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Technology of the Stars: Celebrity Home Automation

September 23, 2014 | Comments

Ever wonder what sort of entertainment and automation systems your favorite Hollywood actor or director enjoys at home?

Eric Thies knows. As co-founder of DSI Entertainment Systems, an award-winning West Hollywood-based design and installation firm that recently became part of VIA International, he has been serving Hollywood's elite for 20 years and has amassed an impressive portfolio of projects - and stories - along the way.

We caught up with Eric recently for a behind-the-scenes look at some of the systems VIA designs and installs for its famous clientele.

"Los Angeles is the mecca of film and TV people, so we have a fairly large contingent of celebrity clients who either want to continue to immerse themselves in audio/video at home or want none of it," Thies says, recalling rock star clients who were more interested in having a killer theater setup than a music system.

"It seems that the last thing they want to do when they get home is listen to music. And vice-versa, video can take a backseat to music for people who are heavily involved in movie-making, which is counter to what you might think."

Super Serious Screening Rooms

Even so, home theater looms large in the work VIA does for its Hollywood VIPs. "The one constant is that everyone feels they need a screening room, and they do it to a much more intense degree than the average wealthy person in the U.S.," Thies explains.

The screening rooms tend to be a dedicated space with six to 12 seats and a commercial-grade projector, Dolby movie server, and multi-speaker sound system - the same equipment you'll find in an AMC theater. Costs can range anywhere from $250,000 to $3 million (one of Thies' clients built a 49-seat theater).

Why commercial gear? "Most of my clients are part of this thing called the Bel Air Circuit, a kind of exclusive club run by the studios that gives access to films the day they are released in the theater. They put in an order and the film is delivered on an encrypted hard drive. You can't buy your way into it. It's invite-only."

VIA's A-list clients also want a state-of-the-art technology, with many requesting the new Dolby Atmos surround format that uses up to 64 channels to (literally) heighten realism. Says Thies, "Atmos systems add height channels with overhead speakers, which we like to call The Voice of God."

Movies Alfresco

Asked about interesting or unusual requests, Thies tells the story of a $150,000 outdoor theater DSI designed and built for the late actor Heath Ledger, known best for his portrayal of Batman nemesis the Joker in 2008's The Dark Knight.

"He had purchased a well-known property on Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles known as the Tree House because it's up on a hill and has an enormous amount of outdoor decking. It was important for him to have a theater, but he didn't have enough space indoors, so we created an outdoor theater space ."

Highlights include a 12-foot-wide screen that drops down into the patio area and high-end theater speakers . "We worked with a contractor who built teak enclosures for the projector , screen, front-channel speakers, and two subwoofers," Thies recalls. "The system would get pretty loud, and you could hear it all through the canyon."

As you might expect, security is a huge priority for the rich and famous. In addition to having panic rooms and 24-hour guards, VIA's high-profile clients want security cameras in and around the house that they can view from every device - smartphones, tablets, and wall-mounted touch panels.

Hollywood Style Automation

Automation is another staple of the VIP lifestyle. "Celebrities do a lot of entertaining, and many run production companies out of their homes, usually in a secondary building or in a wing of the house, so you have to also accommodate the staff," Thies observes. VIA technicians do extensive custom programming to make it easy to control the whole house from touch panels, smartphones, and tablets.

When it's time for a dinner party, for example, the personal assistant can get the house ready with the touch of a button. "We'll create a sequence that dims lights to set an intimate mood in all the public areas. "If it's a dinner and a movie type of gathering, we might create a lighted pathway from the dining room to the screening room in the lower part of the home, typically the basement." All this would be in addition to automating the temperature to keep the home comfortable, setting up lighting to highlight artwork, and so on.

Special requests come into play as well. "We had a client who wanted to know when the mail arrived so we built a sensor system inside the mailbox that could detect a postcard." A You've Got Mail alert would show up on all the touch panels throughout the house.

"Celebrities tend to be creative, so they like this kind of stuff and probably have more input than the average person," Thies says. "The high-net-worth business guy is generally less enthusiastic and involved. Look at Warren Buffett. He's lived in the same house for 40 years and probably hasn't remodeled his home office in 30 years."

To learn more about professionally designed and installed home entertainment and automation options, consult a CEDIA professional. Click here for a list of CEDIA-member home technology professionals in your area.