The latest cinematic storytelling device is not on the screen.
It’s in the air.
Cinema sound innovator Dolby has once again teamed with Disney-owned Pixar on its next generation sound format. The 3-D animated Scottish adventure Brave–which rolls out June 22–is the first film to use the new Dolby Atmos system, promising a more immersive experience through the addition of overhead speakers and precise placement of sound elements in space.
Dolby Atmos advances the technology of the current industry standard–Dolby 7.1–by enabling as many as 128 specific sound elements (called objects) to project from up to 64 individual speakers at a single time, rather than seven individually recorded channels projected from as many groups of speakers, plus a discrete subwoofer channel. The shift from channel to object-based sound mixing has revolutionized the role sound will play in its enhancement of cinematic storytelling.
“A Subtle Art”
“Sound design is the part of storytelling that sneaks through the side door of the brain,” says re-recording mixer Will Files, who oversaw the Atmos sound mix of Brave. “It’s more effective as a subtle art than if the viewer is aware of what we’re doing. As a filmmaker, you can’t actually make the audience smell the ocean, or feel heat, cold, wind on skin, or the kickback of a shooting gun. So you overcompensate by taking artistic license with sound to deliver the feeling you want the audience to have.
“For example, in Brave, there’s a moment when one of characters suddenly feels physically exposed,” Files continues. “Suddenly the sound of a cold draft kicks up in the castle and the wind whistles through the hallways. It doesn’t make much sense that a wind gust would course through an enclosed building; but from a storytelling point of view, it connects the emotion of the character feeling exposed and cold.
“With 7.1, we’re able to move sound from the front to the side to the back in seven simple zones,” he adds. “With Atmos, we could move it speaker by speaker along the walls and ceiling. More points of sound creates a more natural soundfield, so it becomes more like a real breeze blowing through the theater. It’s the difference between a paint roller and a detail brush.”
During its five-year development of Atmos, Dolby enlisted feedback from Pixar, whose Toy Story 3 unveiled Dolby 7.1 in 2010. When Brave began its initial sound mix earlier this year, it had to be done in 7.1, because not all the Atmos tools had been fully developed. In fact, those tools are so new, the final Atmos mix only came in June 14.
“Brave’s creative team worked with Dolby before they started mixing the film, and set aside specific sound elements they wanted to place in individual speakers, so they had them ready for when the Dolby Atmos technology got up to speed,” says Stuart Bowling, senior worldwide technical marketing manager for Dolby Laboratories.
“Author Once, Optimize Anywhere”
Atmos’s other feature has significant business implications–namely scalable delivery. Up till now, films have had to be mixed in either Dolby 5.1 or 7.1 versions and sent to theaters with the corresponding sound systems.
By comparison, Atmos automatically adjusts to theater differences. Its mix contains metadata that mathematically articulates where sound elements need to be placed in space. That metadata communicates with an Atmos server in the projection room that’s wired to each speaker and contains information on that theater’s size, geometry, seating arrangement, and speaker placement. The system intelligently adjusts its playback to enable a uniform sound experience throughout the theater. The Atmos mix can also adjust to a theater solely wired for 7.1 and 5.1 systems, without sound engineers having to go back and re-mix separate versions.
“It’s ‘author once, optimize anywhere,’” says Bowling. “The mix never changes, but how that mix is delivered is based on the information gleaned from the processor.”
Once fully integrated, a single Atmos mix could potentially save studios several production days over mixing 5.1 and 7.1 versions. Depending on the film, that could translate to thousands of dollars.
However, considering the $25,000-$30,000 price tag to upgrade to Atmos, only 21 theaters around the world are so equipped, including 15 in the U.S. and Canada. China, Britain, and Spain will house the others. The first is the Dolby Theatre (the former Kodak Theatre) in Hollywood, which houses the Academy Awards and celebrated its grand opening with the Brave world premiere on June 18. “It’s more likely to show up in the largest theaters first, for a faster return on investment, trickling down to smaller ones over time,” says Bowling.
For now, Dolby’s focus for Atmos are the movie and exhibition industries, with eventual plans to target computing and mobile markets. But it’s conceivable that the technological specs could be eventually scaled for even larger venues and higher sound resolution.
“It’s future-proofed,” says Files.