Tech Support: Dolby Atmos ready for its close-up with the premiere of Pixar’s ‘Brave’

Next week Walt Disney Pictures will be premiering Pixar’s “Brave” in conjunction with the Los Angeles Film Festival at the newly named Dolby Theatre (formerly the Kodak) in Hollywood. But while it promises to be a fun time for the event at hand, the fact that it’s the grand re-opening of the space is what has me a little bit more excited.

See, I’ve never actually been in that room. No concerts, no Cirque du Soleil, no Academy Awards (I’ve never sought Oscar night credentials). So I’m happy to finally case the joint, as it were. But Dolby taking over the naming rights of the facility has also brought in the added attraction of its aural upgrades, namely the company’s new Dolby Atmos technology, which was first revealed at CinemaCon in April.

Touted by Dolby as “the most significant development in audio since the arrival of surround sound,” the promise of Atmos is an important one: keeping the theatrical experience unique and superior to what can be accomplished at home.

“The theaters want an immersive experience,” Dolby Senior Vice President Ioan Allen says in a promotional video for the technology. “That’s what keeps the cinema business thriving, and I think we’ve really achieved that.”

“Immersive” is obviously the key language there. Some have referred to Atmos(phere) as 3D for the ears, and indeed, providing an environment that virtually places the viewer inside the film has been a goal of theatrical for the last few years.

Dolby first started tinkering with Atmos in 2008/2009, around the same time James Cameron’s work with performance-capture 3D during the production of “Avatar” was a considerable talking point around the industry. If picture enhancement was taking such monumental (in some ways, detrimental, if you consider how most post-conversion jobs have turned out) strides in putting the viewer in the film, surely sound needed to keep up.

It’s perhaps too simple to merely say that Dolby Atmos takes the surround sound environment to the level of placing speakers on the ceiling. There are other elements at play, like the ability to send aural elements through each speaker in a “pan-array,” which differs greatly from panning sound from one wall of speakers to another. There is also the future-proofing benefit, allowing for a film to be “authored once, optimized anywhere,” as Dolby puts it. One digital sound file can be broken down amongst the various stereo, 5.1 and 7.1 systems present in theaters around the world.

Dolby held a big demonstration of Atmos technology at the Dolby Theatre Monday. In Contention was not on hand. Steve Pond was there and gave a concise rundown, but Brent Butterworth at Sound and Vision Magazine gave a real thorough assessment of things.

“Atmos…combines traditional multichannel audio (i.e., 5.1 or 7.1) with the new object-based audio also being touted by SRS [Sound Retrieval System],” he wrote at the mag’s Tech-2 blog. “With Atmos, a mix can contain as many as 128 objects and channels simultaneously. While the channels are assigned in the traditional way-front left, center, and right, plus side and back surrounds – the objects are assigned only vectors. That means they emerge from a spot in space (and if desired, move to another spot in space) rather than being assigned to a specific channel. The Dolby Atmos processor then ‘maps’ the objects to the available speakers in a theater.”

Nicholas Tsingos, Senior Manager at Sound Technology Platform, is one of a host of experts interviewed in the SoundWorks Collection’s brief but comprehensive sound profile of Atmos. “For the first time it features the ability to pan in three dimensions,” he says, further to Butterworth’s explanation. “So including both on the plane and on the ceiling of the environment. The mixer can also precisely pinpoint locations in the environment and render sound specifically from those locations, so that’s really interesting to tie off screen action more accurately to what’s happening on screen.”

Most compelling, though, is how Oscar-nominated sound editor Erik Aadahl (“Transformers: Dark of the Moon”) put it in the aforementioned promotional video: “Recently I’ve been thinking about this format and designing material to play in this format and I’ve been realizing more and more that this is like an instrument now. And the beginning will just be cracking the surface of what this format can do, but it itself is an instrument.”

I reached out to a sound design friend about this piece to make sure I sounded like I knew what I was talking about and to get his overall perspective on Atmos. “Essentially Atmos is a Dolby-fied version of this thing out of Germany a few years back called IOSONO with the major difference being IOSONO required literally hundreds of speakers in the theater to achieve the pan-array effect, and Dolby appears to be able to do it with far fewer,” he responded. “I will say that when I went to a demonstration of this technology it was mind-bogglingly awesome. You heard a drop of water fall just past your ear and land on your shoulder.

“It was admittedly distracting because we were only listening to audio without picture, but it was a game-changer. When you walked around the theater, your aural perspective never changed, meaning every seat in the house was the best seat, audio-wise…We all walked away from that demonstration super excited about the storytelling possibilities of the system…then we all agreed it was cost-prohibitive.”

Indeed, as revolutionary and pomp-and-circumstance-accompanied as Atmos may be, there are inherent caveats. And cost, as my guy notes, is a serious consideration. Ramzi Haidamus, Dolby’s Executive Vice President of Sales and Marketing, may have advised that “this is not [merely] about adding more channels and more speakers” at Monday’s demo, but nevertheless, those speakers aren’t cheap.

Then there’s the point, conceded even by Ioan Allen, that most films won’t need to employ the “voice of God” elements overhead. So it will be difficult to justify the cost of mixing in this format to studios.

And, as ever, the potential for unnecessary imposing on the overall film-going experience must be considered. “The mantra of the industry is that sound should never distract from picture,” my sound guy says. “And a poorly-mixed film could have me looking at a dark ceiling.”

Still, I bet that sandstorm sequence from “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” sounded SICK at Monday’s demo.

The bottom line is this: the implications are important. It’s interesting that the passing of the torch on the marquee at the Hollywood and Highland theatre from Kodak to Dolby, in the wake of film/analog’s decline, so elegantly marks the turn to the digital era. And that era must be tapped thoroughly for any answers to keeping the theatrical experience attractive to the public. Hopefully, Atmos is just one of many such answers.

Dolby recently announced that 20 theaters across the globe, including, of course, the Dolby Theatre, would be outfitted with Atmos this month.

Meanwhile, fingers crossed “Brave” is indeed able to take advantage of the new aural infrastructure next week. The film was the first to be test-mixed in Atmos, but a recent Deadline report suggested that, though the mix is complete, there is “no guarantee” that things would move ahead as planned. Something about necessary approvals not being sealed or something. I imagine it’ll all pan out in the end, though. I hope so, anyway. I’m eager to “hear the whole picture,” as Atmos’s tagline says.