The Importance of Sight Lines in Home Theater Design

This article is part of Audio Advice's Home Theater Design Series that covers virtually everything about designing a home theater. 

If you have been in a new commercial movie theater in the last 10 years, you have probably noticed the prevalence of stadium seating. Do you remember the old movie theater experience before this trend? Think back to that person with the big hat or huge shoulders sitting right in front of you blocking your view of the screen. You had to spend the whole movie leaning over to one side to see the screen.

What you experienced was a sight line issue. As a matter of fact, in that old style movie theater and even current ones, you can experience all sorts of sight line problems. If you are thinking about designing a home theater in your home, sight lines are an extremely important element to consider.

In addition to our world-class home theater design tool, we've given you everything you need to begin your home theater journey in Home Theater Central.

Blocked Views and Cramped Necks

Let’s talk first about that big head blocking your line of sight to the screen. There are two ways to fix this. The first is to just have your screen up really high off the floor. While that may eliminate people in the back rows from being blocked, it creates a new problem for people sitting on the front row -- an extreme viewing angle. They’re going to have to lean their head back the whole time and will leave your theater remembering their stiff neck instead of a great movie experience!


Example of front row blocking back row, over 1/3 of bottom part of screen is blocked

Example of front row blocking back row, over 1/3 of the bottom part of the screen is blocked

One way to eliminate being blocked but this puts the screen up to high for the front row

One way to eliminate being blocked but this puts the screen up too high for front row

The other way to fix it is to have your rows of seats at different elevations. This will allow you to keep the screen positioned low enough to provide a great viewing angle for everyone. This can be accomplished through the use of risers, providing that stadium seating effect you see in your modern local cineplex. However, without the proper knowledge and planning, this can also be done incorrectly.

The bottom line is, you need to make sure your riser is tall enough and that your screen is not too high up. It is tricky to find the right balance and gets even more complex with more than 2 rows, but of course, that is where companies like Audio Advice can help. With proper planning and design, you will not have to worry about either stiff necks or blocked vision!

We can’t tell you how many theaters we have been in where an attempt was made at implementing risers and it was just done incorrectly. The most common issue we see is that the risers are just too short to provide enough clearance. While this may add to the visual appeal of the theater, it won’t solve your sight line problems.

Example of a good riser height

Example of riser being too short, it is better, but riser is not high enough

Example of riser being too short. It is better, but riser is not high enough.

Example of a good riser height

If you want more details on how to find the proper riser height, we have actually done an entire blog on it, you can check out here.  

Motion Sickness

The final sight line consideration is not as black and white as the first two. If your view of the screen is blocked, even a child would know there is a problem right away. When you have screen size issues, however, the problem is not as crystal clear. While people tend to default to squeezing the largest possible screen they can into the room, this may create a screen that is too big for the main viewing distances.

What it really comes down to is that the size of the screen should be based on the ratio of screen size to its distance from the home theater seating. You don’t want too much of the screen to fill your field of view. This can cause headaches, motion sickness, and vertigo. This problem is easily remedied through a combination of finding the right sized screen for your home theater, and the positioning of the furniture.

The ratio of how much of the screen should fill your field of vision is even a debatable subject among the experts! Dolby Labs (a long time expert in the field) and SMPTE (Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers) even disagree on the ratio.

As technology has improved in front projectors and resolutions have increased, we’ve actually found that we can go bigger than we have been able to in the past without the motion sickness issues.

At Audio Advice we have come up with a special method to help our clients choose the right size screen. We perform an exercise of letting them experience fast motion video while moving their chair back and forth until they find a comfortable spot. From there we can use simple math to calculate the correct screen size that will be perfect for the layout of their room.

If you are not able to visit us, we do have some tips to help you out.

First, ask yourself where you like to sit at the movies. The front row? Somewhere in the middle? The back? That simple answer can be of great value in coming up with your ideal screen size. Now bear in mind, with a room having multiple rows of seating, each row will have a big difference in the viewing angle and field of vision ratio. If you like sitting towards the front of a movie theater, you’ll probably wind up focusing on the front row. This also means if your guests like the middle or back row, they will love sitting on the second or third row of your theater.

For those of you who like to sit towards the back, you’ll more than likely make your second row the primary focus and drill down your field of vision ratio to this row. Which means when your friends come over they may either love the front row experience or feel it’s a little too big, but with your great sight line design, they still will not get a stiff neck from having to look up.

The lucky ones in the crowd who have a room large enough to support three rows of seats have it pretty easy. There you can use the averages from Dolby and SMPTE and focus on your middle row of seats. Doing this will make the middle row great for those who like to sit in the middle of a movie theater and also make the front row and back row people happy too! The riser heights and screen height off the floor will take more thought here, but with proper planning, you will have an awesome three-row theater!

To learn more about the exact specifics on choosing the right sized screen, check out our blog.  

Ideal SMPTE ratio for a 16:9 screen (38 degrees)

Ideal SMPTE Ratio for a 16:9 Screen (38 degrees)

Enjoy Your Theater!

Now that you know all about sight lines, we hope you will use these tips when designing a theater room for your home. 

Of course, if you’re in or around the Carolina’s, especially in the Raleigh or Charlotte area where we have showrooms, we would really appreciate you considering working with us on your home theater design and installation. We’ve spent decades making a name for ourselves in this area and take pride in delivering the best home theater experiences in the industry. Or if you are outside of our market, our support staff can also help you design the perfect home theater room, from design to equipment selection and purchase.  

Feel free to reach out to us via email, phone, or online chat for any questions.

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