Dolby’s Atmos immerses auds in audio

Dolby Theater and 'Brave' showcase new format

With the unveiling of the Dolby Theater in Hollywood and the release of Pixar’s “Brave” tomorrow, pros and the public are getting their first ears-ful of Dolby’s new sound format, Atmos.

Dolby has been tubthumping the improved sound Atmos delivers thanks to additional speaker positions, including overhead surround speakers, and the extended range of those speakers. But I’m most excited about a less ballyhooed feature of Atmos and SRS Labs’ Multidimensional Audio (MDA): sound “objects.”

Object-based sound, explains SRS Labs CTO Alan Kraemer, “allows theaters and theater chains and makers of theater equipment to innovate.”

Here’s why:

Until now, there’s been little point in theaters adding speakers or speaker positions, because the movies were mixed in 5.1 (five surround channels and one subwoofer channel for bass) or, most recently, 7.1. Even Imax, which boasts subwoofers powerful enough to blow out candles, has been limited to just those six or eight channels. Theaters didn’t install extra speakers because the mix couldn’t do anything with them. Meanwhile producers and distributors could add channels, but theaters wouldn’t have the speakers to play them. On all sides, the question was: Why bother?

For example, take the Iosono speaker arrays installed in theaters 1 and 6 at the Chinese 6 in Hollywood. Each auditorium has a row of dozens of speakers, inches apart, running the length of either side wall. An Iosono array can, in theory, place sound very precisely front-to-back — a big plus for 3D movies — but a mix would need dozens of channels to fully exploit it.

With sound “objects,” directors and mixers stop thinking about which channel a sound goes on. They place the source of the sound in space relative to the listener — that is, they make the sound source an “object” — and then the playback device routes the sound to whatever speakers give the desired effect. In a Dolby Atmos theater, the Atmos decoder learns all the speaker positions and the acoustics of the room, then the decoder uses the speakers that place the sound where the filmmakers wanted it, whether there are two speakers in the room or 102. Plug an Iosono array into an object-based sound system, and it would be able to use those dozens of speakers individually. Atmos has the equivalent of 128 channels — quite a jump from the six of 5.1 or the eight of 7.1., and its surround speakers boast full bass, so sound can have real weight no matter what direction it comes from.

That solves the “chicken-and-egg” problem for theaters and sound-equipment makers. They can get creative about what they build and install with confidence that an object-based soundtrack will be able to use it.

DTS, Dolby’s rival, is in the process of acquiring SRS Labs, makers of MDA. That means both companies have embraced the concept of object-based sound, so I expect wide adoption of it in the next few years. SRS is making MDA an open standard, available for free, which would encourage wide adoption. An MDA soundtrack, in theory, would be able to use all the speakers in the Dolby Theater or any other Atmos venue.

“It allows exhibitors to say, ‘I’ve got the best sound in town, so come to my theater and maybe even pay me a little more,’?” says Kraemer.

And the Atmos speaker system at the Dolby Theater, which includes overhead surround speakers and full-range surround speakers, with bass, might be worth paying an upcharge for. It’s that good. (A list of Atmos-equipped venues can be found with the online version of this column.)

Sound pros love the new possibilities these speakers offer.

Sound mixer Greg P. Russell told me, “First, full-range surround is something I’ve longed for forever. Second, we’ve tried to give the feeling that something is directly over your head, and the only way to do that is with the surround. But it never gave you the effect that it’s directly above you. Those are the two specific things from a mixing standpoint we’ve never been able to offer.”

I’m old enough to remember looking in the newspaper to find theaters showing “Star Wars” and its ilk in 70mm and Dolby or DTS, then driving extra miles to get the best sound and picture. Imax is luring auds the same way today.

Once object-based sound finds wide adoption, I’m hoping to see a lot of innovation in theater sound, enough to give people a reason to turn off the TV and go to the movies. Not just louder sound, but a soundscape rendered in such detail, and with such range, that no consumer home theater system could match it.

Hollywood’s problem, unfortunately, is that it’s serving up technically polished movies that aren’t getting audiences excited. More on that in my next column.

United States & Canada: The Dolby Theatre (Hollywood, CA); AMC Burbank 16 (Burbank, CA); AMC Century City 15 (Century City, CA); Arclight Sherman Oaks (Sherman Oaks, CA); Brenden Theatres at the Palms (Las Vegas, NV); SilverCity-Yonge Eglinton Cinemas (Cineplex) (Toronto, ON); AMC Garden State 16 (Paramus, NJ); AMC Van Ness 14 (San Francisco, CA); Century at Pacific Commons and XD (Fremont, CA); Kerasotes Showplace ICON at Roosevelt Collection (Chicago, IL); AMC Downtown Disney 24 (Lake Buena Vista, FL); Cinemark West Plano and XD (West Plano, TX); Cinetopia Vancouver Mall 23 (Vancouver, WA); AMC Barrywoods 24 (Kansas City, MO).

Europe: Empire Leicester Square (London, United Kingdom); Cinesa Diagonal Mar (Barcelona, Spain).

Asia: Shanghai Film Art Center (Shanghai, China); UME Shuangjing (Beijing, China); China Film Stella Theater Chain Hefei 1912 (He Fei, China); Wanda Cinemas Wuhan Lingjiao Lake (Wuhan, China).

Global Post Facilities: Skywalker Sound – Skywalker Ranch (Marin County, CA); China Film Post (Beijing, China).

Dolby Offices, United States & Europe: Larry Umlang Theatre (Burbank, CA); Dolby 88 (New York City, NY); Dolby Soho Screening Room (London, United Kingdom); Dolby Royal Wootton Bassett, Screen 1 (Royal Wootton Bassett, United Kingdom); Dolby Screening Room (San Francisco, CA).

Bits & Bytes

Marc Zicree is using Kickstarter to crowdfund “Space Command,” a series of science-fiction pics he is writing and producing. Zicree says he met his goal of $75,000 in just three days and has already raised twice that, with a month to go before the fundraising effort expires.

The ASC has tapped Stephen Lighthill as president. … Grass Valley has named Graham Sharp senior VP of corporate development. Sharp will oversee corporate strategy, M&A activity and strategic alliances. Sharp comes to Grass Valley from Xtranormal, where he was most recently interim president and CEO. His credits include executive VP and general manager of Avid’s video division. He began his career with Tektronix/Grass Valley in the 1980s. … Testronic Labs has hired two execs for its games division: Becky Walker is the new director, business development, for games services and Martin Rasmussen is Scandinavian sales specialist.

Moving Picture Company created 420 vfx shots for Prometheus” in native stereo. MPC was lead vendor on the pic. Charley Henley was MPC’s vfx supervisor. Luma FX of Santa Monica helped create the holographic images in “Prometheus.” … A new boutique vfx studio, Hoxton Redsox, has launched in London. Among its early work is the viral videos for “Prometheus.” Company’s founders are Paul McGeoch, Giancarlo Bonati and Stefan Gerstheimer. McGeoch was vfx supervisor on the “Prometheus” videos. … Company3 colorist Stephen Nakamura graded four versions of “Prometheus”: 2D, RealD 3D, RealD 3D with higher brightness (6 foot lamberts) and Imax 3D. Nakamura worked at Company3 in Santa Monica while helmer Ridley Scott viewed the results simultaneously in RealD in the Zanuck Theater on the Fox lot. Scott and Nakamura were linked by teleconference…

Pixomondo created more than 270 vfx shots for U’s “Snow White and the Huntsman,” many of them in the pic’s prologue. Cedric Nicolas-Troyan and Phil Brennan were overall vfx supervisors on the picture; Bryan Hirota was vfx supe for Pixomondo.

Modus FX has opened a previs division at its facility in Quebec. Modus is also stationing concept artist Nicolas Cloutier on set to work with directors to design CG effects, imagine practical elements and develop the look and ambiance of scenes. He hands his sketches off to the vfx team to improve efficiency in vfx production.

Prime Focus World used Shotgun for production management as it provided vfx and 3D conversion on “Men in Black 3.” Prime Focus is also beta testing Shotgun’s new Revolver shot review product.

Sony has announced its new SRX-R515 4K digital cinema projection system, aimed at smaller exhibitors and medium-sized screens. … Christie has achieved DCI compliance for its Integrated Media Block. It is the first IMB to pass a DCI compliance test using a 4K DLP projection system. The Christie IMB is ready for high-frame-rate cinema. … Stellar International Cineplex of China has pacted to deploy RealD 3D in 100 screens across the chain.

Avid is supporting the Sundance Directors Lab with Media Composer 6 softtware, Nitris DX hardware and and ISIS 5000 storage. Avid is also sponsoring the “Film School Fridays” podcast, in which Kevin Smith answers questions from film students from across the country.

Tomorrow, June 22, at 5:00 p.m. PDT is the deadline to submit entries for the Hollywood Post Alliance’s Engineering Excellence Award.

Deluxe and Post Modern Sound are offering bundled picture and sound post services to feature and TV customers in Vancouver, B.C.

More Grass Valley news: rental house Video Equipment Rentals has acquired four additional LDK 8300 Live Super SloMo camera systems. ABC Sports/ESPN is using the additional units on the NBA Finals.

Creatasphere’s Digital Asset Management Conference – Europe will be held Nov. 13-14 at the World Forum in The Hague, Netherlands. … The International Cinematographers Guild, Local 600, is offering a Lighting Workshop and Digital Symposium June 23-24 at 2 Emerson Lane in Secaucus, N.J. Event includes master classes with d.p.’s Reed Morano, Tom Stern and Rodrigo Prieto. … Moviola is offering courses this summer: “Intro to DaVinci Resolve Color Correction” June 30-July 1; “SCRATCH Lab: Basics and Dailies” June 26 & 28, July 3 & 5. … A free pre-release trial of Autodesk Smoke 2013 is available through the Autodesk website.