A Guide to Digital Decorating

I started digital decorating a few years ago and it took my Halloween decorating to a new level. Be aware that it can be expensive but once you figure it out, you'll be using year after year. There's much to learn about digital projection and unfortunately, most of it is trial and error for your specific set up. The following is a brief introduction to the project.

The Projector

First, you'll need to invest in a quality projector. I've used only Epson projectors and these cost anywhere from $300-$1000 dollars. Here are some terms to familiarize yourself with:

 

  • Lumens determine brightness and color, and can affect the 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. 

 

  • Keystone is the ability for the projector to skew the image if set at an downward, upward or slightly side angle.
     

  • Hot Spot is the the round halo of light created by a projector set behind a screen (vs a projector set in front of a screen).
     

  • Enclosure will be needed if using the projector outdoors since NO projector is weatherproof. Projectors get super hot so you need to have plenty of ventilation and airflow. It's very, very tricky!

  • LED Projectors have flooded the market with very dim, very low resolution images. These tend to be really cheap projectors, but be warned, you get what you pay for.

Media Player and Videos

Once you have a projector you need videos and a device to play those videos. 

 

Most projectors do not include a video player so you will need a source to play videos and connect this to the projector. This can be an old phone or tablet, but a better choice is a digital media player. The digital media player reads videos from SD cards or flash drives inserted into them. Most digital players have automatic looping options so a 2-minute clip will repeat over and over automatically. 

 

For the videos themselves, AtmosFX is the current leader in digital decoration, and they sell digital downloads directly from their website. They offer bundles or individual scenes. You can also find videos for sale from Fright Props, and even stock video places like iStockPhoto. With today's really smart phones, you could even film and edit your own footage!

Placement of the Projector

When considering where to project your video, consider the following:

 

  • The projector will needs to be 8-12 feet behind or in-front of the screen in a dry, stable environment. 

  • 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?

  • Is there a safe, reliable electric outlet where no one will trip over cables?

  • Will you try to hide the projector from view to aid in the illusion and if so, how?

  • Projecting onto a window is a popular choice since the projector can be inside the house. You might want an inexpensive rig to mount the projector onto a ceiling and out of the way.

The Screen

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.

Finally, make sure to consider existing light sources that may interfere with your projection. Is there light from street lights, neighbor's driveway lights, landscape lighting or other sources? It best to look at the area where your projection will be to determine any problems. Inevitably, the moon might even be a culprit!

Bloody Skeletons

Here is one of my edited projections. 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. I've been using this same set-up ever since then.