Now Playing: The Man Who Invented Home Theater Page 5



S&V: Do you prefer working in a larger space where you have a bigger palate to create in?

Theo Kalomirakis: I actually prefer smaller spaces because they really put your imagination to the test. I have come to believe that with a bigger space, once in a while you come up with a grand idea, but a bigger space makes me kind of lazy. Size alone is not enough to make an impact unless a good design complements it. Where I'm really getting creative and where it gets exciting, is when you get clients with very limited space. This forces you to think outside the box and come up with solutions to make that little space feel bigger. Our clients often tell us. "It's amazing but the room looks bigger now than before." Two years ago I designed a theater for Jonathan and Faye Kellerman, the best-selling authors, in their Beverly Hills home. I walked into the room they wanted to turn into a theater and it was literally the size of a walk-in closet - something like 8 feet wide by 13 feet long. I did not hesitate to tell their assistant that I would waste their money if I accepted the assignment because the room was not really going to work for a theater. I left to come back to New York and the next day I received a message from a very disappointed Jonathan Kellerman that they were counting on me to design the theater and that I just walked away. They probably felt I was snubbing them and I kind of took it to heart. So I went back, took another look and I told them that I would try my best.

For that project I used a design trick that at first seems that you are trying to make a tiny space even smaller. But I was confident that in the end the theater would feel bigger. It's difficult to explain, but the bottom line is that when this theater was finished it not only looked roomy, it also became the client's favorite space in the house. It was small; two rows, two sofas with three seats per sofa, but it felt like a small jewel box, a Faberge egg. I was excited and so were the clients. We just finished another theater for them with an "outdoor" theme in Malibu, also in a rather small space. What I have found over the years is that it doesn't matter how small the space is; if you really study it, play with the sizes of the various architectural elements and put some imagination into it, you can make it look bigger.

And one doesn't have to spend a fortune for decent results. What I usually tell our clients is that a well-built theater does not need to cost more per square foot than the rest of the house. I use this as a yardstick. You cannot spend, say $400 per square foot for your living room, your bedroom, your kitchen, and expect to build a theater for much less than that. It will look like someone tried to cut corners. The opposite is true: If you spend $400 per square foot for the rest of the house, the theater does not need to cost a lot more than that in order to make a statement. I'm very sensitive to the client's budget, but if a client tells me right now that they're spending $1,200 a square foot - like some homes cost nowadays - and they want me to work on the theater on a budget of $200 a square foot, I tell them I am not their man. No more challenging myself anymore this way. Because we are fortunate to have a choice of good projects, I just will not try to reinvent the wheel for a client who doesn't mind spending a small fortune elsewhere but will treat the theater as a step-child.

S&V: I know you don't get much into the actual specking of equipment, but as technology continues to change and develop, has that made your job easier or harder?

TK: The biggest problem we used to have was those dipole surround speakers that would hang on walls and you were at a loss as to how to conceal them. Any surround speaker in big enclosures is a challenge. You cannot hide them inside columns because it will be like trying to hide an elephant in a room. To me, the most beneficial development in the home theater sound technology is in-wall surround speakers and they often can sound as good as standalone speakers. Most of the companies are now offering in-wall speakers because they want to keep their clients, and of course designers and architects, happy.

S&V: When you started, laser disc was the high-end video format and Dolby Surround was the audio format. How do you feel the new formats, and again the technology, have improved the home experience?

TK: The experience has improved to such a degree that today, in a perfectly equipped and calibrated home theater we often get better sound and picture than we get in the majority of movie theaters. Over the years I have seen a reversal of what used to be the yardstick against which a good presentation was measured. In the past, when the picture in a home theater looked very good, we used to say it looked like film. Today home theater projection and the quality of the picture on a DVD has left the picture in many movie theaters behind in the dust. You often get such a better picture at home than you get in a movie theater. Here is why: Unlike in the '50s and '60s where movies would open in one big downtown theater and only later would play in multiple neighborhood screens, movies today open in 2,000 or 3,000 screens simultaneously. This means the studios do not touch the original negative to make 3,000 prints for all these theaters. They make internegatives then interpositives and by the time they start striking prints, the image is multiple generations removed from the original. As a result, what we get in a theater is not even close to the sharpness and resolution of the original. It is the dupe of a dupe of a dupe. It is a shame how much the standards of good film presentation have deteriorated because of the voracious need for prints of the multiplexes. I remember I went to see Peter Jackson's King Kong with great anticipation on opening day but I walked out ten minutes later. The print was so unbearably "dupey" looking and flat that I decided not to spoil the experience and wait until the movie came out on DVD. Because DVD is a digital and archival format and because directors take pride in director's editions on DVD, the studios handle the negative of a movie only once when mastering it for DVD. That's why only on DVD you often see the picture the way the cinematographer shot it. That's thrilling to me. I mean, I'm a fanatical collector of movies. I have about 11,000 movies on DVD, laser, and Beta. I went through all the formats and I feel like we are one degree of separation from the greatness of the best film projection. Let's say you get the urge to see Gone with the Wind the way it was seen in movie theaters 70 years ago. No problem. All you have to do is get the DVD from the shelf and play it. The movie collector in me is in seventh heaven.

S&V: Do you like the look of digital video, or are you a film purist at heart? Will you have a film projector in your room?

TK: I used to have a 16 mm projector, but it has been in storage for years. It's too much of a hassle to run film. I have the same argument every now and then when some clients ask me: "Should we install a film projector?" My answer is that if they want to see a first run movie - provided they can get their hands on a print - 35 mm is the way to go. But film can't compare with the ease of operation of a DVD. Film projection requires a projectionist on standby. You can't have instant gratification this way. If you have a great transfer on DVD and a good print, DVD to me looks good enough. And given the fact that a print can be worn out or a dupe, DVD might have the edge. I mean, I love seeing a classic on an archival print at the Museum of Modern Art or at the Film Forum here in New York. But do I feel I compromise my standards when I play, say, Casablanca on my theater? Not really. The print of Casablanca that I've seen at the Film Forum is probably just as good as my copy of this classic on DVD. The DVD captures all the nuances - the film grain, the depth of black level, the grays, you don't lose a thing. As far as I'm concerned, let other people be film purists. I am all for the ease of slipping in a disc and enjoying the glory of film on DVD. If you have a good video projector and good sound, you'll enjoy a movie just as much

S&V: How do you store and manage your collection? TK: I use some software called DVD Profiler. I scan the UPC on the disc and all the data is entered into the database automatically. This is what has kept me out of trouble from ordering the same movie again and again. Because, after a while, you can't remember all the titles you own. I used to buy a new DVD only to find out I already bought it not once but twice! Ever since I started using my computerized database I do not have that problem anymore. I just check first to see if I already have a movie before I buy it online. My storage room is thirteen feet high and has every movie arranged alphabetically. I climb the ladder and I can reach any movie I want. Usually I will try to watch one movie a night. I like the ritual of going to the computer to find a movie to watch and then, as I am going through the shelves, I love being reminded of this or that title that I had forgotten I owned. But I also understand there is something to be said about the convenience of having a digital copy of movie. We're moving into the digital era and before too long, nobody will be touching a hard case of anything anymore.

S&V: Having the disc gives you that physical connection to the movie and there is something about that. The act of browsing your collection . . .

TK: That's exactly what it is. I'll tell you something. I'm as excited about the packaging of a movie as I am excited about the movie itself. I'm old-fashioned this way. I grew up with LPs, after all. I'll give you an example. Bonnie and Clyde came out on DVD and it also come out on Blu-ray. I ordered the Blu-ray version but I ordered the regular DVD as well. Why? Because the DVD version comes with poster reproductions, liner notes, recreations of the original souvenir program, etc. that are not included in the Blu-ray version. I am not happy that sometimes I have to buy the movie twice in order to get the extras that come only on DVD but not on Blu-ray, but that's life . . .

S&V: Since you mentioned Blu-ray, what are your thoughts on that format? I mean, it's just another leap ahead in audio and video quality . . .

TK: It is amazing how quickly you adapt to a sharper picture. If I'm upset about something, it's that we are in the infancy of the format and some of the studios have dumped 1080i transfers into Blu-ray, and that's unacceptable. Everything should be 1080p because now that your expectations are higher, you don't want to see a movie with less than perfect resolution. The other day I watched Superbad, a movie produced by Judd Apatow, whose theater I designed a couple years ago. The picture quality was superbad too. It was annoying. You pay for a Blu-ray copy and it doesn't look a bit better than the regular DVD. It also did not help that the movie was shot in High Definition. High Definition is a less resolved medium than film. Film has a wider range.

S&V: This is probably going to be a hard one since you're such a film buff, but what are some of your favorites? And what are some films you've seen lately that you've really liked?

TK: Last year was an exceptional one for movies. I mean Hollywood somehow came out of hibernation and gave us one good movie after another. Look at some of the titles: Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, There Will Be Blood, No Country for Old Men, Sweeney Todd - they were all excellent movies. And then you get the second tier of good movies like Eastern Promises or Juno. They may not be as accomplished, but they're very good. I don't remember another year with so many good, solid films coming out of Hollywood, all politically responsible and with great direction.

As for older movies I love the old, classic auteur directors from the sixties, Bergman, Fellini, Goddard, Antonioni, etc. I also love some of the more recent European directors such as Krzystof Kieslowski who did the trilogy Red, Blue and White. From more recent American directors I admire everything that Alexander Payne does. He directed Sideways and About Smith, and Election. I also enjoy tremendously the movies of the old Hollywood studio system, the work of the great American film directors, Ford, Hitchcock, Fuller, Minelli, Sturges, Mamoullian, and many others. I thrive on movies of that era. They had such wit and sophistication. I just love movies, period. I'm omnivorous; I don't discriminate. If it's good, that's all that matters. It doesn't have to be a specific genre, western, or musical or whatever.

S&V: When you finish an installation, is there a particular demo you like putting on?

TK: Ryan's Daughter: It has the most incredible cinematography by Freddie Young and then it was transferred directly from the 65 mm negative. You know, we lost a great deal in resolution ever since the 70mm format was abandoned because it was too expensive and cumbersome. 35mm doesn't have the resolution of 70 mm. It can't capture the nuances of details in the picture. If you saw a 70mm film at the Ziegfeld, you never forgot the experience. There's nothing like watching Lawrence of Arabia or My Fair Lady in 70 mm.

When you want to show something that is not just good picture but also good sound, special effects etc, I am just like everybody else. We have all gone through the various demonstration pieces, from Ghostbusters to Raiders of the Lost Ark to Jurassic Park, etc. Actually I stopped showing Jurassic Park on DVD because I found the audio disappointing in comparison to the laser disc. The audio on the laser disc version had much better dynamic range because it was uncompressed. Right now, we're catching up with audio because Blu-ray has uncompressed sound and we get back the dynamic range. That's why I'm so excited to finish my theater to just start playing movies with no compression.

S&V: What are you demo-ing with now that theaters have HD?

TK: I usually don't demo anything. When a new theater is finished either the A/V custom installer will bring his own demo disc, or the client will want to see his own favorite demo scene. But let me think, which are some of the best transfers lately? I think all the animated pictures make great demonstration pieces. Anything from Ratatouille or Cars looks fantastic simply because they were shot digitally and their picture is stunning. From other, non-animated movies, a lot of people like to demonstrate the attack scene from Pearl Harbor. But the picture quality is not up to speed with the sound. On high definition I love 2001. Again, here is a transfer taken from the 70 mm print that's stunning; the opening sequence takes your breath away. I'm also a very big fan of the old Technicolor process where the camera was able to capture nuances of color that Eastman Kodak can't touch. Warner Home Video has done that with great results in the DVD transfers of Singing in the Rain, Easter Parade and The Band Wagon. And Paramount has issued recently a handful of movies on DVD transferred from the original large VistaVision format. Some of them look absolutely stunning. Example: Funny Face with Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn. It pushes the level of the sharpness of DVD to high definition levels. Also, Artists and Models with Jerry Lewis and To Catch a Thief with Cary Grant and Grace Kelly - all three of them visual feasts on DVD. I can't even imagine how they can look any better when they come out on Blu ray.

S&V: What are some simple steps readers can take to improve the designs of their home theaters? What design elements really make the most impact?

TK: I would say if you don't have the skills, the discipline, and the knowledge, don't try to do too many crazy things. Maintain control by using less rather than more. Because the more we try to do, the more chances are that we will fail. In other words, exercise restraint. I'd rather see a subdued theater design, something that lacks a lot of imagination than see something that is so wacky and overdone that it becomes grotesque. You can go crazy only if you are sure of your craft. Eventually you learn by observing other people's work and by studying your mistakes. If you see you did something that does not work, don't do it again.