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Theo Kalomirakis: Interviewing a Home Theater Legend pt 2

Posted on December 8, 2012 at 1:05 PM

In 2008 I had the privilege of doing a feature story for Sound & Vision on Theo Kalomirakis, a man that can rightfully be called the Godfather of home theater. (You can read the original story here.)


I was able to speak with Theo for several hours discussing many topics while Theo reminisced about growing up in Greece, attending film school, a kick in the butt from Malcolm Forbes, breaking into design, and – through it all – his intense, passionate love for movies.


Below is the the second part of the never before published conversation between Theo and myself where he freely discusses home theater design mistakes, movie orgies, simple steps to improve your own theater, his love of movies, Kaleidescape, laser disc, Blu-ray and anamorphic lenses, and how to create the proper excitement for the movie watching experience.


(If you haven't read the first half of my interview with Theo, click here...)




Portrait photo: Edward Smith (originally featured in Sound & Vision July/August 2008 )


J:    Tell me about how long your projects typically take from start to finish and describe the different phases of a typical project.


T:    I’d say a good 80% of our projects are new construction, not retrofit. For the rest 20%, we come in when the house may be finished but the theater is not, either because the client decided not to work with their architect or designer or because the room was left aside for later. But most of the time we start when construction starts. A typical construction phase lasts anywhere from two years to as long as four years. In some rare cases it can take a lot longer. For instance, the theater in the house of best-selling author, Dean Koontz, took an astounding 9 years to finish simply because the house was very large and it took that long to build. We started work on that project in 1993 and we did not finish until at 2002.


J:    What took so long on that project?


T:    Oh, as I said before, it was primarily the size. When the house is like 60, 70, 80,000 square feet, you’re not going to finish the theater when there’s construction going on all around. It goes slowly. But such long construction times are the exception. I would say the average time it takes to build a large house with a lot of custom finishes, not a tract home, is about three years. If the theater is not part of a new construction, let’s say the theater for the Kellerman’s that I mentioned before, it goes a lot faster. That theater took six to eight months from start to finish: two months to design it, another three to four weeks for the contractor to frame it, then a few weeks for the electrician and the A/V pre-wiring and the rest went to finishes and fabrication of specialty items. Sometimes custom fabrication of various elements can take up sixteen to eighteen weeks. So you’re already three, four months into the project, then you wait another four, five months for the custom fabrication items – mostly millwork and precast molds--to be finished, then you wait another month for these items to be installed and then you have the painting. And painting is another story. If it’s a small job, if it’s a contemporary theater, you can paint it in a week or two. But if you have a big project, like a recent theater for a client in Tampa, the painting alone took six months. There were four painters working eight hours a day all that time. The painting job alone for that theater cost something like $400,000. Very intricate work, every molding was highlighted with different paint and textures, etc.

    

So, length of construction varies from project to project. The theater that I’m building right now in my own loft is a good example. The whole framing was done in one day. Applying Quiet Rock on the outside walls of the room took another couple of days. Then the A/V crew from Audio Command Systems pre-wired the space while the inside walls before they were sheetrocked. The next step, and that’s where we’re at right now, is to install the CAT in-wall speakers, install the Stewart film screen on the wall, apply the acoustical treatments all around, install the A/V gear and we will be good to go. My room has a very contemporary, clean design, and can be finished in a month but it will take longer because I travel a lot and not much work is done when I am away.


J:    But there is some design time that would be part of a normal project as well, right?


T:    The design for my own theater, took a year. That’s unusual because I was agonizing and second-guessing myself all the time. And I also had to do things that would look good with the small budget that I had of about $40-50,000 for the whole theater. That included framing, drywall, air conditioning, wiring, lighting, carpet, etc. but not counting, of course, the electronics. That’s why I spent a lot of sleepless nights coming up with a design, you know, that would look decent without breaking the bank.


J:     I love your design in Pebble Beach, California that looks like it’s part of the French Quarter inside the client’s house.


T:    Yes, this is actually our newest design direction. That project started just as a theater. Then the client came to me and asked me if I could also design a wine cellar outside the theater. The next thing he wanted was playroom for the kids, et. So, because the style of the house was French, we gave the theater a French look and we extended that style to a “streetscape” that we created outside the theater. We included in that streetscape various themed “stores,” and gave each one of them a specific function that represented a particular need of the client. For example, he had a pen collection, so we created a “stationery store” to display it. His small office became the “post office.” He had a collection of cigars, which was displayed in a “cigar store”. The wine cellar became a “bistro.” His collection of miscellaneous found and purchased knick-knacks became an “antique store.” The pantry became a “grocery store.” We turned the whole lower level into a small French village. For that project I spent a couple of weeks in the south of France photographing streets and house exteriors for inspiration and buying actual doors, actual roof tiles, etc. to give the streetscape a sense of authenticity because the client did not want it to look like Disneyland, or something built with fake materials. It was a lot of fun designing that project. We’re doing the same type of thing right now in a new project in Orange County for which we’re re-creating the main square of a Tuscany village. Our “village” will feature a jazz club, a pizza restaurant and an arcade, all around a piazza, a real outdoors one not one buried into a basement. And then, of course, it includes an elaborate theater fashioned around the type of an intimate opera houses found around Italy. The project started construction a couple of years ago and it probably still has three more years to go.


J:    That house in Pebble Beach, for instance, how big was that basement space?


T:    About 3,000 sq. ft.


J:    So, what do you do when you work in parts of the country where there aren’t basements? Do you just try and find another place inside of the home?  


T:    When there is no basement the theater is usually located inside the house or an extension of the house or a separate wing. But in most cases it is in a basement. We’re working on a project right now in Avon, Connecticut. It’s a 150-seat theater with a 27-foot wide screen and a huge lobby all in a basement. They dug and dug and dug some more to give the room the height it needed for such large capacity and screen size.


J:    But where I live in South Carolina, the water table is so high that you can’t have a basement.


T:    Yes. That is what happens in Florida, also. There are no basements in Florida. And there are no basements in LA to speak of. I don’t remember too many theaters in a basement in LA.


J:    I know you don’t get much into the actual specking in of equipment and things, but as technology continues to change and develop, has that made your designs and job easier or harder?


T:    The biggest problem that we used to have was those dipole surround speakers that would hang on the walls and you were at a loss how to conceal them. Any surround speaker in big enclosures is a challenge. You cannot hide them inside columns because it will be like trying to hide an elephant in a room. To me, the most beneficial development in the home theater sound technology is in-wall surround speakers and they often can sound as good as standalone speakers. Most of the companies are now offering in-wall speakers because they want to keep their clients, and of course designers and architects, happy.

    

Another great improvement from the selfish perspective of a designer like me was the advent of LCD and DLP projector technology and the demise of the CRT. There was no way to hide these CRT monsters, with a fixed focal length, in a room. If you look at pictures of our early theaters there’s always a big table in the front row to hide the three-beam projector. DLP and LCD projectors liberated the design of the theaters to an untold degree. Now a projector can be placed in the rear of the room where it is unnoticed. You couldn’t take a CRT projector and put it 30 feet away from the screen because there was no way to adjust the size of the image. CRT’s did not have a zoom lens and they had to be placed near the screen, typically in the front row. Here is a funny story. A few years ago we designed a theater for a dignitary in the Ukraine. The theater was inside a house that during the 30’s and 40’s functioned as a retreat for the leaders of the old Soviet regime. Our project started in 1995 when only CRT technology was available and featured two Runco units, the biggest ones that they made in those days. Not wanting to have the projectors exposed and visible, I ordered a special, ventilated cover for them made in Dallas. I still remember the client’s remark when the cover arrived in the Ukraine, was uncreated and he took a first look at it; “Theo, what the hell did you order? The tomb of Lenin?!”

 

We don’t have to deal with such things anymore. Now you put the projector in a projection booth behind the theater and call it a day. God bless all these long throw lenses, not to mention that the projector sizes have gotten a lot smaller. So to me, the two biggest technological developments from the point of view of room aesthetics are the advent of the DLP/LCD projectors and the development of in-wall speakers.


J:    I can’t imagine that it would, but has the changing technology made your job harder in any way or has it only helped you?


T:    It has only helped. What may be harder is for the custom installer to control all these various devices that are part of a system: Kaleidescapes and DVD players and Blu-ray players, and Internet connections and amplifiers and processors, etc. I mean, it’s daunting what these guys have to deal with. But CEDIA has done a good job in training them with their various educational programs and they have learned how to turn something very complex into something that’s simple for the average consumer. These guys are doing the hard part in their field, while I focus on architectural design and integration of the technology. Our job is to understand what the A/V installer needs to accomplish and make sure to accommodate them. We are the bridge between technology and architecture. We’re don’t start a job unless we know what the system is, unless we have a meeting with the custom installer to find out how they want to run the wires, where to place their speakers, the projector, etc. Also part of our job is coordinating the location of HVAC ductwork and grills. You cannot have ducts running all over the place in a room. They have to be aesthetically integrated into the design. We have to make sure that the ductwork is silent. There’s no point in spending $200,000 or more for the theater and having air-conditioning ducts or arbitrarily placed grills destroying the presentation. Sometimes we speck acoustical treatments ourselves, but on the most elaborate projects, we work with industry experts. Steve Haas is one of our closest associates and Tony Grimani is another. If the project has a very sophisticated audio/video system --and I’m talking about speakers and amplifiers that cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars-- we always engage an acoustical consultant to help us with the perfect isolation of the room and the right prescription for acoustical treatments. This way a client is guaranteed that the money he spent on the technology will not be wasted.


J:    When you started, laser disc was the high-end video format and Dolby Surround was the audio format. How do you feel that the new formats, and again the technology, have improved the experience at home?  


T:    The experience has improved to such a degree that today, in a perfectly equipped and calibrated home theater we often get better sound and picture than we get in the majority of movie theaters. Over the years I have seen a reversal of what used to be the yardstick against which a good presentation was measured; in the past, when the picture in a home theater looked very good, we used to say that it looked like film. Today home theater projection and the quality of the picture on a DVD has left the picture in many movie theaters behind in the dust. You often get such a better picture at home than you get in a movie theater -- and I’ll explain in a second why-- that I’ve come to the point that I almost refuse to spoil a movie by seeing it in a movie theater. I wait until it is out on DVD to see it at home. So, here is why; unlike in the 50’s and 60’s where movies would open in one big downtown theater and only later they would play in multiple neighborhood screens, movies today open in 2,000, or 3,000 screens simultaneously. This means that the studios do not touch the original negative to make 3,000 prints for all these theaters. They make internegatives then interpositives and by the time they start striking prints the image is multiple generations removed from the original. As a result, what we get in a theater is not even close to the sharpness and the resolution of the original. It is the dupe of a dupe of a dupe. It is a shame how much the standards of good film presentation have deteriorated because of the voracious need for prints of the multiplexes. I remember I went to see Peter Jackson’s King Kong with great anticipation on opening day but I walked out ten minutes later. The print was so unbearably “dupey” looking and flat that I decided not to spoil the experience and wait until the movie came out on DVD. Because DVD is a digital and archival format and because directors take pride in director’s editions on DVD, the studios handle the negative of a movie only once when mastering it for DVD. That’s why only on DVD you often see the picture the way the cinematographer shot it. That’s thrilling to me. I mean, I’m a fanatical collector of movies. I have about 11,000 movies on DVD, laser and Beta. I went through all the formats and I feel like we are one degree of separation from the greatness of the best film projection. Let’s say you get the urge to see Gone with the Wind the way it was seen in movie theaters 70 years ago. No problem. All you have to do is get the DVD from the shelf and play it. The movie collector in me is in seventh heaven.


J:    Do you like the look of digital video, or are you a film purist at heart? Will you have a film projector in your room?


T:    I used to have a 16 mm projector, but it has been in storage for years. T It’s too much of a hassle to run film. I have the same argument every now and then when some clients ask me: “Should we install a film projector?” My answer is that if they want to see a first run movie -- provided they can get their hands on a print-- 35 mm is the way to go. But film can’t compare with the ease of operation of a DVD. Film projection requires a projectionist on standby. You can’t have instant gratification this way. If you have a great transfer on DVD and a good print, DVD to me looks good enough. And given the fact that a print can be worn out or a dupe, DVD might have the edge. I mean, I love seeing a classic on an archival print at the Museum of Modern Art or at the Film Forum here in New York. But do I feel I compromise my standards when I play, say, Casablanca on my theater? Not really. The print of Casablanca that I’ve seen at the Film Forum is probably just as good as my copy of this classic on DVD. The DVD captures all the nuances – the film grain, the depth of black level, the grays, you don’t lose a thing. As far as I’m concerned, let other people be film purists. I am all for the ease of slipping in a disc and enjoying the glory of film on DVD. If you have a good video projector and good sound, you’ll enjoy a movie just as much


J:    Are you a Kaleidescape owner?


T:    I’m not, simply because it is too late for me to catch up. I already had thousands of DVDs when Kaleidescape came out. Kaleidescape is a fantastic device for those who have people that have the time to transfer their collection in the system. Kaleidescape makes it easy: one does not have to locate the disc, open its case and pop it in the player. The movie is stored in Kaleidescape’s hard drive and is instantly accessible without FBI logos or other annoying interferences. Kaleidescape is a tool for instant gratification. I am sure I would enjoy having all my movies on a hard drive so I can sample them faster. But it is too late for me to start transferring all my regular DVD’s into Kaleidescape. However I am thinking of using Kaleidescape once they adjust it to accept Blu-ray discs.


J:    How do you store and manage your collection?

 

T:    I use some software called DVD Profiler. I scan the UPC on the disc and all the data is entered into the database automatically. This is what has kept me out of trouble from ordering the same movie again and again. Because, after a while, you can’t remember all of the titles you own. I used to buy a new DVD only to find out that I already had bought it not once but twice! Ever since I started using my computerized database I do not have that problem anymore. I just check first to see if I already have a movie before I buy it online. My storage room is thirteen feet high and has every movie arranged alphabetically. I climb the ladder and I can reach any movie I want. Usually I will try to watch one movie a night. I like the ritual of going to the computer to find a movie to watch and then, as I am going through the shelves, I love being reminded of this or that title that I had forgotten I owned. But I also understand there is something to be said about the convenience of having a digital copy of movie. We’re moving into the digital era and before too long, nobody will be touching a hard case of anything anymore.


J:    Having the disc gives you that physical connection to the movie and there is something about that. The act of browsing your collection…


T:    That’s exactly what it is. I’ll tell you something. I’m as excited about the packaging of a movie as I am excited about the movie itself. I’m old-fashioned this way. I grew up with LPs, after all. I’ll give you an example. Bonnie and Clyde came out on DVD and it also come out on Blu-ray. I ordered the Blu-ray version but I ordered the regular DVD as well. Why? Because the DVD version comes with poster reproductions, liner notes, recreations of the original souvenir program, etc. that are not included in the Blu-ray version. I am not happy that sometimes I have to buy the movie twice in order to get the extras that come only on DVD but not on Blu-ray, but that’s life…

 

J:    Since you mentioned Blu-ray, and you obviously have a collection, what are your thoughts on that format? I mean, it’s just another leap ahead in audio and video quality…


T:    It is amazing how quickly you adapt to a sharper picture. If I’m upset about something, it’s that we are in the infancy of the format and some of the studios have dumped 1080i transfers into Blu-ray, and that’s unacceptable. Everything should be 1080p because now that your expectations are higher, you don’t want to see a movie with less than perfect resolution. The other day I watched Superbad, a movie produced by Judd Apatow whose theater I designed a couple of years ago. The picture quality was superbad too. It was annoying. You pay for a Blu-ray copy and it doesn’t look a bit better than the regular DVD because it was probably a 1080i transfer. It also did not help that the movie was shot in High Definition. High Definition is a less resolved medium than film. Film has a wider range. I’m not so sure but I have an idea that they may have transferred the digital original into 35mm for its theatrical run and then they used a 35mm print to transfer back it back to Blu ray. If that was the case why wouldn’t they transfer it directly from the HD original? That’s what they did for Ratatouille, and that’s why it looks so phenomenal on home video. You get a movie like this that was created digitally, transfer it into Blu ray with no loss of resolution, and you are in ecstasy when you watch it at home. It’s a spectacularly sharp transfer. But, you know, there were spectacular transfers in regular DVD too. There is a David Lee movie, Ryan’s Daughter – have you ever of it?


J:    I haven‘t.


T:    To me, this is probably the sharpest DVD ever made, simply because it was transferred from the original 65 mm negative. You wonder how is it possible that HD could look better, and it doesn’t. Take a look at a movie like this on regular DVD, and then watch something like Ocean’s Thirteen, on HD and there is no comparison. Ocean’s Thirteen’s picture is soft and fuzzy whereas Ryan’s Daughter is breathtaking in its clarity. As we are at the dawn of the HD era, studios are not as particular with their transfers as they should be. They probably get whatever was transferred before for DVD and they dump it into HD. The picture is sharper, but not by much. We are just beginning to see the real potential of high definition. This brings to mind the difference between Laser Disc and DVD. Do you remember the days of laser disc when we thought it was the cat’s meow? Have you tried to play a laser disc lately?


J:    You know, I tell that to people all the time. I do have a laser disc collection and we watched The Rock the other night. And the titles in the opening credits were jittering and bouncing all over the place. And it’s blurry and I told my wife, “I can’t believe that we used to brag about how great this was!”


T:    (Laughing) Yes! We did use to brag about it! And now, try to put a laser disc on and it looks like it’s like a VHS tape!


J:    I had one of my clients a while ago that asked us to hook up one his laser disc players to his new HDTV. And he said, “I think my machine’s broken or my discs are all rotted.” And I said, “No, that’s just the way they look now.”


T:    But, you know something? I still have about 2000 - 3000 laser discs and I’m not going to get rid of them because some titles never made it to DVD. Laser was more of a collector’s format so and movies that have not made it yet to DVD already exist on laser.


J:    This is probably going to be a hard one for you because you’re such a film buff, but what are some of your favorites? And what are some films that you’ve seen lately that you’ve really liked?


T:    This was an exceptional year for movies. I mean Hollywood somehow came out of hibernation and gave us one good movie after another. Look at some of the titles: – Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, There Will Be Blood, No Country for Old Men, Sweeney Todd, they were all excellent movies. And then you get the second tier of good movies like Eastern Promises or Juno. They may not be as accomplished, but they’re very good. I don’t remember another year with so many good, solid films coming out of Hollywood, all politically responsible and with great direction. I’m looking forward to getting There will be Blood and Sweeney Todd on Blu Ray; the others I mentioned are already out. As for older movies I love the old, classic auteur directors from the sixties, Bergman, Fellini, Goddard, Antonioni, etc. I also love some of the more recent European directors such as Krzystof Kieslowski who did the trilogy Red, Blue and White. From more recent American directors I admire everything that Alexander Payne does. He directed Sideways and About Smith, and Election. I also enjoy tremendously the movies of the old Hollywood studio system, the work of the great American film directors, Ford, Hitchcock, Fuller, Minelli, Sturges, Mamoullian and many others. I thrive on movies of that era. They had such wit and sophistication. I just love movies, period. I’m omnivorous; I don’t discriminate. If it’s good, that’s all that matters; it doesn’t have to be a specific genre, western or musical or whatever.


J:    When you finish an installation for a client and you sit down to show the room off for the first time… Is there a particular demo that you like to put on?


T:    I will mention Ryan’s Daughter again. It has the most incredible cinematography by Freddie Young and then it was transferred directly from the 65 mm negative. You know, we lost a great deal in resolution ever since the 70mm format was abandoned. 35mm doesn’t have the resolution of 70 mm. It can’t capture the nuances of details in the picture. If you saw a 70mm film at the Ziegfeld, you never forgot the experience. There’s nothing like watching Lawrence of Arabia or My Fair Lady in 70 mm. 70mm was abandoned because it was too expensive and cumbersome and that’s too bad. 35mm is inferior to 70mm, but that’s what we have to deal with.


When you want to show something that is not just good picture but also good sound, special effects etc, I am just like everybody else. We have all gone through the various demonstration pieces, from Ghostbusters to Raiders of the Lost Ark to Jurassic Park, etc. Actually I stopped showing Jurassic Park on DVD because I found the audio disappointing in comparison to the laser disc. The audio on the laser disc version had much better dynamic range because it was uncompressed. Right now, we’re catching up with audio because Blu-ray has uncompressed sound and we get back the dynamic range. That’s why I’m so excited to finish my theater to just start playing movies with no compression.


J:    Now you mentioned that you liked Ryan’s Daughter before HD. What are you demo-ing with now that theaters have HD?


T:    I usually don’t demo anything. When a new theater is finished either the A/V custom installer will bring his own demo disc, or the client will want to see his own favorite demo scene. But let me think, which are some of the best transfers lately? I think all the animated pictures make great demonstration pieces. Anything from Ratatouille or Cars is looks fantastic simply because they were shot digitally and their picture is stunning. From other, non-animated movies, a lot of people like to demonstrate the attack scene from Pearl Harbor. But the picture quality is not up to speed with the sound. On high definition I love 2001. Again, here is a transfer taken from the 70 mm print that’s stunning; the opening sequence takes your breath away. Another excellent transfer on HD, but not on Blu-ray yet, is Viva Las Vegas, with Elvis Presley. The color quality of some of the scenes is eye-popping. It’s just like you are in a first run theater in the 60’s watching a movie straight out of the negative. There is nothing better than watching a sharp, colorful print like that. I’m also a very big fan of the old Technicolor process where the camera was able to capture nuances of color that Eastman Kodak can’t touch. I am thrilled when movies on DVDs come out transferred from the original Technicolor negative. Warner Home Video has done that with great results in the DVD transfers of Singing in the Rain, Easter Parade and The Band Wagon. And Paramount has issued recently a handful of movies on DVD transferred from the original large VistaVision format. Some of them look absolutely stunning. Example: Funny Face with Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn. It pushes the level of the sharpness of DVD to high definition levels. Also, Artists and Models with Jerry Lewis and To Catch a Thief with Cary Grant and Grace Kelly, all three of them visual feasts on DVD. I can’t even imagine how they can look any better when they come out on Blu ray. If I had to choose between picture and sound quality I would go for picture quality. I am more upset when the movie is grainy and fuzzy and has poor color quality than when it doesn’t have sound pyrotechnics.


J:    I’ve got to imagine as someone who loves picture quality, you’ve got to be a fan of the trend towards anamorphic lenses and true widescreen home cinema.


T:    You are 100 percent correct! This is such a great improvement. The fact that we lost the bars and we were able to extend the picture to capture the widescreen grander with no loss of resolution, to me this is one of the most the most significant advances in watching movies at home. A lot of credit for that goes to Sam Runco because he was the one that pushed for 2.35: 1 reproduction. I remember sitting with Sam at his house one day and he was wondering whether he should create a lens that’s even wider than 2.35:1. There’s one particular movie, Ben Hur that is extra wide with an aspect ratio of 2.65:1. Another is Some Came Running that measures 2.50:1. There are a handful of other extra wide releases on DVD but not too many to justify a lens wider than 2.35:1


I’ve been having arguments with some clients who ask, “Why should I go 2.35:1?”  I have a stock answer for that, “You should because you want to see the true widescreen epic wider than you would see your typical 16x9 TV program.” To me, there’s something not right about watching a movie like Lawrence of Arabia in a 16 x 9 screen with bars top and bottom whereas, let’s say, Dude, Where’s My Car fills up the entire screen. When Cinemascope was introduced in an effort to lure people away from their TV screens, a friend of mine saw the first movie in that format at the legendary Roxy theater in New York. The movie was The Robe. He never forgot the experience. He remembered sitting as a kid in the middle of this huge, 6000-seat theater when the curtain started opening, and kept opening and opening. By the time it had disappeared behind the proscenium everybody at the auditorium was out of breath. I mean, you can’t recreate that grandeur by squeezing that picture down to the same small screen area that you watch regular TV. That’s why I tell our clients that a 2.35:1 screen aspect ratio elevates the viewing experience because it allows us to enjoy wide screen movies the way they were meant to be seen. There is something nostalgic about capturing the width of the big screen where the image extends to the left and right. It brings you back to the era of the widescreen epics. Thanks to video, we’re able to relive an experience that does not exist anymore. Have you noticed that most of the movie theaters today have a 16x9 screen and when they play 2.35:1, they bring the masking up and down? Most of the multiplexes are optimized for 16x9 and instead of getting to see the epic wider you see it reduced in size. That’s going backwards. So, to me, video connects us with a time when film exhibition was at its prime and that’s thrilling. We are no longer trying to catch up with the theaters; it’s the theaters that have to catch up with home entertainment.


J:    You said that sometimes clients need convincing to go anamorphic. I would think that anybody who hires you, which, once they’ve done that, they’ve pretty much set out they’re going to build something really spectacular, that they would automatically want whatever the state of the art was. Obviously within their budget. This leads me into the question of specifying gear…


T:    We usually try not to specify the actual gear. In most cases we are introduced to new clients via an AV installers and I don’t want to get into their territory. For the same reason that I would not want them to tell me what architectural elements to use in the theater, I would not tell them what amplifier or speaker to use. But I do not mind stating my preferences when it comes to screen aspect ratio. Sometimes custom installers haven’t thought about that as much as I have because I’m such a fanatic about the presentation and they usually welcome my suggestions. The only time when I tell the client not to use a 2.35: 1 screen ratio is when the client is more into sports than into movies. If he watches 60 to70% sports and 30% movies, you would be doing him an injustice by recommending a 2.35:1 screen.


J:    So you don’t specify the gear that goes into the theater?


T:    No, I don’t get involved in the selection of the gear.


J:    I understand. Now, has there been a time where you felt that the gear installed compromised your design?


T:    Let’s say you’re a kitchen cabinet maker. You’re going to knock yourself out and do the best cabinetry possible. But if the client cannot afford to buy a Gaggenau or Subzero appliance and buys a GE instead, you know, it may affect the performance of the appliance but it’s not going to affect the look of the kitchen. It’s the same when we design a theater. Our niche is the look and the feel of the room. When a modestly priced system is selected for installation it’s usually because the client does not have the budget or does not want to spend more money for it. So, yeah, there may be a certain compromise in the overall sound quality, but I can’t control it. But it is good to know that the improvements in technology are so astounding that you can get a fairly descent system now for a lot less than what it used to cost a few years ago. It’s like computers. I bought my first souped-up computer fifteen years ago and I paid $5,000. I can buy a desktop right now for under $600 that performs 10 times better. It’s the same thing with technology; you do not have to worry anymore that if you do not have a big budget you are going to have lousy picture and sound. There is no such a thing anymore. Even less expensive sound system and projectors nowadays perform decently.


J:    Before you can start your design though, you obviously need to know the screen size and whether it’s an in-wall or a freestanding speaker system, right?  


T:    For sure. We have a problem when we’re hired before the client hires a custom installer. We tell the client that we can finish the design unless a custom installer is selected and we are told what system will be used. Otherwise we design a theater in a vacuum and then the speakers may not fit into the side columns and we may have to redesign everything from scratch. So we try to make the client realize that a theater is not just an artistic, architectural environment. It goes hand in hand with technology. Usually, that conversation is the catalyst for the client to go out and hire a custom installer. If the project doesn’t already have a custom installer, although most of them do, we recommend one or two names, usually companies with whom we have worked in the past almost always CEDIA members. However, as I said before, in most cases the project comes with a custom installer and we start designing around a system that has already been selected.


J:    Speaking directly to the readers right now, what would you say are some of the biggest mistakes that you see people making with their own home theater installations or designs?  


T:    I can go down the list. The first, biggest mistake that people make when they design their own theater has to do with seating platforms. We all understand that in order to have visibility and good sightlines, we have to build platforms. But I can’t tell you how many people I meet that they go and build the platforms out of concrete. That can just about kill the bass. The platforms should be built out of wood so that there’s a cavity underneath, to allow the bass from the front of the room to travel towards the back and keep the sound warm. Having a concrete floor is like pouring cement in the cavity of a violin and expecting the violin to perform. That to me is the biggest mistake. Earlier on, there was an even worse type of mistake that was being made. I got a couple of jobs where in order to achieve good sightlines they client or his architect would advice the contractor to slope the floor. They should know that in order for a slope in a home theater to be effective, it would have to be so steep that one would need handrails to keep from sliding down. So steps are the only way to go. Thank God, I haven’t seen any theaters with sloped floors recently.


A different mistake you see in home theaters is the selection of the wrong fabric either for the walls or for placing in front of speakers. Designers often pick fabrics based on their looks and not for their acoustical properties. You can’t put a thick, rich upholstery fabric in front of an acoustical treatment, or even worse, in front of a speaker. The fabric will either block the properties of the acoustical treatment or will muffle the sound of the speaker.


An area that does not always get the attention it deserves is lighting. People hang a few sconces on the wall and they call it a day. Well, sconces are fine for a non-demanding lighting situation. But for a home theater you need to have a more elaborate lighting design to achieve the right mood and light effect. To me, next to architecture, lighting is the most important ingredient in theater design. Generic, overhead lighting may help you read a newspaper, but doesn’t do much else. On the other hand, creative use of light can add to immensely to the allure of a space and transform it into something magical and unique.


Let me also mention that sometimes people design theaters without paying proper attention to the sightlines. The sightlines of a room need to be studied carefully to make sure that everyone will be able to see clearly the bottom of the screen no matter who sits in the next row. There are very simple tests to make sure that never happens, but there are designers and even architects that either don’t pay attention or do not know how to do it.


The worst offense is always bad design. It is not an exaggeration that I learned how to design theaters by often doing something wrong. I look at my old work, and I cringe at my mistakes and the bad decisions I made simply because I didn’t know any better. Now I am more careful because I have learned from all these old mistakes. But I cannot say the same about those who are influenced by my work. I wish they could also see my mistakes and avoid them as I do, but they don’t. They study the photos of some of our previous work and I imagine them thinking, “Well, if Theo such and such, then it’s OK that we do the same,” not realizing that they are influenced by something that was not good to begin with including excessive detail, excessive coloration, excessive this or that that compromises the end result. I see a lot of pictures of theaters in magazines that are influenced by our work and when that happens I cringe as much as I cringe when I see some of my own old theaters.


I must be fair and admit that I cringe less and less with the work being done lately by designers and architects. People are learning the way I learned: by making mistakes. You rarely see the kind of design abominations that you used to see a few years ago. You see some people’s work and you say, “Yes! That works great.” I feel good about it, instead of feeling insecure. Years ago, if I saw someone else designing a theater, I was like, “Why didn’t they call me first?” It was as if I had failed somehow. Not anymore. As our industry expands and matures, as more people learn how to design good looking theaters, I realize I cannot be the only one anymore and I am fine with it.


J:    What are some simple steps that readers could do to improve the designs of their own home theater experience? What design elements do you think really make the most impact in a room that people could try employ on their own?


T:    I would say that if you don’t have the skills, the discipline and the knowledge, don’t try to do too many crazy things. Maintain control by using less rather than more. Because the more we try to do, the more chances are that we will fail. In other words, exercise restraint. I’d rather see a subdued theater design, something that lacks a lot of imagination than see something that is so wacky and overdone that it becomes grotesque. You can go crazy only if you are sure of your craft. Eventually you learn by observing other people’s work and by studying your mistakes. If you see you did something that does not work don’t do it again.


J:    I know that your goal is to deliver the experience and the emotion and to have your designs really connect with people. What elements do you think most help people to have that emotional experience?


T:    Build a little excitement before you reach the theater. A small lobby with a bar or a concession stand preceding the theater will heighten the sense of anticipation. And once you arrive inside the theater of course you must have good design and proper lighting. Bad lighting can kill a room. The light should be subdued and alluring, and set at a relatively low level. It should also positioned in such a way that it accentuates not the floor but the main design elements: columns, wall panels, etc. Each light scene should have its own dedicated circuit so we can control the light levels. It’s just like sculpting with light. Light is what accentuates the experience. And then, of course, attention should be paid to the stage area. The stage, framed by the proscenium is the focal point of the theater and everything should converge towards it. That’s where magic happens when the curtain opens


Unfortunately, when I started in this business, I had much better control over the actual presentation of the film. As technology became more sophisticated and home theater became so big we gained some things and we lost some others. For example, it is very bad when you have a group in a room ready for the movie, the lights dim, the curtain opens, but instead of the roar of the MGM lion we get the FBI warning. And you can’t skip it to go directly to the film. At least with laser discs, there was you could easily fast forward to the opening credits but not with DVD’s. In the early Nineties whenever I gave a presentation I had a little video monitor in the equipment rack and I would pause the laser disc at the opening of the studio logo. And when the lights dimmed and the curtain opened, I would manually un-pause the disk so the first thing on the screen was not the FBI disclaimer but the opening shot of the movie. I remember my guests applauding the opening of the curtain because the presentation was so seamlessly professional. Can you imagine going to Broadway and instead of having an overture, the curtain opens to an antipiracy warning? Today, we have better picture and better sound, but we also have to live with some of the side effects of progress. Video has become such big business that corporations have to protect their intellectual properties with all these disclaimers and warnings before the movie starts but in the process they spoil the mood. I may be exaggerating about the importance of a seamless presentation, but that’s what life is all about; being able to have a fulfilling experience without distractions.


In more sophisticated installations that include systems like Kaleidescape, we are able to control the presentation much better. With a system like that one you can queue up the movie, dim down the lights and open the curtain right at the opening credits. But as much as I’ve tried to train my clients to pay attention to such details I’ve failed. It is too much work for them. You really need to be obsessed with the presentation to go for it. People do it for the first two or three times but after that, especially if they watch a movie by themselves they’re like, “To hell with it. I’m by myself. I am not trying to impress a bunch of guests.” And you cannot automate this kind of thing either. I mean, in a perfect world, there would be simple software that would take care of all this. But most people don’t know what they are missing so there is no demand for such a thing.


J:    Do all of your designs feature a stage and a curtain?


T:    Absolutely. Except for my own theater under construction! (Laughing) For it, I wanted to do something very contemporary. I just want to see if I can create excitement without always depending on traditional expressions of theater architecture. That’s my goal for my theater. Therefore I’m not using a curtain. Instead, I will be using the screen as a canvas to project static or animated light effects onto it. So, in effect, the stage remains a focal point, but using a different effect.


J:    Speaking of your space, what were some of the design goals that you had for that? And, besides the lack of a stage and curtain, how else does your theater differ from what you would do for a typical client?


T:    It’s more minimal, but hopefully it will still be exciting. I decided to use photos from my collection of movie stars from the 30’s and 40’s such as Clark Gable, Bette Davis, Fred Astaire, Lana Turner, etc. The photos were taken by legendary Hollywood photographer George Hurrell using a large format camera that produced extra sharp 8” x 10” negatives. As a result no matter how much you enlarge the photos they remain extremely sharp. My plan is to enlarge each one of the six pictures I will use to a 7 foot height, print them in white acoustical fabric and use them over the columns that will hide the surround speakers. Think of a collection of glamorous Hurrell photographs exhibited in a very minimal, Soho gallery. That will be the essence of this theater: a look into the past, but without making the entire environment a recreation of the past.


J:    And what are the dimensions of your room?


T:    19” by 14’ with an 8 ½’ ceiling. It is intimate but I hope it will be exciting.



(Theo and I at the launch of his furniture line)


J:    All right, we’re down to my final question – I hear that you’re bringing out a new furniture line, and I wanted to know about the line and what your motivation was for designing furniture, and what’s going to make this really stand out on the marketplace? Where it will be sold, how much it will cost?


T:    The reason I did it is because I see what’s happening in the furniture industry and in the A/V industry when it comes to furniture for the average consumer. I am not talking about the person who can afford a dedicated home theater or a media room, but someone who lives in an apartment or a small house and watches TV in the living room or the family room. We did not do a thorough research but we found out that you can’t find anything in a furniture stores right now that is designed to accommodate a full 5.1 sound system and keep the speakers—including the surrounds and the sub-- completely out of sight. There many attractive furniture pieces out there, but they will either have an opening in the middle for a center speaker and no space for side channels or they will have openings for the left and right speakers but no space for the center channel. At the same time there is no furniture in the market that incorporates a subwoofer. The sub usually ends up in some corner of the room with a plant on top of it to “decorate” it. What we did is create a collection that comes with built-in speakers for everything except the surrounds which are wireless and are hidden inside our own light fixtures. You won’t see a single cable anywhere.


(You can read more about Theo's furniture here from the launch event.)


J:    Is there anything else that you think that we didn’t touch on?  


T:    No, I think we practically went through everything. This is about the longest interview I’ve ever given in my life. So you better do something good with it!


J:    Oh, I will, don’t worry! Theo, it’s been an absolute pleasure talking with you. You really are an icon in this industry and for me to be able to talk to you is a real treat and I really appreciate you taking the time.

Categories: December 2012, Movies, Guest Blog

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