooms. The number of people who realize the importance for proper acoustics in domestic spaces beyond entertainment rooms is so small it barely exists.

 

But the number who are aware of noise, both inside and outside the home, is of course huge. Most people would love to tame those disturbances if they could, but don’t realize they can. That’s where Steve Haas comes in.

 

Top designers, architects, builders, and integrators, and wealthy individuals turn to his company SH Acoustics to make both performance and everyday spaces sound great and keep irritating noises at bay. Steve’s work includes well-known museums, concert halls, and other commercial spaces around the world, and he has designed the acoustics for some of Theo Kalomirakis’s most famous private theaters.

 

In the interview that follows, Steve discusses how he brought his early experiences in the commercial world to bear on his work in luxury residential environments, how high-end home-entertainment spaces have expanded beyond private theaters to live performance and jamming, and the importance of proper acoustics and noise mitigation throughout the home. 

—M.G.

(The text below is an abridged version of the podcast,
which you can hear using the player above.)

Would you consider your official title “acoustic designer”?

Depends on what day of the week it is. “Acoustic designer,” “acoustical consultant,” “acoustician”—it’s interchangeable.

 

While you began your residential career working on home theaters and other entertainment spaces, you actually operate under a much broader umbrella, right?

That is true. We’re brought into so many different types of spaces, inside and outside the home, that home theaters are obviously very important for us but we don’t just focus on them exclusively by any means.

 

Talk a little about how you evolved beyond those traditional entertainment spaces.

Well, it goes a little farther back than my residential experience because for 14 years I was part of an organization that did major commercial spaces—everything from concert halls to opera houses to Broadway theaters to houses of worship. Museums, especially. 

 

I fell into the world of residential by accident. A contractor simply called my office and said they were putting a home theater for I think it was the producer of Barbara Walters in an old historic barn—in the town I now live in, in Weston, Connecticut, ironically. So I just took it on on my own, in the outside hours, and found all these interesting challenges in the world of residential that I had no idea about. 

 

Even with everything I was doing in the commercial world, I quickly saw that dealing with this type of construction, and especially these types of clients—homeowners who wanted to spend a lot of time in this particular type of environment, an entertainment space, a home theater—very different from dealing with a symphony orchestra or the leaders of a big church or a museum director. I had to quickly decide if this was something that interested me and then realize what I had to do to change my mentality coming into this world if I wanted to continue with it, which I did.

 

It wasn’t long before homeowners started asking me, “OK, what can you do in my bedroom to quiet noise?” or “I have a lot of street noise coming into my house even though I live in a suburban environment. There are landscape trucks running up and down at 7 a.m. I don’t want to hear all that.” So, utilizing the skills and experiences I had in all these commercial environments, I realized there’s a lot more to addressing sound quality, sound control, than just in the home theaters.

Working with the Best, Pt. 3: Steve Haas
How much of this was a natural evolution from your commercial work?

To name-drop a bit, I had over-the-top experiences working on Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall [shown above] and Jazz at Lincoln Center’s new facility, where we had to isolate entire buildings on giant rubber blocks to keep subway vibrations from going up into the major performance spaces. That’s a tall task that we conquered, but it shows that bringing this type of experience to very challenging residential environments was a natural course of evolution beyond just thinking about the sound of a home theater or a media room inside the space. We were able to take those broad experiences in the commercial world with isolation or HVAC or electrical or plumbing noise and bring them to the level they needed to be in home environments.

 

The infrastructure in homes is evolving more in the direction of commercial spaces, with the increased sophistication of technology and with more people working from home, so I would imagine that’s another opportunity to tap into your early career.

It absolutely is. We have two major projects right now, one in Texas and one in Long Island, where the clients own commercial contracting companies that are building their homes out of concrete, steel beams, and all-metal framing. Having that commercial background, we’re no stranger to what we need to think about differently than your typical wood-frame, wood-joist construction. It’s a plus to not have to be concerned at all about the different mentalities and to be able to instruct my team of engineers on how to flip the switch on their thinking for these types of homes.

 

What impact did your background in live performance have on your interest in acoustics and how you approach your work?

Thanks to my grandfather, who was both a concert pianist and a violinist in some major orchestras both in Europe and the U.S., including the Cleveland Orchestra, I got a good start at age 7 playing piano. I took that as far as I could into a lot of different types of music such as musical theater and other types of groups and clubs. And then when I got to college, I was in 

bands and had a lot of fun. Even though I didn’t play out for many years as I was focusing on my career in the beginning, I always had the opportunity to go to a job site, whether it was a concert hall, school of music, or any other type of place where they had a piano, and just be able to play in some amazing spaces—when no one was around, of course. These days, I’ve really gotten back into performing live for people and doing live sound as well.

 

Having these talents and passions has been instrumental in advocating having spaces for live music in people’s homes, whether it’s for CEOs by day and closet guitarists by night jamming in a pretty awesome room or their kids learning to play their instruments and wanting the best-sounding environments. Or maybe bringing in Elton John or Lady Gaga for a million dollars to do their daughter’s bat mitzvah or wedding anniversary or something. It’s been so much joy and excitement to be part of creating these live music spaces throughout homes all around the world.

 

How did you cross paths with Theo Kalomirakis?

By accident. The first time I tried to cross paths was at a CEDIA book signing, but I stood in a long line and he ran out of books before I got to the front of the line, so I didn’t get to meet him. But I had been following all the great work he was doing and was fascinated by it, so I reached out, being local in the New York City area, and just made the call. And it was a fortuitous one because we’ve been working together very closely ever since.

 

I just had the right mentality coming into it from having worked with signature architects and designers on concert halls and theaters. I knew how to respect everything they were doing and how to get them to respect our side of the equation as well. You cannot tell someone like a Hugh Hardy how to design a Broadway theater aesthetically, because they would never bring you back. So I learned at a very early part of my career how to play that relationship very strongly. And it just worked with Theo. He was very open to that kind of approach, and it’s just been a great relationship all these years.

 

When I interviewed both of you about the Paradiso about a year ago, we talked about how the home theater had a live performance aspect as well. But you were brought in after everything was originally designed, right?

Yes. We changed a number of things to make it more optimized not just for cinematic use but for live music. We 

installed my Concertino system, which is basically electronic architecture to recreate sounds of different acoustic spaces. You press a button and it sounds like you’re in Carnegie Hall, but when you turn it off, you’re in a very dry, calm space.

 

But live music can happen in various ways, and that’s just one way to create a live space for jamming. For the big Texas project, we have about three or four different music performance and jamming areas—like a guitar jam room—right in the room, and it’s going to be awesome what they want to do with it.

 

Most home theaters aren’t very conducive to live performance. You can have people stand in there and play but it’s going to be far from optimal.

Most home theaters are on the drier side, acoustically—hopefully not too dead. Not too live, either, but you can have a good conversation in there. And so for certain types of music—amplified, for instance—it works OK. But you need a very different method of playback. You can’t use a home theater audio system, which would essentially be behind the performer, and if you had microphones, they would feed back tremendously. You need to think about what you need to augment the cinematic experience for live music.

 

And that goes beyond the sound to things like lighting. People don’t think about the fact that you have a screen producing a lot of light from the projector but you don’t have any light for a performer up there. We’re not lighting designers, but I know enough to be dangerous, as they say, so we know the basics of what you need to get good front and overhead lighting for even kids performing karaoke at the front of the room.

Steve’s residential work has included the acoustical engineering for many of Theo Kalomirakis’s theaters

It’s really about thinking through the aspects that make or break the multi-use function of these rooms. Again, I take that from my experiences with big multi-use theaters in the commercial world, about what we had to do to completely transform rooms from live acoustic symphonic music to Broadway-style shows in a few hours or a day, with the technical crew moving orchestral shells in and out, and so forth. You obviously scale that down for somebody’s private theater but it’s the same kind of thing. 

 

You want to make it simple, and the Paradiso was a great example of that. You could go to the iPad, press Concert mode—or Concertino mode, in our case—and so many things happened in the background to turn off the cinema system and turn on the live-music system and put the lights in the right positions and so on. You don’t want the client to worry about everything that’s happening in the background. You just want them to press that button and go from one mode to the other.

 

Given the diverse number of things you do, is there a typical project you’re brought in for on the domestic side or does it tend to be various different things?

Absolutely various things. Certainly theaters are always a lead-in because the AV integrators have those on the forefront of their minds to bring us into the projects, but it quickly expands beyond there. It’s everything from the theater to maybe a jam room to isolating a bedroom from street noise or outdoor equipment noise or a neighbor who has a barking dog or a band that the kids are playing in. It’s amazing, during COVID especially, the amount of awareness people have now of outdoor sound environments and how they impact their homes, especially when they’re working from home. 

 

Because what you do is somewhat specialized, do clients approach you directly or are you primarily brought in through another party like an integrator?

All of the above. We get our fair share from integrators but we have a lot of great architect and interior-designer relationships, mechanical engineer relationships, contractors, and then of course the clients. We’ve built a good network over as many years as I’ve been doing this, and so one client talks to the other, and that’s how it happens.

 

How much of your first meeting with a client is education? Does the groundwork tend to be laid by whoever brought you in or do you have to explain exactly what you do and what you can do for them?

It depends on the client—and I’m sure our integrator friends can relate to this. Some clients want to know every detail; others say, “Give me the best, and call me when it’s done, and I’ll write you the checks.”

Working with the Best, Pt. 3: Steve Haas

right: workmen apply fabric acoustic treatments to the
ceiling of the private
ballroom shown above.

Working with the Best, Pt. 3: Steve Haas

We love educating our clients—especially because so much of sound is subjective. Two people don’t think about sound in the home in the same way, including married couples. We’ve had husbands and wives get very heated with each other when talking about what does and doesn’t concern them when it comes to sound. 

 

We had one home in Park City, Utah where the architect was pretty much done with the design, and things were getting built and duct work was being fabricated, and we discovered that the mechanical systems—all 31 of them—were being built like jet engines because of special filtration needs. The house would have sounded like a factory. And the wife literally stood up and shouted, “We are so sensitive to noise, and my three kids are too!” and the husband was just shaking his head, like “Why didn’t I know?” We barely got in, put the project on hold, and quickly rectified all that so they could continue the process, and we managed to create a very quiet home. But just by the skin of our teeth because another month and it would have been way too late. It would have been an ugly situation because nobody paid attention to noise in a home where the wife and the three children were extremely sensitive, because nobody asked the question.

 

Who drops the ball in a situation like that? Who has to have that initial conversation and educate them about the need for this?

Yeah, well—who’s listening to this? In some respect, the clients need to do their own research. If they are sensitive to noise, they need to bring that to their architect and designers first and foremost. But even if they don’t, we often educate the architects in how to ask in how to ask the right questions. And sometimes we even prepare an assessment of the early design of a new home or renovation that brings out all the potential issues, from a containment and quality of sound perspective,

and then let the client decide what’s important to them and to what degree.

 

It’s important to have this up front so the whole team goes into it knowing, “Here are the things we’re going to address, and here are the things we just don’t care about,” so it doesn’t come back to bite anyone. The clients don’t want to move into a beautiful new home and all of a sudden they’re saying, “We’re hearing the kids running upstairs and every time they drop a toy or something, it sounds like a boulder.” Then we have to come in and say, “Would you rather rip up your beautiful wood floors or your ornate plaster ceiling—pick one.”

 

These are real problems homeowners have all the time

Working with the Best, Pt. 3: Steve Haas

where we get brought in after the fact—to the point where they literally are crying because they can’t sleep because of noise and vibration issues. Acoustic wellness is part of the other wellness movements because of its impact on people’s health and stress levels. And the pandemic brought this out in so many ways with kids schooling from home, and multiple partners, spouses, working from home. People are recognizing, “Wait, our home doesn’t always sound that great,” and we can do something about it.

 

I would assume most integrators’ knowledge of acoustics is related to entertainment spaces. Given the diversity of things you can address, do you consider yourself unique in the universe of people who deal with residential acoustics?

We’re certainly diverse. It’s not often you find someone from the design and consulting and calibration standpoint who will do bedrooms, do living rooms, mechanical noise, and so on. We like being able to come into projects in various ways. And I think that does make us fairly unique—not to mention all the commercial work we are still doing, flipping our brains several times a day to go back and forth between the high-end residential and the commercial.

 

How much of your work is commercial?

The percentages vary from month to month or year to year. Usually, we’re 50/50, but with the pandemic bringing out so many domestic opportunities, I would say we’re currently 60 to 65 percent residential. I’ve really trained my consultant team—I have such a great team now at all levels—to flip their mentalities, because you just cannot bring a commercial mentality wholeheartedly to the residential world without thinking about what’s practical. We’ve been brought on to high-end residential projects where they had a commercial consultant on board who got fired because they brought things to the home builders as solutions that just had no place even in the highest-end home because they were keeping myopically in the commercial mentality without saying, “Wait, how do we bring these two worlds together and determine what is still practical within the realm of what a high-end home builder could and would do.” That’s important.

 

And the same thing with the AV integrators. They’re resi-mercial, right? They always have to think about what’s appropriate as they go from one end to the other.

Working with the Best, Pt. 3: Steve Haas
It’s inevitable that anyone who does much traveling has come across your work at some point. They obviously haven’t been aware of it, but they’ve probably encountered it.

Hopefully they have, and hopefully they have some good things to say about it.

 

For instance, you did the Statue of Liberty museum, right?

That’s right. That finished about two or three years ago—with COVID, I’ve lost track of time. And we’re about to work on the Ellis Island re-do as well. 

 

Would either of those be the highest traffic-volume venue you’ve done?

Probably the biggest traffic one would be the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture. That stayed packed for at least three years beyond its opening in 2016. We just could not believe how long it lasted. But it was phenomenal to see that, and phenomenal to think about how audio and acoustics hold up with that kind of visitation. You don’t have to worry about that in homes. 

Michael GaughnThe Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

PODCAST EP. 21
QUICK GUIDE

 

  0:55  How his work extends well beyond

           providing the proper acoustics for home

           theaters

  1:21  His early experiences working on

           commercial spaces

  1:41  How a random phone call led to his initial

           involvement in home theaters & residential

           acoustics

  4:40  How his experiences working on major

           performance spaces helped him to expand

           his residential work beyond home theater 

  6:12  How homes are becoming more like

           commercial spaces

  7:21  The influence of his and his family’s

           experiences as musicians on his work 

  9:47  How he met and began working with Theo

           Kalomirakis

11:47  The Paradiso home theater as an example of

           a space that can handle both movies and

           live performance

13:30  What needs to be done with a home theater

           to make it conducive for live performance

16:49  How he’s typically approached to address a

           number of residential acoustic issues

           beyond home theaters

17:45  How the pandemic raised people’s

           awareness of the amount of noise in

           and around their domestic environments

18:24  How he is typically retained for a project

19:12  What the initial conversation is like with a

           client, and how much of it involves

           educating them about what he has to offer

21:48  The importance of the client researching

           the benefits of proper acoustics in the

           home

24:59  He offers a broader ranges of services

           than a typical AV integrator

26:21  How much of his work is commercial vs.

           residential

28:32  He has worked on so many landmark

           cultural institutions that most people have

           likely encountered his efforts at some point 

REVIEWS

Life in Color (2021)
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
The Mitchells vs. The Machines (2021)
Those Who Wish Me Dead (2021)
The Martian (2015)

ALSO ON CINELUXE

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The Cineluxe Hour

Ep. 20: The State of the Streaming Art

The Cineluxe Hour logo

Mike, Dennis, and John look at how far the streaming world has come from the Game of Thrones disaster two years ago, with HBO Max now offering reference-quality video—a standard more and more services are now able to meet. They also consider whether the affordable day & date model the studios adopted during the pandemic is likely to last, the problem of subscription overload, and wonder why Hollywood even bothered with the Oscars this year.

 

Highlights

 

  1:39   a brief description of the progression from Game of Thrones‘ lousy video to the reference-quality images in              Those Who Wish Me Dead

  2:38   streaming codecs can now handle chaotic images, like of a forest fire, without distortion

  4:24   the paucity of 4K HDR titles on HBO Max

  5:14   the increasing number of streaming services capable of reference-quality playback

  5:53   how even HD now looks better on Netflix and Disney+

  7:16   Amazon and The Criterion Channel need to improve their HD playback

10:11   how streaming quality is determined by the quality of both the service and the hardware

10:30   Roku vs. Nvidia Shield vs. Apple TV vs. TV apps

11:20   John expresses concerns about streaming’s audio quality

13:04   Dennis discusses Dolby Labs’ tests that show streaming is capable of reference-quality audio

14:04   Apple TV+ vs. Disney+ vs. Netflix vs. HBO Max vs. Amazon vs. Hulu vs. The Criterion Channel

16:12   will streaming soon become the only home-video format?

19:12   the increasing problem of too many subscriptions

21:31   Sony distributing its films on Netflix and elsewhere instead of setting up its own channel

25:05   will streaming continue to do day & date or will big movies go back to debuting in theaters first?

29:21   will the strength of streaming coming out of the pandemic doom movie theaters?

33:20   was there any real value in doing the Oscars during the year of a pandemic?

34:33   the Oscars don’t adequately take streaming into account, especially streaming series

39:30   John talks about the promise of Sony’s new Bravia Core streaming service 

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CLICK HERE TO CHECK OUT MORE EPISODES OF THE CINELUXE HOUR

Michael GaughnThe Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

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.

Working With the Best, Pt. 2: Gideon Perry

Working with the Best, Pt. 2: Gideon Perry

Our second profile of the elite group of professionals who define luxury home entertainment features Gideon Perry, president of the L.A.-based Fantastic Theaters. Offering design, engineering, and construction services under one roof, his company is (to use his own words) “the closest thing there is to a turnkey cinema solution.”

 

In the conversation that follows, Gideon stresses the need for architects, designers, and clients to bring the trades involved in the actual construction of entertainment spaces into the planning process as early as possible so the complex needs of these rooms can be anticipated. He also discusses the dramatic changes in luxury entertainment over the past 20 years, from increased awareness of the importance of good acoustics to the emergence of video walls as a front-projection alternative to the desire for more flexible home theater spaces. 

—M.G.

(The text below is an abridged version of the podcast,
which you can hear using the player above.)

You provide a lot of different services but do have a typical approach to a job, or is it more about the being nimble enough to customize your process to each project?

I love car analogies. If you think of a Rolls Royce, every car is hand-built yet there’s an underlying core approach in place. We have a process we stick to pretty rigidly regardless of whether we’re doing something that’s small-scope or big-scope, small-budget or big-budget.

 

And it starts with our client questionnaire, because whether we’re doing the design or someone else is doing it and we’re just doing the build, it’s difficult to meet or exceed the client’s expectations if you don’t know what they are. Many people don’t realize what’s possible with a home cinema, so we have to gauge where the client’s at before we know what level we’re going to build to.

 

What are you typically approached for?

The one thing we don’t do is integration. We do have a handful of really good integration companies we work with, so if there is a desire for a project to be truly turnkey, we have those abilities. The design, engineering, and construction—we do all of that in-house. We have a unique facility with C&C machining capabilities, and a door factory, and a lot of different things that help us to achieve those goals. 

 

Our scope depends on who approaches us, whether it’s the client direct, a client rep, money manager, builder, designer, or whoever. Integration firms will often get the jobs and then reach out to us to help out. We work with a lot of design firms, so if

they come up with the theater design and the acoustic engineering and all that, we just build according to those plans.

 

But it’s about 50/50 as far as what our scope ends up being, whether we’re doing design, engineer, and build, or just build. We rarely do the design and someone else builds it. We also offer consulting services, so we have projects abroad in different states and countries where we will coach them along the process to make sure they’re doing it right. It’s kind of an insurance policy for the engineering you’ve paid for.

 

Is there an umbrella description for what you offer?

In the industry, we have to be the closest thing there is to a turnkey cinema solution. Many other companies do just design, and there are obviously a lot of integrators, acousticians, and engineers out there. But there isn’t one company that does it all in-house.

 

So, at your level, you would consider yourself unique?

Yeah, for sure. I don’t know of anyone else that is as inclusive as we are.

 

The fact that we do GC work gives us a unique perspective. A lot of people who design theaters have never built anything. Just like an architect, they draw this beautiful thing and apply all the local codes and all this stuff, but when the builder goes to build it, there are many changes that need to be made. For us, having worked for practically 

every theater designer in the industry, we have broad experience with what the principles are and what they’re going for, which allows us to know where we can take liberties to accommodate the field conditions.

 

Was construction your entry point to the industry?

Yes. I worked in a high-end custom cabinetry shop, and then I was an electrician, four-year journeyman, and then I got into GC work, building houses and doing remodels. And that’s when I discovered Theo Kalomirakis and home cinema at a very high level with dedicated rooms.

 

You worked on the Paradiso and were in there early on, right? 

Yeah. We were there from start to finish. What made the Paradiso unique was that there were so many different aspects. It wasn’t just a cinema—there was an arcade and a nightclub—all these different things. That was a first for us, to be that involved in the whole house—the acoustics in the arcade and creating all the soffit shapes in the bar. We were doing things that a typical builder would do.

 

How do you compare your approach to that of other people offering similar services at this level?

The biggest thing for us is the room itself, so that starts early on with architects and designers to make sure the footprint is correct, that the HVAC has not been overlooked, and we’re looking at very low noise-floors, which requires a lot of space to get the volume you want at a very low velocity. 

 

Treating the process as a whole instead of as individual bits and pieces is also unique. But that’s not anyone else’s fault. Just to take the AV guys, oftentimes they don’t come into a project until the shell is built, so there’s very little they can do to fix it or create a high-level room. At that point, it’s basically pick some gear, throw a little bit of acoustics on the wall, and call it a day.

Creating the structure (and concealing the speakers and other electronics) for
the legendary Paradiso theater (photo of completed theater by Randall Michelson) 

They may not have any authority at that point because there’s probably already an interior designer who’s taken over or the architect or whoever.

 

Our approach is different because we’re at the ground level, sitting down with architects before the plans are finished, going through the math and science of it in the very beginning. Nobody wants to talk about fluid dynamics and things like that, but when the room doesn’t function for its dedicated purpose, now you want to go back and talk about that. It’s kind of pennies on the dollar if you get in early enough to dig down dirt or whatever you need to to create the size, whereas once concrete’s poured it gets expensive to try to get the room to the correct size.

 

Has that changed over time? Do you now find yourself consistently getting in early enough or is there still a lot of regrouping that has to go on?

There’s still a lot of regrouping. When I first started, we probably got 90% of our projects from integrators, and now it’s probably 20%. We’ve done a good job of getting to architects and other designers early but we have a long way to go and we can’t do it alone. That’s why I want to bring awareness to the industry, so we can all work together. It benefits everybody. You end up with a far superior product. And it doesn’t have to be for that much bigger of a budget. It’s just planning and the sequence of events.

 

Now that high-end entertainment is spreading into more rooms and the demand to have entertainment-related infrastructure throughout the house is increasing, are you being called in earlier to talk about how entertainment relates to the entire home as opposed to that one dedicated room?

We are. The issue in the LA market is that there is a tremendous number of spec homes being built, and they’re just checking boxes of what the house needs to have—a cinema, a wine cellar, a sport court, or whatever—and then selling it. What’s happening is we’re then getting calls from the new owners to come back and make the house livable, because it’s all hard surfaces—glass and stone and tile—and everything is so reverberant and echoey, it’s just a nightmare.

 

And we’re seeing awareness of the quality of life in other rooms. Wellness is a big deal, and just by default we basically already build everything to wellness standards, as far as the noise level in the room, the air changes, using green materials, lighting—things like that.

 

People now look at even something like a big grand foyer in the house and all of a sudden they care about the acoustics, when it used to be you would walk in and it would just be this massive wall of marble or a staircase or whatever. Now we can

Installing acoustically transparent fabric
in the foyer of the Paradiso

incorporate acoustical plaster or different things that don’t change the aesthetic whatsoever but add tremendous value to the quality of life.

 

How aware are architects, developers, and clients of the level of experience that’s possible in an entertainment space?

There are very few who are that privy to what’s out there. If you look at cars, especially in LA, you’ll see Lamborghinis and Ferraris driving all over the place. So they buy what are basically race cars and they’re just going to get coffee or meet someone for lunch, right? Very few of those people have a racetrack in their backyard.

 

So that’s what we’re doing. You can have the theater to just impress your friends or you can really be a connoisseur and appreciate the immersive experience you can have. And we’ve seen it bring families closer together. We have a client that got married in their cinema. Especially now with videoconferencing, there are so many different ways the 

rooms can be used. People have band practice in there or whatever. So when you build it with the right foundation, the room can be used for so many different things.

 

There used to be a purist notion that home theaters could only be for movie watching, but the technology and construction have evolved to the point where they can now be multi-use spaces with few compromises. When you’re talking to a client, how do you educate them on what their options are?

It starts with the client questionnaire. Just by asking the right questions, you can find out what they know. Nobody wants to come across as uneducated, so you present it in a way to bring awareness of the options and the level that they can have. Most people think a commercial theater like an AMC or Dolby Cinema is the benchmark. They don’t realize we can blow that out of the water in their own home, no problem. 

 

But when you get into the private level of home cinema, you can really experience things the way the director intended. We have had directors sit in our rooms and say, “I didn’t even realize that was in the mix.” You can hear levels you can’t otherwise experience. So we want people to know that that’s possible. And it’s possible on a variety of different budgets and room sizes. You don’t have to put an IMAX in your house to have that experience. We can take a spare bedroom of your house and a make a three-seat cinema that just blows you away, and you’re completely immersed and lost for a few hours.

 

Are people skeptical when you tell them that?

More so at the beginning. One of the hardest things used to be convincing people to spend “X” amount of dollars behind drywall. The HVAC systems we design can be a couple hundred thousand dollars. Nobody wants to think about allocating that much budget to air. But if you want a good experience, it’s important not to feel fatigue, not to feel distracted—there are so many different elements that back up why we do what we do.

 

People are always skeptical, but we’ve found ways to relate it to them in real-world experiences and analogies. We can do virtual walk-throughs, so we can design the room and have them walk around and see it before we even think about building 

it. People convince themselves once they experience it.

 

Design-wise, what kinds of rooms do people tend to be looking for?

It’s geared less toward movie palaces and more toward the modern look at the moment—which is very difficult, because they want either just drapes or everything just hard surfaces, so finding that balance is tricky. A lot of people want rooms lighter now, which poses some imaging issues. You’ve got a big reflector in the front of the room, so if the 

Working with the Best, Pt. 2: Gideon Perry

room is too light and scenes change, it lights up the room. And that can really mess with the human psyche as to what you’re supposed to be seeing, triggering a fight-or-flight response that takes you out of the moment. You don’t have to have a black room, but those are some of the challenges we’re facing.

 

Is that a reaction to the man cave? They don’t want a room that looks like it’s a retreat but want something that’s more a part of the flow of the house instead.

I think so. As theaters have become a bigger focal point of the home and not just a man cave in the corner, they want it to be a little more beautiful, more for entertainment, an extension of the home. In the ‘90s and early 2000s, if you weren’t building a room that was extremely dark, you were messing up big-time. But now people realize it doesn’t have to be black. We still care about how bright the room is, but there are other things you can do. We can create sort of a chasm in the front that really lets you be immersed in the screen, and then we can kind of liven up the rest of the room. We can also have some fun with the rear wall and the ceiling and things like that. Things have progressed for sure.

 

People used to spend a fortune on a home theater but because only one family member knew how to operate it, the room often fell into disuse.

We have seen that scenario many times, and it’s usually because the interface is clumsy. We want our rooms to be the most used rooms in the house. We have clients that get their morning coffee and go sit in their cinema to watch the news. It’s not mainly about the cinema experience—it’s just the most comfortable room to be in and it obviously has a nice, large screen. But we can put all the work we want into it, if it’s not easy to use, it will not get used. As much money as you have, there’s nothing more embarrassing than not knowing how to turn something on. We can make sure the room performs well but if the client can’t turn it on, they’ll never know.

 

What else do you think people need to know about what you do and what needs to happen at this level in general?

Starting early is the biggest thing for sure, so what we actually end up building is specialized. The key thing is to get a good theater designer—and not just an interior designer. The aesthetics are important for sure, but if the room doesn’t perform to a high level, it’s a big wasted piece of real estate.

 

If I could just say one sentence to educate clients, architects, whoever, it would be to engage a theater designer. If we can design this from the beginning, you can basically have whatever you want. You’re doing it to get the shell, because while the electronics and technology are constantly evolving, and there’s always a new version of something, the math and science don’t change. You can change out the aesthetics or the AV equipment or whatever you want, but if you get the bones right, you’re going to be happy with that for the life of the house.

Michael GaughnThe Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

PODCAST EP. 19
QUICK GUIDE

 

0:38    How his company approaches a project,

           regardless of its budget or size

2:34    A description of Fantastic Theaters’ services

4:19    “We have to be the closest thing there is to

           a turnkey cinema solution”

6:06    The impact of his construction background

           on his company’s approach to entertainment

           spaces

6:21    His experiences working on the Paradiso

           theater

8:20    The importance of focusing on the room’s

           construction

10:25  The need for proper planning and being

            brought into a project as early as possible

11:30   Being asked to make spec homes livable

            because entertainment needs weren’t taken

            into consideration

12:21   The increasing awareness of the need for

            proper acoustics throughout the home

13:40   Making clients aware of the level of

            performance achievable by a home cinema

16:50   Getting clients to realize the impact of

            things like HVAC on their movie-watching

            experience

18:14   The problem with relying too much on

            digital room correction

19:17   Tuning a room’s acoustics for various

            entertainment uses

21:00   The increasing use of video walls in

            home cinemas

23:03   The importance of finding a good theater

            designer

24:20   The current preference for modern spaces

             over movie palaces for home cinemas

26:47   How to avoid having a theater fall into

            disuse because it’s difficult to operate

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Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
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Those Who Wish Me Dead (2021)
The Martian (2015)

ALSO ON CINELUXE

HBO Atones For Its Streaming Sins
The 75-Inch Revolution
Atmos Music: A World Beyond Movies
The Cineluxe Hour

The 75-Inch Revolution

The 75-Inch Revolution

I’m going to mention some things here that are probably pretty obvious to anyone who hasn’t spent the past couple of years wandering the Himalayas with their sherpa. But beyond those more commonplace facts lies a larger truth—that in just the past couple of years home entertainment has changed in ways that go well beyond even the unbridled crowing of the most rah-rah marketing hype.

 

No matter where you live, it’s impossible to ignore that the new entry level for TVs is 75 inches. Even if that screen size is way too big for many people’s homes, it’s still the size they hunger for. And sets like that have become readily affordable, making 42-inch sets seem as quaint as 19-inch screens seemed at the dawn of the HDTV era.

 

Here’s the more important point: Many of those models can provide reference-quality image reproduction, even toward the lower end of the price spectrum. This has never happened before. We are rapidly reaching a point where a good chunk of the 

An unprecedented number
of people now have video
displays that can beat the
previous gold standard of
the movie theater

American populace has sets that can create a better-than-movie-theater experience at home. And with relative ease. And for a relatively small investment.

 

But . . .

 

Just because somebody’s set is capable of that kind of performance doesn’t mean they have it set up to take 

advantage of that, or they even know their set can do that. And it doesn’t mean they have it placed properly in the room or even have it in an appropriate room—chances are, they don’t. It also doesn’t necessarily mean the rest of their system is up to snuff—again, it’s probably not.

 

But one thing that’s more than likely true is that many of them also have at least one signal source that’s capable of besting their local movie theater. That has also never happened before. Streaming services like Netflix, Disney+, and HBO Max are reaching the point where only trained viewers can perceive differences from reference-quality playback. And even that gap is closing rapidly.

 

So, an unprecedented number of people now have displays that can beat the increasingly irrelevant gold standard of the movie theater. And an unprecedented number now have access to content delivery that also exceeds that standard.

Again, that doesn’t mean they have their systems set up to take advantage of that, but the potential is there nonetheless.

 

So what does this all mean, and what does it portend?

 

First off, to take aim squarely at the gorilla in the room: Why the hell do we continue to think we need movie theaters? If 

Just because reference quality
has gone mass market
doesn’t mean there’s nothing
left for the luxury market
to call its own

your system can do it better, and you don’t have to drive there, and your investment in every evening of movie-watching doesn’t have to hover near $100 (at a minimum), and first-run content is showing up day & date on streaming, and you don’t have to watch ads if you don’t want to, and you can instantly switch to another film if your first choice sucks, and you’ve got the option of taking anybody who talks during the movie and locking them up in the basement, why would you think of theaters as anything other than the quaint, and mostly unpleasant, relics they are?

 

Second, things will inevitably get better from here. As more people become aware of what their systems can do, it can only lead to better viewing environments, better gear for those environments, and even better content being pumped into those environments. If there’s a downside to any of this, I’m not seeing it. (The whole “movies have to be a communal experience” argument is usually promulgated by Hollywood types who haven’t sullied themselves with The Great Unwashed in years, if ever.)

 

But just because reference quality has gone mass market doesn’t mean there’s nothing left for the luxury market to call its own. The list is long, but just to tick off a few things: Video walls will remain hugely expensive for the foreseeable future, but represent all but unexplored territory in the home environment. It takes a custom-designed, -built, and -tuned room to consistently have a reference-quality experience. Nobody’s figured out how to commodify that, and chances are no one ever will. And good luck trying to integrate a full-blown Atmos system into a typical middle-American living room without having it look like a CIA black site.

 

You get the point. It’s great that better-than-movie-theater is becoming as common as Kleenex. But not all rooms or systems—or viewers—are created equal. 

Michael Gaughn

Michael GaughnThe Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Ep. 18: Atmos Music Explored

The Cineluxe Hour logo

Diving deeper into the territory William Erb staked out in his Atmos Music: A World Beyond Movies, we talk to Stefan Bock—founder, director, engineer, and producer at Munich’s MSM Studio Group and developer of the Pure Audio Blu-ray format—about the state of and potential for high-resolution immersive audio, and explore an eclectic group of titles—ranging from electronica to classical to jazz—released in the format.

 

Here are the highlights:

  1:29   How William came across Atmos music

  2:28   William introduces Stefan Bock

  3:00   Stefan’s early experiences with Atmos

            music

  4:17   Stefan describes the creation of the Pure

            Audio Blu-ray format

  6:24   Frank Doris talks about his experiences

            with Yello’s Point in Atmos

  8:03   Frank on how gimmicky DVD-Audio and

            SACD mixes gave surround music a bad

            reputation

  8:47   Dennis Burger on how he prefers Atmos

            for music instead of movies

10:14   Dennis on Yello’s Point

12:03   Dennis on the Big Phat Band’s Gordian

            Knot

12:47   We’ve become used to surround sound,

            so music now sounds more natural mixed

            that way

15:22   Stefan on how to determine the right

            approach to an Atmos mix

16:59   Frank on the Big Phat Band

ATMOS MUSIC DISCS REFERRED TO IN THE EPISODE

 

Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band,
The Gordian Knot   

 

Kraftwerk, 3-D 

 

Morten Lindberg, Reflections             

 

Alessandro Quarta
Alessandro Quarta Plays Astor Piazzolla         

 

Yello, Point

Ep, 18 Atmos Music Explored

17:39   Atmos music works just as well with solo performers as with complex ensembles

18:53   William on the Big Phat Band

20:06   Stefan on Alessandro Quarta’s reaction to first working in Atmos

21:15   Stefan on his approach to the Big Phat Band recording

21:57   Does Atmos music represent a way of achieving the elusive goal of the “absolute sound”?

26:13   The ability of Atmos music to create an immediacy other formats can’t

30:15   Atmos mixes encourage you to focus on the albums instead of treating them as background music

31:51   Frank on Kraftwerk’s 3-D

33:41   Discs vs. streaming for delivering Atmos music

35:58   Encouraging people to use their Atmos systems for music listening as well as watching movies

37:30   How to get people to appreciate Atmos music on its owns terms and as not just another surround-sound

            music format?

40:13   Getting the acoustics of your room to dovetail with the acoustics of the recording

42:32   Accessing Atmos music on disc

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CLICK HERE TO CHECK OUT MORE EPISODES OF THE CINELUXE HOUR

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a number of audio & music industry clients. He is also the editor of Copper magazine, a professional guitarist, and a vinyl enthusiast with multiple turntables and thousands of records.

William Erb is a longstanding movie enthusiast, music lover & home AV tinkerer. He has been using his spare time, now that he is semi-retired after a career in banking and biotech, to renovate his new home in Los Angeles with a private cinema and a distributed audio system, both state-of-the art. William became a client of Sam Cavitt’s Paradise Theater in the very early stages of his renovation project. He was lucky enough to get the private cinema completed just before lockdown, and is glad not to need an excuse to stay home to watch movies and listen to music.

Michael GaughnThe Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Learning When to Let a Good Thing Die

Learning When to Let a Good Thing Die

I seem to have misplaced that well-worn piece of cardboard with the pinhole in it that I usually keep by my side. But from my very oblique vantage point, it looks like Joel Hodgson is once again suckering the legions of Mystery Science Theater 3000 addicts to pony up money to create another round of episodes nobody needs except those pathetic and ridiculous lost souls who are content to spend the rest of their lives hermetically sealed in an echo chamber. If Hodgson has proved nothing else, it’s that people will greedily lap up large, fetid piles of horse dung as long as they’ve got the MST3K logo stamped on them.

 

Of course, he’s far from alone. Sometimes the entire culture feels like an exercise in keeping franchises on life support that should have been left to die a quiet death a long, long time ago. 

 

For those of you who don’t know, a few years back, Hodgson & associates staged the most successful Kickstarter campaign until that time to get a season of new MST3K episodes made. The shows, which ultimately landed on Netflix, were awful—terribly cast, lazily made, fundamentally unappealing. But the greatest sin of all was that, for all the money thrown at them, they just weren’t funny. Netflix fulfilled its obligation but, even though they’ll apparently re-up for just about any series this side of video of my uncle taking a nap, they decided to take a pass on another season.

 

But that apparently wasn’t good enough for the MST3K cult, which is now throwing a few million dollars more at creating another set of episodes that only they’ll watch. Of course anybody should be free to put out whatever kind of stiflingly unfunny self-congratulatory twaddle they want as long as there’s an audience for it, no matter how wretched and small. But MST3K once had some worth, and it’s kind of sad to watch Hodgson and friends and hangers-on continue to beat this particular pantomime horse well past the point of death and into dust.

 

Stop. Now. Please.

 

For those of you who really don’t know, MST3K was one of the few truly innovative TV series, a kind of stealth operation originally broadcast out of a UHF station in far-flung Minnesota. At its best, it brought a self-awareness of the mechanics and culture of TV- and moviemaking that had been absent from TV until then. And in the Hodgson era, it had a kind of dopey warmth that made it endearing.

 

The show only became successful because its initial small group of fans started sending around VHS tapes of the episodes, building a kind of clandestine viewership that, as mainstream TV began to fracture, developed a clout that would have been unimaginable in the era of the big networks. Unfortunately, that nerdy zeal, which had been one of the show’s strengths, has since become its curse.

 

To be really blunt, and cut straight to the chase, American culture has become fundamentally bankrupt, and it’s not hard to put a name on the cause: Narcissism. The best way to keep people from coming together for the common good is to appeal to their most selfish instincts, to create the illusion they’re being catered to in ways that inflate their sense of self-importance. I would be hardpressed to name an aspect of the contemporary world that doesn’t in some way exploit that inherently repressive divide-and-conquer strategy. And we all fall victim to it because we’ve all been trained to endlessly love ourselves, and no one else.

 

But it’s all just a stultifying exercise in exploitation. We think we’re being entertained but we’re ultimately just being played—a catch that always comes with the territory whenever you’re talking about franchises, which exist primarily to perpetuate their own existence and will do whatever they have to to survive. Actually pleasing any viewers runs a distant second.

 

Nerd culture, which stands quivering on the foundation of franchises, has been the death knell of entertainment. The tail of stunted emotional development now wags the dog of the larger culture, which no longer displays any nuance, maturity, or meaningful creativity but goes out of its way to pander in an effort (largely successful) to foster blind addiction. The frightening cycle of dependency embodied in MST3K is just the larger culture writ very, very small.

 

Mystery Science Theater 3000 has never been, and never will be, any better than it was in its earliest days when it was funny and new, and funny because it was new. It has since become another cornerstone of pop culture that exists solely to divert those terrified of the new, to be not funny but familiar. We need to begin breaking our addiction to the tried and true and deadening sometime. This would seem like the perfect place to start.

Michael Gaughn

Michael GaughnThe Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.