Setting up an Outdoor Theater - The "Big" Picture

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As there seems to be an interest among some of our various discussion threads on the topic of outdoor movies and gaming, I have decided to share with everyone my thoughts, opinions, and experiences over the last 8 years I have enjoyed this hobby. I'll break the idea of setting up an outdoor theater into 2 specific blogs - picture and sound. Hopefully everyone will find something useful and this will prompt even further discussions on a topic that it very near and dear to my heart.

To begin with, the single most important thing to keep in mind when starting out is that you can spend as much or as little as you feel appropriate when beginning your outdoor theater. This has been the most common theme from all the various sites I’ve visited while learning more from the outdoor theater community.

With that said I'll start with probably the most costly feature of the outdoor set-up: the picture (or more specific, the picture source). The point of establishing an outdoor theater, at least in my mind, is to capture the look and feel of that near-dead American tradition called the Drive-In. Just grabbing a television from inside your house and putting it in your yard ‘aint gonna cut it. For this experience you really need to include a projector as a part of your gear.

I’ve seen a number of outdoor theater enthusiasts use and recommend a reel-to-reel projector; something they may have had buried in their basement. This may suffice for your run-of-the-mill home movie collection from the 1960’s but I’m talking about DVDs and gaming. I began using a very basic, standard definition, Epson projector but have since upgraded more recently to an Optoma HD20 to accommodate for a better picture. SD or HD, projectors can be expensive so I would highly recommned taking advantage of sites like Craigslist, eBay, backyardtheater.com, and Woot.com (where I found my new Optoma HD20). Used projectors are available in abundance and could be the starting point for any outdoor theater. The most important feature to look into with a used projector is lamp life. How many hours remain on the lamp could make the difference between buying a new projector or settling on a used one. Lamp replacements can sometimes be as expensive as the projector itself.

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Although I've come to love my new HD projector for the amazingly crisp picture it provides, high definition for an outdoor theater isn't a requirement by any means. If videogames are a high priority for establishing your outdoor set-up, keep in mind while researching projectors that each of this generation’s gaming consoles still accommodate for multiple video output sources; switching from HDMI to Composite is fairly simple.

Although I have a variety of DVD and Blu-ray players, as well as all 3 of the current consoles, I have generally used my PS3 as the video source - it seems to be the most versatile and easy to work with. I used this console in the early days of this hobby and was able to easily switch the video source to work with my SD projector. More recently, the PS3 has been a great addition to watch a Blu-ray movie (most recently The Dark Knight) followed up with any number of gaming possibilities. I've even found that my home's wireless internet signal is strong enough for the PS3 to pick up - even when sitting in the middle of my backyard. Although I've yet to try it, outdoor online multiplayer doesn't seem to be an unreasonable option.

Once you’ve gotten over the challenge of finding a projector that’s right for you, that which the picture is projected on will need to be considered. I’ve been doing this for several years now and have gone through numerous iterations of a picture “screen” before landing on one that I was happy with.

Most people will begin with practicality and start out with a garage door or the side of a house (especially if either are white) to project onto. I’ve done it and admit that both were more than adequate, but because I like to tinker with all things home entertainment I decided to test out other options.

From the garage door I upgraded to a white bed sheet stapled to a 4 x 8 sheet of plywood and hung from the garage. The picture was substantially brighter and clearer than the garage door but the screen size wasn’t much bigger than the HDTV in my man-cave. Moving on I tried a blow-up movie screen that can be purchased from just about any Kmart, Wal-Mart or Target from across the state. The screen was bigger but the set-up and tear-down more than doubled; plus, in order to keep the screen inflated, the blower needed to stay on and it drowned out the audio – a nice idea but one that just didn’t suit my needs. What I decided on a few outdoor-theater seasons later was based on the combined effort of mine and a next-door neighbor and the feeling of accomplishment and ingenuity was heightened when compared to some of my earlier efforts.

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The screen that I chose is designed specifically for movie projections and is made from a durable, stretchable material. It is easily and quickly folded up for clean, safe keeping after every use. It can be cleaned of simple dirt and most, if not all, fold creases are stretched out by the time it darkens enough to begin the night’s festivities.

The frame is fashioned from ¾” PVC piping. Cut to size the pieces are held in place by PVC 90 degree angles and T-connectors. I opted to not glue the frame together to allow for better storage during the winter months and easier transport to another location for use. Along the outer edge of the frame I have attached numerous clips that are used to stretch out and secure the screen. The dimensions of the screen and frame are approximately 8′ x 10′ – a size considerably larger than what I had been using up to that point.

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Of course, how big or small you decide to go should logically be dictated by your surroundings. My garage where I set the screen up is detached from the house and is at the end of a long driveway. Because of this I am able to provide for a larger than average screen and place the projector further away to accommodate for an overall bigger picture. Before getting too involved with screen size I would recommend assessing your projector and screen locations. What has worked for me may not be the best solution for you. You may find that your screen needs to be twice as big – and wouldn’t that just be horrible.

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Be sure to check back for my follow-up on the audio portion of the outdoor theater. In the meantime, feel free to comment or ask questions. This hobby has turned into a passion and I love nothing more than helping others realize the benefits of owning your own outdoor theater.