Dolby Atmos and the future of immersive sound

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Image Credit: Universal

Planning to check out a summer blockbuster in the next few months? Chances are it was developed for Dolby Atmos, the in-theater audio technology that’s revolutionizing the immersive moviegoing experience.

If the name sounds familiar, that’s because the first films heard in Dolby Atmos came out almost a year ago, starting with Disney and Pixar’s Brave. It’s the next iteration of what is generally known as surround sound. With speakers on the ceiling and in basically every corner of a theater, the 128 channels create a sound experience akin to watching a film in 3-D. It’s all-encompassing.

EW spoke with Skywalker Sound’s Juan Peralta about Dolby Atmos and how it is helping to make the theater experience more engrossing.

“This is the evolution of sound. We’re trying to make things better and sound more fun in the theater,” says Peralta, who was responsible for sound effects and foley for Oblivion — the first film to be mixed from beginning to end in Dolby Atmos. Brave, for example, was mixed in Dolby Digital and then re-mixed in Atmos for specific theaters.

“Before [Atmos], if I would take a sound effect that was on the screen and pan it all the way to the surrounds, when the sound traveled to the back of the theater, there’s basically a hole. It’s a physics thing. Now, with the overhead speakers, the sound will travel all the way through and you’ll never have a gap. We could kind of fake it before, but now if we need a sound to be over your head, we can place it over your head,” says Peralta, who has worked on films as diverse as There Will Be Blood, Toy Story 2, and Avatar.

Peralta says that the options also allow him to play with conventional sound mixing standards in unexpected ways. “Traditionally, there are these unwritten movie mixing rules where you want to have the dialogue on the screen. You always want people to be paying attention to the screen. Having all these surrounds is great, but the main focus should be what’s happening with the story. There were a couple of sequences in Oblivion where we put Tom Cruise’s intercom voice coming out of the ceiling,” says Peralta. “It was a little disorienting at first, but then you adjust and are like, ‘wait, I kind of like this!'”

In Oblivion Peralta played around with the placement of sound at the close direction of director Joseph Koskinski. In a scene when Tom Cruise’s Jack Harper is fighting while an attack drone looms over his head, the camera pivots around the action chaotically, but the viewer is always oriented to exactly where the drone threat is thanks to the precise sound. “During the aerial battle, Joe [Kosinski] pinpointed 15 things he really wanted to hear,” says Peralta.”He wanted to hear the water hitting the top of the bubble ship as we fly under it. He wanted to hear the rocks cracking. He wanted to hear the lasers of the drone all the time. Even though you don’t always see the drone as it’s flying behind you, he still wanted to hear it and know that the characters are in grave danger.” But it’s not just the flashy action sequences that are enhanced. When the characters are dining in their glass loft in the sky with the wind violently swirling around, the viewer feels as though they’re up there with them. “[Kosinski] was very particular about the wind and the rain in this movie,” says Peralta.

Even though it seems flashy, the specificity of the sound placements are meant to be subtle. It all goes back to supporting the overall story and taking the viewer further into the film. “Atmos is immersive. You’re with them, you’re experiencing more, but in reality, it should never take away from the story,” says Pertala. “I’ve never been a fan of just doing something because you can. But if the movie calls for it, it’s there.”

Nearly every major blockbuster this summer will be shown in Dolby Atmos, including Iron Man 3, Star Trek Into Darkness, Man of Steel, Pacific Rim, and Elysium. But animated features have been embracing the technology as well, from Epic to Monsters University. “The Heat is going to be the first comedy shown in Dolby Atmos,” says Joshua Gershman, from Dolby Laboratories. “It shows that it can be used for any type of content. It’s just about making it a more realistic listening environment for the audience. And it’s exciting that it’s starting to genre jump.”

More than 100 theaters in 28 countries are fully configured for Atmos, with 37 in the United States alone — and they’re not all in Los Angeles and New York either. Check out the full list of locations here. Ticketing websites like Fandango list Dolby Atmos theaters as well. Clearly not all theaters are Dolby Atmos capable yet, so most films designed for the new system will have a second version as well.

“We’re very focused on cinema right now,” says Dolby Laboratories’ Stuart Bowling. As for the home experience? There may be something on the horizon in the future, and Dolby is currently in the research phase. But as Bowling says: “You can’t put 40 or 50 speakers in your living room.”

Follow Lindsey on Twitter: @ldbahr

Read More:
‘Brave’ premiere debuts Dolby Atmos 
Sounds Like A Summer Movie: ‘Iron Man 3′ sound department went to Toys ‘R’ Us
Oscar-nominated sound editors explain their key challenges (and the sounds you may not know they create)

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