Dolby Laboratories and the 3-D Movie Sound Revolution

On Sunday, Pixar's animated hit, Toy Story 3, goes for a Best Picture Oscar. And it was an innovative new series of sound channels that let Buzz Lightyear be even buzzier.

When the celebrities walk the red carpet at the Academy Awards on Sunday, you might miss the stars of sound who helped 3-D storytelling take a giant leap forward this year: Dolby Laboratories. Last June, Dolby unleashed Surround 7.1 in conjunction with Best Picture nominee Toy Story 3. For the first time, it enabled viewers of 3-D movies to feel like they were inside of the action and inside of the sound.

Pixar came to Dolby as they were preparing the latest installment of the Woody-Buzz franchise, Dolby technical marketing manager Stuart Bowling tells Fast Company. For years, there had been limitations on what sound designers could do, based on how sound was delivered to speakers inside the theater. Pixar wanted to know if Dolby could create a new system, one that would let designers better break up where the sound took place inside the theater, to better recreate sound from real-world environments.

The historical limitations were due to the limited capabilities of physical film, which could only carry so many sound channels. As a result, sound in the back of the theater couldn’t be separated from the sound on the sides—the same channel was delivered to each set of speakers. But digital systems have much more bandwidth, so now Dolby could add more channels, and then send it to different sets of speakers (see image, below), which in turn allowed designers to move sound around the theater—the effect is closer to the way we experience sound in real life. 

"In an initial test, we remixed the sequence from Toy Story 2 where the toys are crossing the road, inside orange cones," Bowling says. "The amount of immersion you get from that is that you really feel the claustrophobia of the toys inside the cones. You literally feel the cars drive over you. You’re hearing the cars come from the screen, running right down the right and left surround, [and then off the back]. We couldn’t do that before." 

The new system, which is now in about 1,300 theaters worldwide, has meant that movie makers, like Pixar, have more choices with what they do on the screen.

"In live action films, whenever you hear someone speak, you predominantly hear them speaking from the center of the screen [where a set of speakers is located]," Bowling says. "But Pixar likes to have their characters move around the room. So now Slinky, the dog, can walk across the screen. He can start talking on the left channel, and then in the center. And then the front of him can disappear off screen [to the right]. You’re hearing him talking on the right wall, while you’re still seeing his legs in front of you."

[Diagram: Dolby Laboratories]

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E.B. Boyd is FastCompany.com's Silicon Valley reporter. Twitter. Email.

Read more of our 2011 Academy Awards coverage.

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