The Early Years…
Viewing movies at home is hardly a new thing; the technology has been commonplace for around 40 years now. But I’m old enough to remember when it wasn’t common at all. In fact, for most of my childhood, up until about age of 16 or so (circa 1983), television was, in my household at least, a catch-it-if-you-can proposition. Yes, VCRs were an emerging technology at that time (the competing VHS and Beta tape-based formats), but they were also prohibitively expensive (around $1,000 a pop). My family wanted a VCR, but we simply couldn’t afford one at the time.
By 1982, there was a new, and utterly incompetent technology called the CED (capacitance electronic disc). CEDs were needle-and-groove videodiscs that remained untouched by human hands inside of a plastic cartridge that you inserted into a player, and removed the emptied cartridge for playback. The picture quality was somewhere between a VHS and Beta image, but CED discs and players were far cheaper; around $300 for a player, and about $30 for a disc (mind you, this was in early 1980s dollars…that’d be a truckload of money today). Worried that the home video revolution was passing us by, my family bought one of those clunky CED machines, and a couple of discs to kick things off; those first two movies were “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” (in ‘stereo’) and “An Officer and a Gentleman.” While the picture quality was decent, the discs had an unfortunate tendency to skip grooves (like an LP), meaning that playback would sometimes stutter or jump a few seconds ahead. RCA, the company behind this technological dead-end, would soon pull the plug, and my family would move on to another home movie system. The Laserdisc actually began as MCA’s “Discovision” in the late 1970s, but quickly changed into the far cooler-sounding “Laserdisc” brand name by the 1980s. Laserdiscs fared better, and lasted considerably longer than CEDs.
By that time, my family also bought a VHS recorder, but laserdiscs still made for a nice supplement. The laserdisc image was about double the resolution of VHS tapes, with truer color and overall image fidelity. After I moved out from my parent’s home, I eventually bought my own laserdisc player. Laserdisc images and sound quality were comparable to early generations of DVDs, except that you had to flip them over about every hour or so (or half-hour, depending on the playback mode in which the disc was pressed; CAV or CLV). I would buy all of the ‘big-name’ movies in this format; lots of bold, colorful films such as “Star Wars,” “Jurassic Park,” “2001: A Space Odyssey”and “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” Laserdisc was also the first to mass produce movies mastered in a quasi-widescreen format (aka ‘letterboxing’), using black bars on the top & bottom of the image to keep a film’s correct theatrical aspect ratio. Even on my little old bachelor TV, slick, shiny laserdiscs made for nice movie watching parties. Of course, after I got married, my wife and I would become heavily invested in DVDs and later Blu-rays, but for a good 15 year chunk of my life? Laserdiscs were, in the poetic parlance of my generation, pretty bitchin’. In fact, I still owned a laserdisc player up until about 11 years ago. However, by 2009 my laserdisc player was more a piece of plastic abstract art gathering dust in our entertainment center (much like our Wii console today). I eventually gave it up to be recycled. Today, most of my old laserdiscs are either sold or in storage, but I still collect DVDs and Blu-rays…
The Collection Obsession.
I’ve already written about why I continue to collect physical media in the age of streaming, and I have to confess that since I wrote that article 2 years ago, my DVD and Blu-ray purchases have slowed down considerably. Partly due to a lack of new or ‘must-have’ titles, but also because streaming has become just too easy and convenient. That said, I still cherish my huge DVD and Blu-ray collection, and, if anything, the current COVID-19 pandemic has made me value that collection even more. Many of the titles I own, such as 1985’s “Cocoon” for example, have since gone out of print, or are now insanely expensive to buy on either DVD or Blu-ray.
Since going to the movies is a non-viable option in most parts of North America right now, my wife and I prefer to entertain (safely) at home. Yes, there are drive-in movie theaters in my area (two at least), but they’ve been mainly showing older movies which I’ve already seen, movies that are currently available for streaming, or movies that I just have no great interest in seeing. I’ve got some of the best movies ever made right in my own home; “ALIEN,” “Star Wars,” “JAWS,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “The Godfather,” “Psycho,” “Casablanca,” “Jackie Brown,” “Back to the Future,” “Midnight Cowboy,” “The Exorcist,” and so many more. Literally thousands of classic movies, all within reach of my old arthritic fingertips. But there’s just one little catch; my wife and I live in a small house with somewhat limited space, so we don’t really have room for a giant, wall-sized TV on which to watch them. Recapturing the power of the theatrical experience at home hasn’t been very easy for us.
From Cathode Ray Tubes to Flatscreens.
For most of my early years, televisions were bulky, heavy, squarish (4 x 3) numbers with cathode ray tubes and heavy glass screens. When I was a kid, TV screens averaged from 19” (48″) to 25” (64 cm). TV programming was limited to what you could glean off of your rooftop or rabbit-eared antennae, yielding fuzzy, often ghostly images when reception was bad (high winds, rain, etc). Well, for about the last 25 years or more, those days have been effectively over; with widespread cable, satellite and now internet TV streaming, those fuzzy images of the past are…well, the past. The worst maladies affecting TV reception today are when the cable/satellite is briefly knocked out, or when your streaming program is buffering (a real pain in the ass, I’ll admit). But when the images are steady, they’re usually crystal clear (1080p, or even 4K resolution now), and the audio is clean digital surround (assuming you have the setup for it).
As someone who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, I still vividly remember those earlier days, and I can safely say that even the lowest-end flatscreen TV available today is infinitely better and more sophisticated than anything I had in childhood. For most of my early years, my parents often had giant ‘coffin-sized’ console TVs (my family had a morbid sense of humor), which consisted of 80% tacky simulated wood-grain cabinetry and 20% actual TV screen with a single monaural speaker. For some reason, my parents kept gravitating towards the now-defunct “Zenith” brand.
In my bachelor days, I had a small apartment, which necessitated a small TV. But my 20” (51 cm) Sony Trinitron monitor was also a very high-end TV. I had that set from my early 20s until my late 40s (it served as our bedroom TV after I got married). It had a single set of old phono-style input jacks that I used to hook up my VCR (which I ran my laserdisc player through as well). Picture always looked bright, sharp & clean. I finally gave it to charity about 6 years ago, when my wife bought us a slimmer, less-bulky flatscreen for our boudoir. That Trinitron was still working (after 22 years of service) when I finally let it go. In all those years, it only had to be serviced once.
Our first widescreen TV arrived in 2002 when my wife and I bought a bulky 42” rear-projection TV. It was quasi-HD (this was a few years before HDMI connectors), and it moved on castors beneath its heavy outer casing. Our next upgrade would be a 42” Toshiba flatscreen (well, a chunkier kind of flat) which we bought back in 2008. This one we had mounted to the wall of our entertainment center space; a recessed nook designed into our home living area that limits the size of TV we can install into it. That model lasted a good decade (almost) when the screen started to fade around the tops and bottom of the image.
Our latest TV (circa 2017) is a 43” Toshiba flatscreen (we upgraded by a whole inch) that we attached to the wall using the in-place bracketing hardware. Overall it’s very similar to our last one, save for a tricky color circuit that sometimes makes orange look greenish unless you play with the picture modes (which always straightens it out). It’s a decent TV, but nothing special, though still light-years beyond anything I ever had for most of my lifetime. With our sound bar and subwoofer audio system which we bought back in 2011, we can recreate some of the ‘oomph’ of theatrical movie sound.
Overall, our current TV is nice enough, but it doesn’t really capture anything close to the theatrical experience. For that, I’d find inspiration from our dear friend Alison…
One night, during this current COVID pandemic, my friend Alison had the great idea for an outdoor COVID-friendly movie night (with masks). She’d just bought a relatively low-cost portable digital projector and wanted us to check out one of her favorite recent movies, the 2019 dark comedy “Knives Out,” written & directed by Rian Johnson (“The Last Jedi”). Ali would host the party out on her patio, with the image projected onto an outdoor wall after sunset. After months of being cooped up in partial COVID quarantine, we thought a nice (safe) movie night would be just the tonic. The movie’s image streamed to the projector from an AppleTV device, with sound coming from a small but powerful Bluetooth speaker. It was great! It reminded me of going to drive-in movies when I was a kid. We had such a great time, in fact, that I was inspired to buy a digital projector for ourselves. At age 53, I truly believed I was done chasing home video technology’s tail, but this little projector was just so clever… and did I mention the whole damn thing was portable, too?
Oh, and the movie was pretty good too…
Well, after a few days of my usual hemming and hawing, we finally ordered one (with contact-free shipping) from Amazon ($120) and it arrived a few days later. Hooking it up to my portable Blu-ray player and a sturdy little JBL Bluetooth speaker that I originally bought for interview transcription, I was ready to go. There was just one little problem…where in our tiny little house could I project a decent-sized image? I mean, what’s the point of having a projector if you don’t have enough wall space to project an image any larger than your current TV?
Well, necessity is the mother of invention. We had a new digital projector and I was determined to find enough wall space on which to use it. My first and obvious choice was our master bedroom; there is a big, blank white wall directly above the head of our bed. This wall has no artwork or windows, so it’s a perfect ‘canvas’ on which to cast a projector’s image. Now, if you’ve never done this before, you don’t just turn a portable digital projector on and have an instant theatrical experience. It’s a trial and error process where you find or create some kind of makeshift stand/platform on which to place the projector, and then find a few clunky boxes or books to raise the lens so that’s it’s more or less centered on the wall itself. Yes, the projector does have a ‘keystone’ dial, where you can fix skewed corners of the image if the projector has to be raised up, but you lose a bit of focus in ‘fixed’ section of the image as well. Being a nerdy perfectionist, I tried to make the projector lens as ‘straight’ with the wall as possible, so that all the corners come together in a more rigid rectangular shape. There’s also the focus issue; you have to make sure that the focus is properly sharpened depending on the size of your desired image. The focus changes depending on how close the projector is to the wall. The further you pull back, the larger and dimmer the image gets, so bear that in mind as well. Once that is done, and you’ve hooked up the HDMI cable and speaker? You should be good to go.
With the projector ready, one of the first movies I tested on the bedroom wall ‘screen’ was, of course, my usual reference-quality movie; “Star Wars: A New Hope,” (1977/2004). This is a movie I’ve bought on various video formats over the years (CED, VHS, laserdisc & DVD) and whose images I knew like my own face in a mirror. Well, needless to say, the giant wall-sized image looked magnificent. The image looked much closer to the way I last remembered it in theaters. So watching movies with the projector in the bedroom was one option…but it didn’t feel quite right, either. The bedroom already had a small TV, and it felt kinda weird sitting in chairs in a room where there’s a giant king-sized bed there, right in front of you. Just seeing my bed makes me sleepy. However, I was still determined to make this portable projector work in our little house. I just had to think of other alternatives.
Another option for a viewing wall was in our tiny front bedroom, which we’ve since converted into a library… my wife and I keep a good chunk of our books there, as well as a comfy loveseat. Small space, but a nice place to relax. However, most of its walls were filled with massive book shelves. This was a problem. I thought of using a piece of reflective material for a screen, draped over the bookshelves (even an opaque shower curtain liner was an option I’d considered). Problem is that any folded plastic material would have hard creases, and in video projection, creases are the devil, so you don’t want that option. Trust me, I’ve tried it…it looks like crap. There was another option; an off-white sliding closet door in the library room. Yes, it was small (each of the two door panels was about 3 ft/1 meter wide), but it’d work just for projecting an image in a place with a comfortable place to sit (the aforementioned loveseat).
So I set up the projector on a series of stands and small boxes, making sure that the image wasn’t ‘split’ onto the second sliding closet door, and it worked. It was a smaller sized image, yes, but it worked. I watched two movies (“Cocoon,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”) this way. Yes, the projected image was a bit smaller than I could get on my 43” living room TV, but it was a cozy, comfortable room. This option would do in a pinch if my wife were using the living room TV, but it wasn’t exactly ideal for showing off the projector’s full potential. I would have to bite the bullet and invest in the only viable option left…a collapsible movie screen.
The Silver Screen.
Well, after doing some online research, I found a decent collapsible, portable movie screen at our local Best Buy. This was a Hail Mary pass. If this option didn’t work out for some reason, my future plans for this beloved new toy of mine were dubious at best. The screen I chose (an Epson) cost around $129, just a bit more than the projector itself, but it was worth it. This was the final missing piece of the puzzle that had bedeviled my aging brain since I brought this little contraption. The screen set up surprisingly easy; you just unfurl the tripod, tighten a single thumbnail screw, and rest the screen case on top of it… no tools required. Once mounted, you just pull the screen’s handles horizontally apart to whatever size and aspect ratio you wish. The first ‘click’ you’ll feel locks the screen at a 65” (165 cm) diagonal size, while the second, final click extends it to a fuller 80” (203 cm). Even the ‘smaller’ setting of the screen was 22” (58 cm) larger than our living room TV, so this would do nicely. The only problem was where to put it. Given its size, I had two choices, and this time they both worked.
Since the screen was portable as well, I could transform a space into a temporary theater, and quickly take it all down again once the movie was over. I had one room with the size and darkness to do the job; our little home office…the very spot where this site’s articles are generated, in fact. Shortly after getting the screen home, I eagerly opened it and set it up. Closing the blinds all the way is something that I rarely do when I’m working in the home office, since I enjoy a bit of natural daylight, but for projecting movies? Any external light source bleeding into a room is a bad thing. So, I closed the blinds, put the projector on its various stands and boxes, calibrated the focus onto the new screen and popped in my Blu-ray of “Blade Runner 2049” (2017) to test it out. Well, even at 12:45 in the afternoon (on a summer day, no less) this new screen soaked the colors and sharpness of the image in like a sponge.
“Blade Runner 2049” always looked a bit problematic on our living room TV, especially during its Las Vegas sequence, where the bright orange hue of an irradiated post-apocalyptic Vegas looked greenish, until I fiddled with the picture modes. But projected onto the new screen, the sequence retained the sickly yellowish hues I remembered in its theatrical release. After the success of the “Blade Runner 2049” test, I decided to try other movies in my collection, including my Blu-ray of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” That title looked stunning. I’d seen “2001” only a couple of years ago at an anniversary screening and this felt as close to that experience as I could possibly achieve within the confines of our little house.
My portable projector is clearly not top-of-the-line image quality (basic HD, not 4K), but for me, there’s just something captivating about a large image cast onto a screen in a darkened room. Your attention is arrested. Immediately you feel a heightened sense of expectation, and later joy at recreating the emotional punch of the theatrical experience at home. You can watch a regular old TV in any room in the house, but a projected movie demands that certain conditions be met first. There’s something about that captive experience that feels very cinematic to me.
There’s also something oddly rewarding about enjoying the fruits of one’s minor labors after you’ve set up and calibrated the equipment, too. It’s almost ritualistic. You just can’t get that sense of accomplishment from just hitting the power button on your TV remote. Using a portable projector requires just a little more practice and patience.
The Great Outdoors.
My friend Ali calls her patio her ‘little drive-in.’ And yes, watching movies outside does feel a bit like going to a drive-in movie; you have to wait till after sunset for the movie to start, but you’re as comfortable as can be in your own little private ‘space’… be it behind the wheel of your car or patio. Personally, I’ve always preferred walk-in theaters, though cellphones and unwanted “audio commentary” from noisy moviegoers have taken an occasional dump or two on that once-favorite pastime of mine. Well, in the age of COVID-19, there are no audiences to worry about, since (sadly) movie theaters are still shuttered in my state. Yes, there are a few local drive-ins operating, but as I’ve said earlier, the movies they are showcasing just aren’t compelling enough for me to wait up past midnight (I’m old, and I love my sleep… sue me). That said, I won’t deny there’s a certain romanticism about ‘movies under the stars’ that probably goes back to humanity’s racial memories of stories told around campfires. This is where the portable projector and screen comes in handy yet again.
Since my patio doesn’t have a large blank wall, I lugged the equipment outside one night, set everything up (a painstaking process, but worth it) and soon it was showtime. Earlier this year, my wife and I bought new patio furniture in the wake of the current COVID pandemic, so that we could still enjoy masked, safe-distance visits with very small groups of friends or family in our backyard. Well, our new outdoor furniture is very comfortable, and there’s also a nice little table between the seats to give the projector stand a nice boost as well.
Once the projector was ready, I popped in 2009’s “Star Trek.” Something just felt so right about watching Star Trek under the (literal) stars. In fact, I took a demo image of the movie as it was playing, and I realized I’d unwittingly captured the moon in the frame as well! I have since promised our friend’s 8-year old son, who is a serious Star Wars freak, that we would watch an episode of “Star Wars Rebels” on the patio next week as well (with masks, of course…).
Oh, and depending on where one lives? A bug zapper might be a very good investment for outdoor movie watching as well. I had ours plugged in during this outdoor test, and it saw frequent use.
Movie Nights Renewed.
Well, the projector and screen have reinvigorated movie nights in our little abode. Since my wife doesn’t care for the outdoors very much (mosquitoes find her particularly tasty), we tend to have our main movie night together in our home office, which we temporarily convert to a mini-theater by setting up the screen over my desk and temporarily moving things to other rooms. With our freshly popped popcorn, our improvised home office-theater feels a lot closer to a genuine theatrical experience than anything I’ve ever been able to squeeze out of our 43” living room TV.
For our first movie night together, we watched the Blu-ray of 2018’s “Solo: A Star Wars Story” (a very under-appreciated little flick, in my opinion). Right off the bat, Ron Howard’s Star Wars opus felt a lot ‘bigger’… not just in size, but in scope. The landscapes of the various alien planets felt more immersive, and my wife and I were both noticing little details and nuances we’d somehow missed watching the film on our TV previously. Seeing the interiors of the Millennium Falcon on a much larger screen in a darkened room reminded me of our pre-pandemic trip to “Galaxy’s Edge” at Disneyland this past February, where we got to ‘fly’ a full-scale version of the Falcon. As noted with the bedroom wall experiment earlier, “Star Wars” movies make ideal test runs for a home projection system.
For our latest movie night, we chose “Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015), arguably the greatest action film of this century. With its rich, golden hues and near-monochrome day-for-night desert sequences, “Mad Max Fury Road” features both monstrous rushes of adrenaline-soaked action combined with cinematography so lush and gorgeous it should be framed and hanging in the Louvre. Oh, and did I mention that stars Charlize Theron, Tom Hardy and Nicholas Hoult all give amazing performances? I’ve always enjoyed the Mad Max movies as action opuses, but Fury Road is high art. Watching it again last night on the ‘big screen’ really brought back all of the raw emotion of seeing it for the first time in cinema.
Portable digital projection is a COVID-safe way to re-experience your movie collection anew, generating something more akin to an authentic theatrical experience. It’s worth the cost and trouble for a diehard movie aficionado.
It also goes very well with freshly popped popcorn.
To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States are around 148,000 as of this writing. Meanwhile, there’s no vaccine or even effective treatment for COVID-19 as of yet. Yes, some businesses are reopening, but the overall situation is far from safe. So for the time being, please continue to practice social safe-distancing as often as you can, wear masks in public, and avoid overly crowded outings as much as possible.
But remember; there’s always the option for at-home movie nights, so fire up the popcorn, be safe, and enjoy!