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Author Topic: How to build a backyard theater on the cheap  (Read 248129 times)
Cherry Hills
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« on: June 26, 2006, 05:37:29 pm »

I'm going to start this topic and I expect it's going to get messy, but eventually I hope we can all contribute to something fairly streamlined that can be made into a sticky message or an FAQ item.

By way of introduction, I am an admitted cheapskate. My wife and I both come from farm families who grew up in the Depression, and it rubbed off on us both. So, I try to do everything in my "extravagant hobby" on a minimal budget. (Victor, I still haven't found any $20 projectors, but I'm looking!)

So, in the interest of making this crazy undertaking as widely accessible as possible, I'd like to propose some advice for starting a backyard theater as inexpensively as possible, but with as high a standard as can be achieved on the cheap. I think it will be more productive to go with guidelines, rather than product recommendations, since products come and go, every backyard is a little different, etc., but a philosophy and some techniques will help everyone.

Here's a first pass, straw man guide. Please look it over, give it some thought, and whack away at it. I definitely won’t be hurt if you think something needs to be added, deleted or changed, so give us your best ideas and experiences. There will be multiple approaches to solving each problem, and that's good. Some of what I include below is from personal experience, but a lot more came from reading these forums. A big list of alternatives is better than a "do this or forget it" approach, since it allows everyone to find the method that’s right for them and their conditions.

Remember, we’re not after an ideal setup, but rather an installation that’s as inexpensive as possible. We should be willing to sacrifice quality where necessary in order to let someone get into the hobby. They can grow into more expensive equipment as their budget and interest dictate.

Thanks in advance to everyone for your thoughts.

Vance
« Last Edit: June 27, 2006, 06:14:59 pm by CherryHills » Logged

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« Reply #1 on: June 26, 2006, 05:39:02 pm »

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.

3. Screen.

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 big.

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.

- Bedsheets. 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.

- Tarps. 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.

- Plywood. 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.

- Inflatable. 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.

Optional equipment:

- 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!
« Last Edit: July 31, 2007, 10:16:39 am by Cherry Hills » Logged

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« Reply #2 on: June 26, 2006, 07:32:46 pm »

All I can say is, if you are going to do it- do it right. Be proud of you outdoor theatre and the work you put into it. I may have gone overboard on mine, but it's what I wanted. Found the time and the money to do it. A long time ago I ran several Drive-in theatres. When D-I's were D-I's.  I love D-I's and the fun and enjoyment it gives people. My outdoor theatre is run like a D-I and people love the feeling they get when visiting.  rg  www.skyvueoutdoortheatre.com
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Cherry Hills
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« Reply #3 on: June 26, 2006, 08:31:11 pm »

I understand your point of view, movieman, but you have to realize that there are a lot of people who can't afford to spend $5-10k on a backyard theater. Or, maybe they could eventually, but have to start out small and simple. I'm aiming to help people who can't or don't want to spend a truckload of money get started having fun with it. Then, they can upgrade gradually.

I would really appreciate reading contributions to that goal. Thanks!
« Last Edit: June 27, 2006, 06:15:42 pm by CherryHills » Logged

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« Reply #4 on: June 26, 2006, 10:53:33 pm »

Bowing to Vance.  Well done, sir!

If you had any idea of how many pieces of that very post I have scattered around in various files that haven't successfully made it to the website, well, you'd be particularly impressed with your post too.

I have been working on the FAQ section, a "How To" section, “Tools” , “Downloads” and a new menuing system.  They're nearly ready for content, and I can't wait to link to this thread.  Trust me, you’ll help a lot of people get started.

One thing that has been difficult for me on this site is that there is no perfect answer for most questions posed or sent via email.  So the answers/suggestions end up really verbose so as not to short someone who expects higher quality, and not intimidate someone who wants to start on a shoestring -- and can.  That's why our forums and feedback from everyone here is so important.  Many of us here now are very hands-on and sharing what we learn along the way is helping a bunch of people learn quickly about, and select options that best apply to their environment, expectations, and budget. 

Cheers Vance, great post!

Randy


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« Reply #5 on: June 27, 2006, 08:20:32 am »

Yes, let me add GREAT POST!

I started out trying to do it as cheap as possible but with the best results I could get. I always knew I would be making a compromise, but I think it's worked out great. So far I've felt that if soemthing just isn't right, I haven't really invested that much in any one area to not just start that area over again. I too did a LOT of reading here and in AVS to get started, so gathering this info in one place would be a GREAT help to others trying to start out.

With that, let me add to CherryHills' post

Video Source -

I've actually found a perfectly acceptable DVD player, brand new for $30.00 - progressive scan AND digital output. It's small and easily portable. If it fails, I'm only out $30.00 - I'll replace it!

Video Projector -

In the $500-1000 range, you should be able to find a great DLP projector

Screen

- Blackout Cloth ( often referred to as BOC). 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.

Sound System

Also be sure to check the "big box" stores for open items and floor samples and such. I found a great deal at CC for $149. Again, if it fails, I'm not out a lot, and I know I can find something even better at that price point now.


In General

While building my PVC frame, I tried to keep everything simple and to use standard size hardware so that I can easily replace any missing or broken peices.

Good luck to all!
Tom
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« Reply #6 on: June 27, 2006, 09:03:28 am »

VERY helpful Vance!  Thank you!

The great advantage to starting off with an inexpensive system is that it works as a "proof of concept" to show those around you (and prove to yourself) why the backyard theatre is so great!

Video Source:

If you're going out and buying a DVD player (rather then using an existing one) then may I HIGHLY reccomend buying one that is DivX compatible.  I bought one for $50 but have seen them as low as $30.  I've even seen portable ones for around $100.  Just look for the DivX logo on the front.

Once you have this, you can play any .avi file that you burn onto a CD or a DVD.  Admitidly, the quality won't be quite as perfect as a DVD but it's very VERY close.  The real advantage is that you can 'build shows' as you burn your DVD!  You would basically just drag and drop your favourite preshow cartoons, trailers, ads, movies etc using most basic burning software (in data mode) and once it's burnt you can just hit PLAY on the DivX DVD player.  These players will just play everything on the disc in the order that it's burnt, allowing you to enjoy the show with everyone else instead of switching discs etc.  Of course you can also use the player as a normal DVD player too!!

If you're planning on using your laptop as the source then look into VLC media player.  ( http://www.videolan.org/ )  It works on just about every platform and it's FREE!!!  The best part is that it also allows you to build shows.  I haven't had much experience with this but I believe that you can set it up to play your preshows, cartoons etc from video files and then play the Feature off of the DVD!!  (or whatever you'd like)

I hope this helps!

p_og
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tlogan6797
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« Reply #7 on: June 27, 2006, 09:40:43 am »

Quote
Mostly, you could understand the voices, but music, sound effects and such were mangled. No one much noticed, because....

we were in the backseat "otherwise pre-occupied!"

Actually, I was in the front seat of my 1970 Plymouth Fury III with the bench seat pushed all the way back. MUCH more room than the backseat!

Tom 
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« Reply #8 on: June 27, 2006, 06:01:09 pm »

Excellent primer on backyard theaters!

Perhaps Randy could include photos to further visualize the concept. Of course, there are plenty of oht's on display already but using this as a guide sure helps!

I agree: business projectors are your best bet in terms of an outdoor theater concept. All of the problem we ht buffs have with them as dedicated home theater use are completely the opposite in an outdoor theater setup.

As to screens, semi permanent or rigid-based screen I feel are the best, since and wind or breeze can easily disrupt an otherwise great showing of a movie (not that most would notice anyways, just you). But the reduction in prices of the inflatables, now as low as $189 (see my other thread) just makes the whole concept totally doable for way under $1000, which includes pj, dvd player, stereo, and screen.

Victor

« Last Edit: June 27, 2006, 06:02:52 pm by victor-eyd » Logged

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« Reply #9 on: June 28, 2006, 09:15:23 am »

I am so impressed with this site!  So many great ideas and helpful folks!!!
I would be very interested in more screen "options".  We usually hang a sheet from the patio but would like to upgrade a bit this summer.  The limited sheet size can be a drag and I will be in search of other screens from the ideas previously mentioned.  I'm interested in the PVC piping idea as well - sturdy enough but able to take down inbetween shows.  I look forward to future posts for more ideas!
Cafemom
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« Reply #10 on: June 28, 2006, 01:41:10 pm »

Let's keep this thread going since it will help many people out there just starting on the whole outdoor concept but have not yet figured out how to do this:

Screen and lot sizes

Let concentrate on three sizes that can determine screen size: small yard, medium yard, larger/very large lots.

This is an example of a small yard. Assume that the space of the deck is size of the yard, and you get the idea:

Best sizes 8-12ft screen width


Medium yards are larger, you actually have more than enough space to mow the lawn and have a garden, perhaps even a small pool:

Best sizes are probably between 10-16ft across



With large/very large yards, its anything goes. You'll want at least 12ft across for screen width and some have up to 24 or larger. Here's a 14' to 28'

14'


20'


28'


There are obviously many variations in between but this should at least be fair set of standards to start.

Victor
« Last Edit: June 28, 2006, 04:12:16 pm by victor-eyd » Logged

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« Reply #11 on: June 28, 2006, 02:55:36 pm »

Wow, I never saw that medium setup before. Very impressive. Who's the proud owner of that?

Joe
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« Reply #12 on: June 28, 2006, 03:54:28 pm »

its avs member reveille

http://www.avsforum.com/avs-vb/showthread.php?p=7692335&&#post7692335

The screen is actually deceiving- its a 20ft wide, so this pool is really huge!
I'll have to use a different medium setting

Victor
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« Reply #13 on: June 29, 2006, 10:31:25 am »

I've taken the comments and suggestions above (but not the photos, alas) and incorporated them into the original post. Thanks, everyone, for your contributions!
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« Reply #14 on: July 01, 2006, 02:30:42 am »

Video Source-

An alternative to videolan is the old tried and true dvdshrink

Guides
http://www.videohelp.com/guides.php?tools=155&madeby=&formatconversionselect=&howtoselect=%3B&orderby=Date&listall=1&hits=25&archive=0&listallusers=&search=Search+or+List+Guides

Download here:
http://www.videohelp.com/tools?tool=DVD_Shrink

Similar to videolan, you can rip out shorts and segments (primarily from other dvds) and create a brand new dvd playing what you want in the order created.

Additionally, you can create still images or timed slides similar to the coca cola slides you see in the theaters.

I have used dvdshrink extensively and it is a very easy and powerful tool to use when making a dvd that simply plays certain titles in order. Alternatively, you can save it as a file on your hard drive and play it from the pc using a dvd player program like windvd or powerdvd. If you do burn, you might need a burning program like Nero to enable the burning process. I prefer to have everything on the hard drive since (a) I don't waste a blank dvd and (b) once I'm done I can delete the whole file easily.

Screen Ratio:
For business projectors, the native ratio is almost always 4:3. Although this makes for a great height imagewise, it's can make the screen quite ungainly and unstable if too large. Since most of the movies that we will be viewing outdoors are in widescreen, the most adviseable design to use is the 16x9 ratio screen size.

Inflatables:
There is only one type of inflatable screen that we consider affordable (under $500) if diy is not an option.

Gemmy makes only one screen, which is 149" 16x9 diagonal. There are some issues with fan noise as it is required to continously be on but I'm sure someone will develop a hushbox or hack to fix that. To that, it is the most affordbale at only $189. It is available online and possibly at your local Walmart

Gemmy 149"


Sima makes 2 models, the XL-8 which is a 96" 16x9 diagonal XL-12 which is 144" 16x9 diagonal but their price are much much higher. Its possible that this site will have them at price closer to $500 in the near future.



Victor
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