Home theaters are a popular addition to many homes, according to the Consumer Electronics Association, which estimated that by the end of 2004, one-third of U.S. households owned a home theater system, up from about one-fifth at the end of 1999.

The addition of a home theater creates special demands on the lighting and controls. A good lighting and control design can dramatically enhance the convenience, comfort and atmosphere of home theater viewing.

Below are several tips for ensuring the lighting and control system helps produce the highly desired home cinema experience.

Layer the lighting
The first step to designing the lighting of a home theater space is to remember that it will first be experienced as a non-theater space. The lighting must therefore be flexible enough to perform two very different tasks.

Good residential lighting design typically involves layering ambient, accent and task lighting to create interesting contrasts and establish focal points, or points of interest where attention is focused. Remember: The eye tends toward the brightest object in the field of vision.

For example, when guests enter the home theater space, their eyes can be drawn to movie posters or some other art displayed on the walls, punched by recessed “accent” lighting. Similarly, decorative wall sconces provide ambient lighting and can serve as wall art; some sconces are specially designed to add a decorative touch and enhance the theater atmosphere for home theaters. Recessed downlights also provide ambient lighting and should not be mounted directly over the seats, as this may cause discomfort; choose small-aperture recessed light fixtures that feature aiming adjustments. Ceiling lighting can be decorative, such as a fiber-optic starry sky, indirect or colorful LED lighting. Steplights can be included, which should be on all the time during viewing for safety purposes. And task lights, which can be a simple table lamp, enable the home theater to used for reading, sewing or other intensive tasks during non-theater times.

For all layers, the lighting equipment should make sense—that is, be placed within a total design that does not appear cluttered or overdone (lighting is a supporting actor and a foil at that, there to make everything else in the room look good). The light distribution should be muted, soft, so as to avoid glare and excessive contrast between the lights themselves and surrounding dark surfaces, as we will likely be using dark paints.

Most people associated the experience of being at a “theater in the home” with watching media in virtual total darkness, just as would happen at a movie theater. This is especially desirable when a front-projection system is used, as too high an ambient light level can wash out the image; total darkness is often recommended.

Note, however, that a bright screen in a very dark room may appear too bright due to excessive contrast and result in eyestrain, particularly if the contrasting light and dark are in direct view. In this case, additional lighting producing low ambient light in the space such as wall lighting or wallwashing— as long as it does not interfere with the video presentation—can reduce contrast and increase visual comfort.

Lighting controls take center stage
Each layer (called channels or zones) in the design should be separately controlled by a lighting control system to create scenes or moods for different space uses and give the homeowner convenient ability to set optimal conditions for media viewing.

Because designing to produce perfect lighting conditions can become difficult, the lighting should be dimmable, which allows occupants to reduce light levels until the ideal balance between viewing and visual comfort is achieved. Incandescent or halogen lamps are recommended for their trouble-free dimmability, high lighting quality and ability to create a warm and inviting space. Dimmable compact fluorescents are not recommended for this application because of dimming performance and lighting quality issues.

The lighting can be controlled by a wall-mounted keypad or a handheld remote that communicates to the dimmers and can also control motorized wall coverings and the media system. This will not only impress the homeowner’s friends, it will dramatically increase convenience and ease of use: Ideal lighting scenes can be recalled from memory at the press of a button. It’s also green: Dimming reduces wattage, which saves energy.

For example, we press a button labeled “Movie” and: Wall sconces that are on at full light output during non-theater use of the space can be dimmed but still produce low-level ambient light for media viewing. And: Overhead lighting, which normally is on at full light output, slowly and gently fades to off (or a very low level). And: Steplights, which are normally off, come on at 75-100% light output and stay on throughout media viewing.

This one scene quickly establishes a cinema atmosphere before the show even begins.

Paints and finishes matter
Room surface colors and finishes should be considered carefully as they relate to both the lighting design and also the media itself as a light source.

Regarding finish, paints can be gloss, semi-gloss, eggshell (or satin) or flat, with each progressively less shiny than the previous. If a glossy finish is used for walls, light from the screen can be reflected on adjacent walls, which can be very distracting. Additionally, if a front-projection system is used, light striking glossy room surfaces can be reflected back onto the image on the screen and reduce image quality.

As a result, it’s recommended to use a non-reflective (flat) finish for walls adjacent to the viewing screen and also ceilings.

Regarding color, note that light is made up of colors; shine a flashlight through a prism and a rainbow will be emitted from the prism. One of light’s color properties is to absorb color from surfaces it is reflected from. As a result, a blue wall reflects bluer light and bright movie scenes will assume a bluish hue.

As a result, it’s recommend to use a very dark or neutral finish for the walls, while the ceiling should be very dark.

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