The term “home theater” used to mean a small room designated for the enjoyment of watching movies. Then gigantic flat screens and HD technology came along, and the video game industry upped the ante with Xbox, PlayStation®, and Wii products that appealed to every age group. With so many different uses, the home theater has morphed into an auxiliary family room. How can one room be made flexible enough to suit all of the activities performed there? Easy! According to the American Lighting Association (ALA) all you need to do is make a few tweaks in your lighting to satisfy the sports fan, the electronic game player, and the movie buff.
“The affordability and popularity of big-screen TVs, high-quality sound and home entertainment systems has created many opportunities for using specialized lighting to enhance the experience,” says architect Joe Rey-Barreau, education consultant for the ALA and an associate professor at the University of Kentucky’s School of Interior Design.
Whether your home theater is part of new construction or a remodeling project, think in layers. According to Rey-Barreau, a lighting layer is defined as a specific type of fixture that is unique from others in that same area. For example, a room that has recessed downlights, a decorative fixture in the center of the room, plus wall sconces on one wall would be defined as having three layers. Each of the three types of fixtures would be controlled by separate switches and dimmers.
“The objective of using layers is to create lighting options for different tasks and activities in that space,” Rey-Barreau explains. The ideal lighting for the entire family to watch a full-length movie in the evening might be with the recessed lighting turned off and the decorative lighting at the ceiling and the wall sconces dimmed to a low level. If the kids are watching cartoons or playing video games, Rey-Barreau advises turning on the recessed lighting to the maximum output, and turning off the decorative lighting.
On weekends when the room is the focal point for dad and his buddies to watch sports, the recessed lighting could be turned down 50 percent while the sconces and ceiling fixture could be turned off or dimmed to a low level.
Having an integrated dimming system is key. “These types of systems have become very affordable,” Rey-Barreau says. “The benefit is that they can control all of the lights from one location, and the layers can be pre-set to designated ‘scenes.’ Therefore, all of the lighting settings for various activities can be programmed into the memory of the system,” he explains, adding that manufacturers can customize the label for each setting with titles such as “cartoons,” “sports,” “movies,” etc.
“The beauty of these integrated systems is that the ‘scenes’ can be controlled with a remote so that the lighting can be adjusted with the same ease as the control of our cable and entertainment systems,” Rey-Barreau says.
These concepts can be applied just as easily to a family room or to any space where multiple activities require different types of lighting effects. It was not that long ago that these types of systems required pre-wiring, making them only practical for new construction, according to Rey- Barreau. “Today there are radio-frequency systems that can be installed in existing spaces with multiple types of lighting and which can achieve the same amount of lighting control,” he says.
Homeowners spend a lot of money on their TVs and entertainment systems, but without the right lighting, they won’t get the most out of that investment, according to Libbe Milicia, director of decorative product development for manufacturer Progress Lighting. “Imagine if you were in a movie theater and all of the lights were abruptly turned on at the end of the film. It wouldn’t be a very pleasant way to end your experience. The same concept of gradual light dimming should be considered in your home entertainment space. A lighting control system allows people to dim the lighting in order to create a genuine movie theater experience,” she explains.
If your home theater has steps, there are lighting products designed to help your family and friends to walk safely without turning on overhead lights, tripping over an obstacle or disturbing other viewers. If you do not already have sconces, consider installing fixtures that hug the walls. “The soft vertical light provides sophistication while illuminating just enough for people to navigate the room when the overhead lights are off,” Milicia says.
Whether dimming the lights to begin a show, or raising them to signal the end, recessed downlights are an excellent choice for general illumination. “There are even specifically designed home theater trims that have extremely low brightness and eliminate glare,” Milicia says, adding, “Special colors make the trims virtually disappear into the ceiling.”
Much like when working on a computer, playing video games without eye strain requires adequate light levels to illuminate the screen. Direct bright, general lighting over the TV area is ideal.
While the style of lighting in any of these spaces can vary from traditional to transitional to contemporary, the high technology of the audio and video systems works well with more modern lighting styles, according to Milicia. Select fixtures that conceal the bulbs and provide maximum glare control.