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AV Education on RHT

Darkness: A Theater's Best Friend

Written by Michael Levy

As a child, Sundays were frequently spent at the local Lowe’s Paradise Theater. It truly was a paradise for me. How little I knew back then that I was watching a medium at the height of its glory. The screen was huge and often opened into panoramic width. There were dimly lit stars on the ceiling, feigning a midnight sky as I watched the stars on the screen. Everything was dark maroon. The seats and the walls were velvet. The only lights during movies were dimly lit guides to your seat on the floor. My first memories of it were from when I was very young. I was small enough to sink into the plush seat and in love with movies enough to be lost in the new world on the screen projected through the darkness. Yes, darkness, an important point. For maximum enjoyment of the theater experience, you must allow yourself to temporarily forget your surroundings. In darkness, you can transcend the space between you and the screen and go into its world.

I remember the premiere of “Cleopatra,” starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. It was an event, and it all began when the lights went off. The screen was huge and curved, almost wrapping itself around me. I was transported into a majestic ancient world. There were ocean battles and ancient armies and Rome in all its splendor. The theater had done its job, for it had temporarily ceased to exist in my mind.

If you want to see film in its best environment, there are only a few state of the art movie theaters still in operation. The only one near me closed a few years ago. I now need to go to the Ziegfeld Theater in Manhattan, an hour and a half away, if I want to see a 70mm movie as it was meant to be seen. It is worth the trip. The depth of color and detail are unparalleled. To me, this is the reference.

Directors design their films to be viewed in state of the art theaters. When filming a movie, the director has brightness and color values he or she wants on the screen, based on the end result being viewed in darkness. If you change either the environment or the medium reference values, you chance changing the very meaning of a scene. Changing the reference color temperature, or the reference white level, or most importantly the reference black level, changes the effect of the scene. How bright or dim an image is defines how it feels to the audience. Misty or dimly lit scenes like the scenes inside the caves in “Star Trek: Insurrection” or its highly contrasted outdoor scenes impart a feeling that is lost if the dynamics of the lighting of the scene are changed. Even a small amount of light in the room or on the screen will mute the perceived dynamics. In order to achieve the director’s desired effect, the home viewing system and environment must have light levels that come as close as possible to the reference movie theater.

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