The normal surround sound in any garden-variety movie cinema is already pretty good, but it's about to get a whole lot better. Village and Reading cinemas around the country are installing or planning to install Dolby Atmos in their flagship auditoriums, with up to 64 speakers inside each movie theatre.
One of the first cinemas in the country to be upgraded to Dolby Atmos is the recently renovated Village Cinemas at the Crown Casino complex in Melbourne's South Bank. The first was the Reading Cinemas complex at Waurn Ponds in Victoria, and more multiplexes are planned for the near future.
The new sci-fi flick The Edge Of Tomorrow premiered in Melbourne at the Crown cinema last week, playing in Dolby Atmos, and Gizmodo editor Logan Booker was there. Before the premiere, I talked to Dolby Atmos mixing expert Chris Burdon, who is a re-recording mixer at the Warner Bros De Lane Lea Studios in London. Burdon told Gizmodo about the technology and process behind Dolby Atmos, and why it's a big step forward in cinema sound.
What kind of audio flexibility does the new surround, front or height channel design give you in creating sound effects that mirror what is seen on-screen? Is Atmos primarily useful in those environmental effects (rain, ambient warfare sounds, city noise) or does it add detail to even regular scenes like character dialogue?
CB: Edge of Tomorrow provided so many fantastic opportunities to fully utilise the Dolby Atmos format. The film's narrative of human military conflict with invading aliens was always going to need a complex, multi-layered sound mix. [Director] Doug Liman's dynamic visual style and his desire for a bold, adventurous audio track meant the sound team required an exceptional "sonic canvas". Mixing the film in Dolby Atmos made this possible.
From military aircraft and alien missiles 'flying' above the audience, using the overhead speakers to highly detailed, pin-point accurate gun-shots and helicopter blades whirring around the theatre, Dolby Atmos allowed the sound story to be told with wonderful detail.
Can you explain the difference for the movie-goer between a regular cinema and one with Dolby Atmos installed?
CB: The battlefield beach scenes in Edge of Tomorrow provided the perfect environment for using Dolby Atmos to its full capabilities. The military aircraft sounds gave the overhead speakers a serious workout — alien missiles and all manner of rockets, explosions and bullets travel through the overhead [speakers] to provide fantastically detailed sonic movement. The visual style of the film [means] action is going on all around the central viewpoint. Alien roars coming from the surrounds, and fantastic bass [is] one of many uses of the accuracy of the Atmos surround array. In one particular scene Cage and Rita are inside a crashed aircraft, and an alien is directly above them scrabbling on the metallic fuselage — overheads give the audience the perfect soundscape for this sequence.
Even in the quieter less active scenes, we utilised the extra dimensions Dolby Atmos gives. In Dr Carter's underground bunker, the hum of the ambience was played into the overheads as was the reverb from the dialogue tracks — this added a real sense of claustrophobia to the room. Each instance of Cage's wake-up is greeted by tannoy announcements at the Heathrow airbase — Cage's low viewpoint meant the announcements were panned through the overheads as the camera angle changed.
The music benefited greatly from the higher fidelity of the surround speakers, which provide a richer surround image. We were also able to move certain instruments dynamically and accurately around the speakers, to give the music extra movement where it might complement the story. Cage's confusion as he becomes aware he is in a Live-Die-Repeat cycle is subtly added to in Atmos by taking the electronic musical elements and panning them through the overheads and surrounds.
Is there a flagship film out now or in the past that really shows off the advantages of Atmos — apart from Edge Of Tomorrow?
CB: Gravity is one of the best examples of [a recent film] using Dolby Atmos, and the recent Godzilla movie is another great example.
Alfonso Cuaron on Gravity: "The music was composed and designed for a surround experience — different harmonies emerging from the different speakers around the room, constantly moving, crashing and blending to create a dynamic experience. A special sound mix was created for Dolby Atmos, taking full advantage of the amazing nuance, spread and separation of the speakers on the ceiling and the total range of all the speakers in the room."
Is Atmos a standard speaker placement/adjustment/mixing process, or is it more dynamically suited to each specific cinema setup? Are all Atmos cinemas equal?
CB: With Dolby Atmos, filmmakers don’t have to think in terms of speakers or channels (though they can still integrate multichannel sound as needed). Instead, they give each sound object specific directions as to where it should be placed or move. For example, the sounds associated with a bird would have metadata indicating the bird’s movements within the auditorium.
The sound as it chirps, flaps its wings, and lands on an overhead branch with rustling leaves can then be represented in the theatre as clearly as if you were hearing it during a hike through a forest. Best of all, the system is intelligent enough to create the illusion intended — despite variations in the size, shape, and speaker configuration of each theatre — to ensure the artist’s intent remains intact, from the studio in which it was mixed to the cinema.
Is there a future for Atmos in the home, or is this a technology that is generally going to be best experienced in a cinema set up for it properly?
CB: While we have a long history of taking some of the technologies developed for the cinema into other settings, including home theatres, we believe the cinema will always represent the ultimate shared entertainment experience. While we may someday adapt Dolby Atmos technologies for use in other settings, the cinema will always deliver the most spectacular sight and sound experience for movie watchers.
Dolby Atmos should be rolling out to more cinemas across the country in coming months; I've been told to expect more announcements from Reading and Village in the near future, although Event Cinemas remains suspiciously quiet. Films like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and The Expendables 3 and The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies will be showing in Atmos where available.
The question of pricing is an interesting one — it's looking like cinemas will be selling Atmos as part of its normal premium cinema experience, in the same way that VMAX cinemas at Event have a small surcharge for the big screen and comfier seats. A representative of Dolby told me that, when it came to fees, at the end of the day "cinema exhibitors would have full prerogative in dictating and imposing one."