Lighting Mastery

The secrets to home theater lighting control | Making a scene

last updated:
March 28, 2024
Bobby Bala

In a dark room, five guests are fumbling along the walls trying to find a light switch or window. They've been led to believe this room is a luxurious custom home theater, but it's so dark that it feels like nothing more than a lethal obstacle course, someone stubs their toe, another guest thinks they've found a window but can't figure out how to operate the blinds. Probably not the experience most designers are going for, and yet, it's a familiar picture.

Lighting control is one of the most challenging aspects of home theater design and can cause even the most seasoned professional a mild headache. It's easy to get sidetracked by fiber optic ceilings, vintage light fixtures, and the intricacies of backlighting a screen, but functionality trumps design every single time. It doesn't matter how much was invested in the starlit ceiling if nobody can turn it on.

We’ve created this guide of home theater lighting control tips so that designers can make sure lights, camera, action, is always just a simple click away.

Recommended reading: You asked, we answered. A guide to luxury home theater design.

Eliminate outside lighting

Custom home theaters are often situated in a basement because these rooms are naturally dark. However, not everybody has access to an underground space, and it's possible to build an immersive home theater as long as all outside light is blocked.

Three tips to reduce outside lighting:

  • Limit the number of doors and windows
  • Invest in controlled blackout blinds
  • Build custom walls or mini-rooms around windows

Once the room is entirely dark, it's time to start mapping out where and how the lighting will work.

Create a home theater lighting control center

Having an intelligent control center within arm's reach makes navigating home theaters much easier. Most theatre designers will install a tablet or phone with a dedicated app, programming it so that anyone can use the home theater with ease. Usability will depend on the level of customization required; if executed well it should connect to every element of the room from the A/V equipment to the lighting and sound.

For instance, it could be as simple as having a pre-set button for each member of the family. Dad may like the air con cold with the volume loud. Perhaps Mom prefers a cozier room with a lower volume. Whereas the kids could choose to play movies with the lights on and the speakers blaring loud enough to make most people's ears bleed.

Lighting control should feel as simple as just using an app, but it often requires a complicated system to be put in place. There are plenty of cheap options on the market, but only three are trusted by most A/V integrators. The recommended home theater control systems are Crestron, Savant, and Control 4.

Invest in a reliable network system

The control center will communicate with the lighting through signals, making establishing a secure network key to any successful lighting control plan. It's best to avoid budget options and invest in a technology that can handle the expensive equipment in the room.

Rather than scrabbling about trying to understand cables, signals and networks – consult an A/V specialist. Nobody wants a dodgy connection that makes controlling the lighting unpredictable at best, and impossible at worst.

Set the mood with smart lighting

Smart lighting is the best way to give a premium feel to a home theater's lighting. Apps can be used to make this lighting fully customizable, with dimming features and full control. Higher-end options come with an RGB spectrum, allowing the color and temperature to be changed to suit the mood.

Get atmospheric with dimmers and switches

It's essential that lights in the home theater are dimmable. What's more, ensure that lights dim all the way to fully dark. Dimming can be tricky and is perhaps best left to the professionals. Lighting experts know how to pick the perfect light settings for different scenes.

Choreograph lights to set different scenes at the press of a button. An example of a pre-set could be "Movie about to Start" where a slow dimming of the lights occurs right before the film plays. Giving an audience ample time to hush, get comfortable, and power off their phones! It depends on the home theater, but an immersive experience is not quite the same if screens keep lighting up in all the seating.

Set the scene!

"Scenes" are how designers often describe pre-set control functions in a room. Typical scenes might include: Play Movie, Clean Room, Romantic Evening, Kids Go Wild, or Cozy Night In. The sky's the limit when it comes to customization, but most people settle for three to five scenes that cover the overall functionality of the room.

Lighting is a significant component of any scene, for example when cleaning up – bright overhead lighting is needed to make sure nothing is lurking in dark corners, or a romantic scene might require some dimmer mood lighting.

Automation and motion sensors

This is part of a two-article guide to lighting custom cinemas. Check out the other half to find out what types of home theater lighting work.

With so many moving parts to a home theater, it can be hard to get everything perfect. That’s why at Elite HTS, we create resources to assist home theater designers. If you liked this feature on home theater lighting control, then why not check out our recent projects or follow our custom home theater series, where you can grab some inspiration for your home theater.

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