Lucas, Dolby bow new digital tech with 'Wars'

Lucasfilm THX and Dolby Laboratories will launch a new theatrical digital surround sound technology, Dolby Digital-Surround EX, with the release of director George Lucas’ upcoming “Star Wars: Episode 1 — The Phantom Menace,” next May 21.

The new system, which will be unveiled Tuesday at the ShowEast exhibitors convention in Atlantic City, was co-developed and is jointly-owned by Lucasfilm THX and Dolby.

It employs a 6.1-channel theatrical surround sound format, adding an additional rear center channel to the 5.1-channel format currently used in most theaters. The speakers, which are positioned along the sides and rear of the theater, are wired to create more realistic sound effects that are smoother and more accurately placed than existing systems, according to a statement issued jointly by the two companies.

Real world sound

Gary Rydstrom, Oscar-winning sound designer and director of creative operations for Skywalker Sound (Lucas Digital Ltd.), was responsible for spearheading the development of the new technology. “I wanted to develop a format that would open up new possibilities and place sounds exactly where you would hear them in the real world,” he said.

Added director and Skywalker Sound founder George Lucas, “This new surround technology provides filmmakers with a powerful new creative tool for producing realistic soundtracks.”

The new format can be adapted to all existing 5.1 digital systems by installing the new Dolby SA-10 surround adapter, which will cost theater owners less than $5,000, according to Dolby sources. In some cases, the installation of an additional speaker also will be required.

In addition to Lucas’ new “Star Wars” film, two more pics are already slated to use the technology: DreamWorks’ “The Haunting of Hill House” and Sony’s “Memoirs of a Geisha,” directed by Stephen Spielberg. Ironically, Spielberg is a part owner of DTS, a competing 5.1 digital system. Sony subsid Sony Cinema Products Corp. is the maker of SDDS, another rival system. SDDS, an eight-channel system, uses five speakers behind the screen, two surround channels and a subwoofer.

Eyeing upgrades

But in response to the THX/Dolby announcement, Sony Cinema Products Corp. VP Bill Meade said his company would consider adding an additional surround channel to the SDDS system if there was a demand from filmmakers.

“We would like to look at the market and see where filmmakers want to go,” said Meade, a former Dolby exec. “To the extent that this is viable you can certainly look to us to address this need with our products.”

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