Getting Started with Digital Decor
I started digital decorating a few years ago and after some trial and error, I've figured out a pretty easy way to take Halloween decor to a new level. Be forewarned that the following is expensive, but it as an investment. Once you use it a few years, the price is amortized and you don't feel like you've spend hundreds of dollars on something used once a year. There's much to learn about digital projection and unfortunately, most of it is trial and error. The following is meant to a brief introduction to the process.
First, you'll need to invest in a quality projector. These cost anywhere from $300-$1000 dollars and better projectors give you better brightness and color (lumens), contrast ratio (difference between light and dark), and resolution (often tied to throw). Throw refers to the optimal distance the projector needs to be from the screen. The closer to the screen, the smaller the image. The further from the screen, the larger the image but often at the cost of brightness and detail. Most projectors need to be at least 10-15 feet from the screen, unless you get a more expensive "short throw" projector which can be placed much closer.
Other features include things like skewing (keystone) to correct the shape of the image since projectors are never set straight on, multiple inputs including HDMI, and pricey replaceable lamps.
Epson makes some of the best reviewed projectors that are bright, colorful and long-lasting. Recently, big box stores have been carrying really cheap projectors, but be warned, you get what you pay for: dim projectors with no throw.
No projector is weatherproof so if you're planning to project outside, consider some sort of enclosure. But projectors get super hot so you need to have plenty of ventilation and airflow. It's tricky!
The Video & Player
Once you have a projector you need a scene to project. If you're good with video editing you film your own. If you're not, then you need to buy a ready-made video.
AtmosFX is the current leader in digital decoration, and they sell DVDs (at Amazon & Spirit Halloween) as well as HD downloads directly from their website. I prefer the $10 individual downloads since I typically only display one scene per year. You can also find videos for sale from Eerie Elegance, Fright Props, and even stock video places like iStockPhoto.
To play the video on the projector you'll need to connect a DVD player or a digital media player to the projector (a few rare projectors have onboard playing capabilities). The digital media player is usually the easiest way to go. You simply copy your video onto any standard SD card, insert into the player, connect the player to the projector, and hit play. Most DVD & digital players have automatic looping options so a 2-minute clip will repeat over and over.
Keep in mind that playing a video will require multiple remotes so make sure you position the player in an accessible way, and make sure you have access to an electrical outlet.
When considering where to shine your projection, consider that you will need to position the projector 10-15 feet behind or in-front of the area. And the area should be fairly light colored. If projecting onto a house, garage or front porch, where would you place the projector and will it be in the way of people passing by?
Projecting onto a window is a popular choice since the projector can be inside the house. You might also want to hide the projector to aid in the illusion, or use an inexpensive rig to mount the projector onto a ceiling and out of the way.
You'll also need some sort of material to project onto. You can choose an opaque material to hide everything behind it, or an semi-translucent material for a ghostly effect. Either way, make sure it's one large piece of fabric with no seams, wrinkles, or patterns. I found a $20 silvery gray bed sheet at a home goods store that allows the video to shine through without much bounce of light. Experiment to make sure you can see your video on your material.
If projecting from behind, be careful to avoid a "hot spot" or being able to see the projector's beam through the material. Experiment with angles and fine tune the keystone to create the perfect illusion. Mark your set up area with removable tape to remember where everything should go.
Here is my final edited projection. This uses two videos from AtmosFX that I edited together using iMovie. The projector is mounted on the ceiling allowing us to walk freely inside the room without blocking the image. I project onto a light silvery-gray bed sheet mounted to the front window that diffuses the projection and keeps our privacy inside.