To set up a backyard theater, you need the following components:
1. a video source (usually a DVD player)
2. a video projector
3. a screen
4. a sound system
Some people have all of these things already in a home theater, and if they can be easily disconnected and moved into the garden or on the patio, then you're ready to go. If not, then you'll have to acquire the items that you don't have or can't take outside. Mostly, this is an exercise in finding good prices on components that will do the job. Those components don’t have to be the same quality as a home theater; the crickets and starry night will more than make up for any differences in component quality.
The “weakest link” question: There are differing opinions on what is most important in the backyard theater experience, but almost everyone agrees that the first impression of any large projected image is WOW. This is true regardless of the quality of the projector, the screen or the sound. So, you shouldn’t worry about having to buy top-of-the-line equipment to get started. Just spend enough to get the job done; if something seems inadequate at the end of your first season, upgrade it, but only if other people complain about it! Remember, you’ll be the most critical viewer out there, so if it seems good to you, most of your guests will find it totally awesome.
There are many other things that can go into a backyard theater experience, such as popcorn machines, drink coolers, fancy seating and so on, but those are the four basic components to getting a picture on a screen. Let's take them one at a time, assuming that you must buy (or find) the item, rather than using something from inside:1. Video Source.
- A laptop computer
is an excellent signal source, since it can play DVDs, CDs, stored media, slideshow presentations, etc. (with the right drive type, of course). You don't have to have a state-of-the art laptop for this purpose, so if you don't have one, you can find an older model with a DVD drive and it will suit your purposes fine.
The free program VLC media player (http://www.videolan.org/
) allows you to take multiple source formats and merge them into a single show with previews, cartoons and the main feature.
- There are many portable DVD players
on the market now, designed for people who can't travel without their DVDs, with built-in screens. A screen is a big advantage for putting on a "professional" show, since it lets you blank the projector and navigate menus on the built-in monitor without showing them on-screen. Many are available in the $75-100 range.
- Home DVD players
in the lowest price range have fallen below $50. There's a small progressive scan player available at the big-box discount stores for only $30. These are no-frills players, but many have progressive-scan output for better picture quality, even though they lack some of the "bells and whistles".
You should be able to find a good DVD player for well under $100. Look for one that plays a variety of source formats: DVD, VCD, MPEG, Divx, etc.2. Video Projector.
The cheapest models these days seem to be “business-class” LCD projectors. “Business class” generally means that a projector is designed to be used in different conditions than a home theater projector: it many be used in bright rooms, it will usually be used to show computer presentations. Bright rooms call for projectors that are relatively bright, but don’t have to have high contrast ratios. Computer inputs usually mean a 4:3 aspect ratio and resolution of 800x600 or 768x1024.
So, a typical business-class projector would project 1500 lumens at 800x600 pixels, with a contrast ratio of only 500. Business-class projectors can be found on every street corner for between $500-1000.
There are now DLP projectors available for under $1000, too. They generally have better brightness and contrast specs than LCD machines. There is a good Buyer's Guide available at ProjectorCentral.com that will help you find a model with the right features and price for you: http://www.projectorcentral.com/buyers_guide.cfm
The near-legendary Victor D started a thread on how he finds inexpensive projectors here
Sizing the screen can be tricky. You want it to be big enough to give a wide view to your audience, but not so big that it overwhelms your space. The projection distance calculator at ProjectorCentral.com is a good place to start (http://www.projectorcentral.com/projection-calculator-pro.cfm
), but it is designed with home theaters in mind. If you're in a small space (patio, driveway, deck) then this is probably the ideal tool. If you have a larger space and audience, then it's hard to get a screen that's too
Victor D suggests 8-12 feet width for a small area, 10-16 feet width for a medium area and 20 feet or larger for a large area. (How big can you build it?) Of course, the size of the screen will influence what materials you use, whether it's portable or (semi-)permanent, etc.
If you have a large expanse of fairly smooth white wall
, there’s your screen. (Obviously, lap siding and brick aren’t optimal projection surfaces.) While there are gradations of quality in projectors and sound, there is a go/no-go test for screens: if it’s flat and white (or some light color) and the surface is not too shiny, it’s good. Otherwise, you will grow tired of the quality very quickly.
The question of whether to mount the screen permanently or make it removable is left to you, as it will depend on the space you have to work with, how your family and neighbors feel about it, etc. Some of the following approaches are clearly only suitable for portable screens, while others can be put up semi-permanently or permanently.
Most of the materials below are portable and more or less easy to store, but require a rigid frame of some sort. This can be wood, PVC pipe, metal electrical conduit (EMT), aluminum angle or tubing, steel pipe, etc. Shop around for used or cheap framing materials; this may influence your choice of projection surface. If you have a fence, trees or some other structure that lends itself to use as a screen support, all the better.
Using standard parts from a hardware store (e.g. PVC tees and angles) can make it easier to design, assemble and tear down your screen.
- Cardboard, fiberboard
. Pros: very cheap, ubiquitous. Cons: must be finished and painted before use, storage may be a problem (they don’t fold or roll up easily). May not hold up against repeated handling or weather.
. Pros: widely available, cheap (free?). Cons: Only come in predefined sizes. Pro/con: light transmission through fabric means they can be used for back projection, but can also mean less reflected back to audience when projecting from the front.
. Pros: cheap, durable, widely available, often come with reinforced grommets. Cons: Plastic-backed paper tarps can have permanent wrinkles. Plastic tarps are too shiny (will throw hot spots from the projector). Canvas tarps are very heavy.
- Dazian stretch fabric
. Pros: durable, lightweight, easy to store, light transmission (see bedsheets). Cons: expense, light transmission (see bedsheets), not widely available. Note
that Dazian comes in two weights. The heavyweight Dazian does not transmit light, so it is unsuited to rear projection, but has excellent front reflectivity.
- Blackout cloth
. This fabric is used to line curtains so they block all light from passing. Pros:widely available at most fabric stores and even cheaper with coupons. Availablility also makes it easy ot replace. Durable, two sided (one brighter than the other - EXPERIMENT), no light leaks through and folds easily (may wrinkle, but not crease, so most fall out). Cons: 54" wide is widely available, so it needs to be sewn to make larger screens (although it IS cloth so it sews easily and the seam is virtually invisible). Wider BOC is available online, but is more expensive.
. Obvious choice for permanent installation, but could be used for smaller portable screen, too. Pros: widely available, flat, durable. Cons: expensive, heavy, almost requires permanent installation.
. This was once the province of the professional only, but the recent introduction of inflatable screens priced under $200 makes them affordable for the backyard hobbyist, too. Pros: very fast setup and breakdown, simplicity (no construction needed), price. Cons: fans can be to noisy for some situations.
- Commercial roll-down screens
. If you have a protected eaves or a children's swing-set, you might consider mounting a pull-down screen there. Some people even use them as portables. Pros: ready-made, relatively inexpensive, widely available. Cons: tend to permanently wrinkle and bend in the breeze, flat-tensioned screens much more expensive, limited mounting possibilities.
- Vinyl sign material
. Several people use vinyl screens made by sign shops. In many ways, this material is ideal, since the requirements for large signs are very similar to those for large movie screens. Sign shops can put grommets in the screen, with tough reinforcement, and the material is very durable. But if you work it right, you might be able to get a billboard-sized piece of vinyl free. Of course, it will have an ad for something like an ambulance-chasing lawyer on the back, but that's not the side you care about!
Estimating the typical price of a low-end screen is difficult because there are so many variables This could end up costing you nothing (using scrounged or dirt-cheap material) or thousands. The price of all the other components depends on finding the lowest-cost product that will fill the need. The screen is the one place where your ingenuity and elbow grease will really make the difference.4. Sound system.
Remember going to the drive-in, before FM radio transmitters? If you don’t, you won’t believe what people had to put up with: an ultra-cheap 4-inch speaker, encased in a cast aluminum housing about the size of a fat cookbook, which you took from a pole and hung on the window of your car. Mostly, you could understand the voices, but music, sound effects and such were mangled. No one much noticed, because that’s all there was and it was fun just being there.
So, if you can do better than that, you’ve already made great progress. You don’t really need surround sound outdoors, though it’s very nice.
- You can use a stereo amplifier
and achieve great sound. When surround systems appeared, millions of people upgraded and left the simple stereo amps behind. If you don’t already have an old one stashed in a closet or the basement, thrift stores and pawn shops are overflowing with them, cheap.
The same is true for speakers. Everyone wants tiny satellites and big subwoofers, but the floor-standing speakers of the past are still great for the BYT. Your audiophile friends might sneer at an old Pioneer tuner and Cerwin Vega big box speakers in your den, but they'll love them in your drive-in. Be sure to check the foam rings around the speaker cones, however. These can deteriorate over time and must be replaced for the speaker to work properly. Pop off the grill and see if the material surrounding the cone is still soft and flexible (just push gently with your finger).
- Computer speakers
, especially those three-piece sets with subwoofers, often have good sound at a low price. They are self-amplified, so they’re easy to store and set up. And you may already have a set in the home.
- Boom boxes
or other compact radios/CD players. These must have auxiliary inputs, similar to those on the back of a home stereo amp. They are very portable. Some of the “premium” table radios (e.g. Bose, Cambridge) have excellent sound in a very compact form.
- “Home theater in a box”
sets (HTIB). These are (often) inexpensive packages that include DVD player, surround-sound amp and speakers all in one. Sound quality varies, but they are widely available, may be inexpensive and offer high convenience factor for a backyard setup.
- Check the big-box stores for demo models, open box returns
, etc. Places like Best Buy often have a "clearance" table of these things at big discounts. Often, you can get a 5.1 surround system quite inexpensively.
- For the dedicated components that don't go back into your TV room, it's a good idea to have a storage box
of some sort to keep them clean and dry between shows. The big box hardware stores carry molded plastic trunks that will store equipment safely and inexpensively. They also have rolling plastic storage units that look like a cabinet on wheels. Open the front doors, flip up the top and you're ready to go.
- Wiring management
is important, both for quality of operation and for safety. A garden hose can be split open lengthwise (leave an inch intact every couple of feet) to use as a conduit for your cables. (Pro sound people call this bundle a "snake".) Then, after the show, you can roll all the cables up in the hose for storage.
- Projector mounting
. Most projectors are designed to be placed near the top or bottom edge of the screen. So, you want to have a mounting platform that is a little taller than the bottom edge of your screen, or a little shorter than the top edge. Low-mounted projectors may just be set up on a table or on a purpose-built platform. Pros of low mounting are simplicity. Cons are the space “taken up” by the projected cone of light, where guests can’t sit without blocking the image. Projectors can be mounted high under a deck cover, on a ladder, purpose-built platform, etc. The projector must have a setting for ceiling projection, which inverts the image while the projector is hung upside down. Pros are increased seating around and in front of the projector. Cons are complexity of mounting.
Some people are able to mount the projector permanently in a “projection booth” – by a window inside the house or in a shed in the garden. This simplifies everything, of course, since you don’t have to consider the setup/teardown issues, weather, and other nuisances.
Thanks to rfisk, tlogan6797, p_og, victor-eyd and hiredpower for their contributions!