How To Create An Awesome Backyard Movie Experience

A post by Mr. Leaven.

Last year my wife had the idea to do monthly backyard movies for family, friends, and the neighborhood kids, and she put me to work trying to make it a reality.  There is no right way, and you should make sure you have fun figuring it out for yourself.  And something stiff to drink at some point.  Here are some highlights of my experience:

First consider the three most important aspects to doing this:

1.)  You need a computer projector, and they're not cheap.  I recommend a digital light processing (DLP) projector, about $300-500.00.  Mine is a Viewsonic PJD5122, and works well.  There are newer and better though.  Make sure it will connect with your computer!
2.)  You need to consider how you are going to produce "big" outdoor sound.  An amplifier feeding outdoor speakers is ideal, and strongly advised, as good sound can really make a movie AWESOME.
2.)  You need yard topography that will work.  If your yard is 5 x 40 feet, it may be tricky.  If you don't have trees, you may have a challenge.  Somehow you have to have or create a decent surface on which to project your movie, whether it is a fixed hard surface (e.g. house, garage, fence), suspended screen, inflatable screen, or other.

Here's how I did my setup:

Orientation:  First, I figured out where I would want folks sitting/facing for the show and I tried to get my screen and projector to fit that way.  This meant a projection surface away from the house.

Screen layout:  I could have tried to create a special stand to support a screen, but this seemed too complex.  Instead, I found a couple of trees, about 35-40 feet apart, from which I suspended my screen.  The first time one does this is the hardest -- a lot of trial and error -- so give yourself time, ample adult beverages, and significant auditory distance from children.  Subsequent setups are a breeze, and take about 15 minutes.

Screen ingredients:

1.)  a canvas drop cloth at Home Depot, measuring approximately 12 x 15 feet, but adjust to your needs
2.)  a couple of 10 foot lengths of 1.5 inch PVC pipe for the top bar from which the screen will be attached and suspended
3.)  a couple of 10 foot lengths of 0.5 inch PVC pipe for the bottom bar of the screen to maintain tension
4.)  about 10 cheap spring clamps to hold the canvas to the uppper bar
5.)  about 50-100 feet of nylon rope

Screen assembly:

1.)  push the PVC pipe pairs together (they have a flange on one end so the can be connected like you did as a kid with a couple of straws) so that you have two 20 foot long sections of pipes (one 1.5 inch diameter and one 0.5 inch diameter)

2.)  cut one of the pipes in each pair with a hacksaw to shorten the entire lenth to a foot or so longer than your screen canvas width (16 feet in my case; for my 15 foot wide, 12 foot tall canvas).
3.)  feed the nylon rope through the larger diameter pipe (your top bar); this can be tricky as it is long -- I usually feed through one pipe at a time and then reconnect them.  I am working on a way to reliably and quickly thread the rope through; I have used part of the smaller pipe as a needle to which I attach the rope and this seems to work OK.
4.)  feed the ends of the rope over some branches on trees on either side (at least one of my trees is not even that close, and the screen sits asymmetrically on the rope between the two trees).  The branches should be higher than the screen height by 10-20 feet, and I use an extension ladder (highly recommended) to get the rope where I want.  I think a ladder is a must.
5.)  unfold the canvas and secure it to the 1.5 inch top bar PVC by the clamps spaced at 2-3 foot intervals.   I often will rotate the clamps backward as I lift the screen so that they are less visible.

6.)  using leather utility gloves, I hoist one side at a time, slowly, occasionally securing one side to work on the other, so that I get the screen to the desired height, and keep it aligned on the rope in a position that is suitable for my anticipated projection path.  My screen is usually 1-2 feet off of the ground, when I have secured both ends.  You really need to use gloves for this.
7.)  attach the lower smaller PVC tube to the canvas bottom (I use safety pins and roll the canvas around the pipe).

1.) you may need an extension cord, as you will need to power the projector and the laptop.
2.) there is a lot written on the net about establishing the proper focal length to get your picture to fit just right on the screen.  This is mostly hogwash.
     a.)  your picture will either be too small, if your projector is too close, in which case figure out a way to move it back/increase distance.
     b.)  usually it will tend to be too big, as your projector will be too far from the screen.  This is easily remedied by shrinking the window of your media player.  For instance, if I am using the DVD player, I just adjust the size of the player to fit my canvas screen.  To make this extra nice, I suggest making your desktop have a black background (get rid of your fancy wallpaper for the night), and putting as much of the desktop files into one folder and making sure that the media player you use covers up that folder.  This way any "extra" computer screen real estate that would project off of the canvas is black and made essentially invisible.
3.)  connect a cable like the one shown from your laptops headphone jack to your home receiver/amplifier and thence to outdoor speakers.  This gives the coolest sound.  You really can't get surround sound outdoors, but the "bigness" of the sound is impressive with an amplifier setup.  I have never tried it, but you might just try using computer speakers; I suspect that the sound will be underwhelming.

Miscellaneous tips:
1.)  I prefer streaming video to DVD, as it is easier, and selection is more broad; just make sure your bandwidth can support this.  Otherwise the movie is interrupted frequently as it get caught up.  I use Amazon Instant Video a lot, as the selection is great, the fees are reasonable for rental, and it is deplorably available with one click.
2.)  Check the almanac for sunset times and plan your movie about 15-30 minutes after that.  For school kids, this means Friday or Saturday nights only!
3.)  Prepare for mosquitoes!  I use Tiki Torches which give the whole thing an enchanting feel.

These are some of our experiences.  Please share yours!


Mr. (& Mrs.) Leaven

PS:  Thanks to my sister-in-law for many of the cool photos above (


  1. super cool and detailed! I love that we have YOU to do this :) Thank you for all your hard work!!


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