The surprise success of the sci-fi movie Gravity—which broke box office records for both its stars, Sandra Bullock and George Clooney—is largely being attributed to its heavily rendered 3-D imagery. What audiences may not have realized is that an equally astounding part of the thrill came from a spacey sound system created by Dolby called Atmos. Theaters equipped with Atmos project sound effects anywhere in the room to complement the movements of visual effects on screen.
"With this format now, the entire theater becomes a sound stage. You can play sound anywhere in the theater," says Skip Lievsay, a sound re-recording mixer for Gravity.
In early movies, filmmakers were limited to a single set of speakers behind the screen. Then came 5.1 surround. But with Dolby Atmos, which was announced in 2012, movie houses deploy speakers throughout the theater, including on the ceiling. And sound designers control the direction of sounds as they move physically through the theater to match what's happening on the big screen.
"It's almost like you're in a virtual 4-D ride where things are coming at you but you're not physically being hit by anything," says Stuart Bowling, technical marketing manager for Dolby Laboratories. "But you're having that wave of sound coming through with these additional speakers."