With a huge selection of available content, televisions with amazing screens, and sound that will rock your world, why go to the theater when you have everything you need at your fingertips? Pass the popcorn, please.
By Andy Marken
“I hear patience is a virtue. But I ain’t never been able to wait to see if that’s true.” – Jim Beckworth, The Harder They Fall, Netflix, 2021
We really like movies. In fact, we watched two pretty decent movies last weekend. Clicked through our streaming services, found a couple on our “gotta catch this” list, and watched them. It’s been that way for several years… even before the pandemic. There are films from here and abroad with good plots, good scripts, good acting, good editing/post work.
The award folks have consistently looked down their noses at such projects—unless they’re getting paid to be in them—but to each their own.
It takes a really great film to get us out of the house and into a theater seat. Stuff like Top Gun: Maverick and Jurassic World Dominion were no Casablanca; but from the outset, they were envisioned as projects that would be bigger than the big screen.
From the get-go, folks squeezed everything out of everything to maximize the large screen; Dolby Atmos sound made it so that it could only truly be experienced with 100 or so perfect strangers. Catching a movie in a theater is, after all, more than just a few hours of entertainment. It’s really about being with people and sharing the highs, lows, and fun of a film together.
We also promised no one in particular that we’d be back in our local IMAX later this year to enjoy the oversalted, greasy, expensive popcorn and immerse ourselves in James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of Water.
Every time we’ve spent time watching a film at home, we never felt much was missing. We’re not a movie snob; but for most films, good enough is good enough. Trapsing to the movie house and dropping $100 plus or minus on tickets, popcorn, and confections to spend a few hours in their house doesn’t add much!
Going to the movie theater is fine, but there’s just something about a family sharing a movie at home, talking about it, laughing/crying with it, and simply enjoying each other that is tough to replace.
We never set out with the idea that we had to have a home theater. Hey, a nice-sized screen tucked in the corner was good enough. Like most folks, the home TV was just a way of hanging out with the family and wasting a few hours in the evening before going to bed. We would pop some corn and hang out together watching something on one of the 500-plus channels in our cable bundle. It didn’t much matter what was on the screen. The movies were just TV shows with a longer plot and huge globs of boring ads inserted just when things were getting interesting.
It was only after signing up for our first streaming service that we realized we really could sorta enjoy Hollywood content on the home screen. Once you have a new, better form of content, you might as well improve the environment. For most households it starts simply enough… a new, larger, more impressive screen.
The newer… the bigger… the more impressive.
Easy-peasy; but as any true audio/video aficionado will tell you, it’s more. That’s probably why we’ve upgraded/replaced our family room TV set more often than we have our smartphone. After all, the phone is a connection device—good for email on the go, texting, and the occasional call.
At this year’s CES, we were only mildly interested in what was new in screens because our set was reasonably new and seemed big enough. Up to a point, size matters, but not as much as picture quality.
The set makers were hungry this year, putting their best-looking screens forward—QD-OLED, QLED, MiniLED, MicroLED, QLED, 4K, 8K—each one bigger, better, more enticing than the last.
Since we had upgraded/remodeled our family room pre-pandemic, it needed a new screen. Choosing isn’t easy—OLED or QLED—because even “experts” have preferences. OLED (organic light-emitting diode) uses an organic carbon-based film with two conductors that emit light, so each pixel produces the desired brightness, image creation (great contrast). The set is also remarkably thin and light. The downside to OLED is that it has a tough time producing peak brightness as with the average backlit screen, and it’s potentially subject to image retention/burn-in.
QLED—quantum dot light-emitting diode—has the best features of OLED (super-deep blacks, amazing contrast, wide viewing angles) and superior brightness/color.
Yeah, we went with a QLED screen.
We didn’t mount our TV high up on the wall—using a normal viewing height credenza instead—because staring up at the screen is not the way entertainment is meant to be viewed. Your TV should always be at eye level of where you’re seated.
Smart vs. dumb?
We sorta went along with the leading streaming screen solution—smart TV—but….
Smart TVs eliminate the need for a stand-alone streaming device (Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire, Chromecast), are probably much easier to set up, and come preloaded with streaming apps you may or may not want. Our biggest “issue” with using the smarts goes back to Vizio’s initial smart TV launch. They forgot to tell Vizio screen buyers that their smart TV was designed to enable the company to harvest all the consumers’ usage information so they could sell it to “interested parties.” Who would have thought folks would be upset because the company scraped and pedaled personal information for a little added profit?
Now smart sets from Samsung, LG, Hisense, TLC, and the rest of the screen makers do the same thing. They’re scraping so much data from us that we just don’t know why they don’t give you the set and make up the difference one data point at a time.
Yes, we went along with a 60-inch smart QLED 8K but disabled the smarts, opting instead for our cable/Internet service provider’s new Comcast Flex box. In addition, we use Plex (www.plex.tv) because it puts all the streaming movie, TV show, sports, and music options in one convenient place. It’s so cool!
Comcast is the largest cable/Internet provider in the Americas, and with the acquisition of Europe’s Sky, have become one of the world’s largest TV/broadband service organizations since its formation in 1963.
We feel they’ve had and been using our data since the old bundle days and know how valuable—and sensitive—the data is. We figured they’d be more interested in protecting our information, rather than simply passing it around to the highest bidder.
In addition, their box comes pre-loaded with all the most-watched streaming apps and free/ad-supported content from more than 200 streaming channel sources.
OK, so it’s like the old pay TV bundle in a new skin, but it doesn’t come with the old pay TV bundle price… we can handle that!
We wanted something more than just a bigger, better image. We remember when we were a guest of Dolby in 2013 at their unveiling of the then new film Gravity and Dolby Atmos, their revolutionary spatial audio technology for a true immersive sound experience. Sitting in the Dolby Theater in LA was mind-altering.
Before the world shut down, Woody Woodhall, head of Allied Post, reminded us of audio’s importance while he was doing the audio editing for a New Regency project. “Really well-edited and well-directed sound makes you scream in a horror movie, sweat during an action film, and touches all of your senses, which even well-edited video can’t do,” he stated.
Did you duck as the fighters flew over in Top Gun? Could you “feel” the pressure when Phoenix pulled 7-plus Gs? How about when the hot breath of the T. rex got close enough to bite you in half?
Yeah, you can thank Dolby Vision/Atmos for those experiences.
Dolby Atmos was initially designed to deliver 3D immersive sound in a theater. The audio format is object-based, so audio content isn’t assigned to a specific channel, but rather attaches sound to objects on-screen. It delivers sound from every angle, putting you in the middle of the action.
That’s what we wanted in our home!
It turns out there is a bunch of ways to accomplish it from reasonably priced speakers spread around the room up to an exotic custom-built home theater.
We used the inexpensive (cheap) route about a year after experiencing Gravity by using some reasonably priced speakers strategically located around the room. It wasn’t elegant, but the first installation was a proof of concept to our wife, and the quality of the immersive sound more than compensated for speakers spread around the room.
We lived with that installation for three to four years, and it was pretty good. But the more we drenched ourselves in the vibrant sound, the more improvements we wanted. When the pandemic sent everyone home, the stars seemed to be in perfect alignment. Folks quickly got tired of being “trapped” in their home and wanted to improve something, anything.
No matter where you looked, handy persons, contractors, and weekend remodelers were busy sprucing up their homes. With my wife’s full agreement, we had our flat family room ceiling changed to a natural beam peaked ceiling. It not only opened up the room, but it also gave us a chance to run speaker and electrical wires, add ceiling light cans, and mount four speakers in the ceiling. No need to run wiring around the room just bring them down the wall behind the big screen.
The ultra-sound fills the room, and you can feel it no matter which end of the couch you’re on, just as in an AMC, IMAX, or Century theater. Woody was right about the post work on a film. The video has to be smooth, clean, crisp, well scripted, and edited with the best special effects post-production people can deliver. But it’s the everywhere, all-in audio that makes the film a memorable work of art.
Now that we have more subscription services (with more flexible/reasonable pricing options), there are more movie options available. New, different, unique films from around the globe—Europe, Korea, Japan, Africa, India, everywhere—are now available on our screen, when it’s convenient for us and with living, immersive sound, just the way the producer wanted us to experience the project.
As Trudy Smith said in The Harder They Fall, “Either they can see it, or they don’t want to.” To which Jim Beckwourth added, “You hearsay. You don’t see-say.”
Maybe Jim was wrong.
With a new large, technically advanced TV screen, you can see-say at home. And with Dolby Atmos in the room, you can hearsay… and feel it all around you. Oh yes, to really enrich our entertainment, we switched off the set’s motion smoothing. It increases the frame rate, filling in the gaps, and is a total visual interruption to your viewing.
Tom Cruise and other production experts did a PSA a few years ago saying it doesn’t improve anything you see on your screen and you’d be a lot happier using “filmmaker mode.” We are!
Maximize your entertainment enjoyment and watch your movies the way they were intended to be seen—straight on in filmmaker mode, and your own popcorn.