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CinemaCon: Issue Brewing Over Proposed Immersive Sound Standards

Barco and DTS announce support for open format MDA; Dolby argues that the option won’t ensure consistent playback.

Dreamworks Animations - Turbo film still
DreamWorks Animation
DreamWorks Animation's "Turbo"

LAS VEGAS -- The promise of immersive sound to further extend the theatrical experience into one that can't be duplicated in the home is a big topic this week at CinemaCon, but there's also a contentious issue developing around how to create and distribute mixes for the multiple new sound systems making their way to theaters.

To understand the situation, start with a look back to February, when NATO and the Union Internationale des Cinemas (UNIC) released cinema exhibitor requirements for immersive sound technologies to ensure that any audio rendering system that an individual cinema may choose is capable of playing back immersive sound when a studio releases it.

STORY: CinemaCon: Uni's Adam Fogelson Warns that Studios, Exhibitors Will 'Suffer' Without New Model

This requirement impacts all sound system developers, particularly the two companies making the biggest push in the space: Barco, developer of the Auro 11.1 system, and Dolby, creator of the Atmos system.

On Wednesday morning, in advance of an afternoon sound panel at CinemaCon, Barco and audio technology developer DTS announced that they would together support a proposed open format for immersive object-based cinema sound, which they believe will meet the NATO/UNIC requirement.

The companies said in the announcement that “the efforts represent a collective desire to protect exhibitors’ freedom of platform choice, ensuring their ability to play any movie regardless of which 3D audio system they procure.”

To do this, they are recommending DTS’ MDA (Multi Dimensional Audio), an open object based archiving/mezzanine format. “We hear from every studio that multiple mixes are not sustainable financially. We’d like to find a common workflow and common deliverable,” said DTS senior director John Kellogg, speaking on the sound panel.

But Dolby disagrees with this approach. “It will lead to a bad experience in the [theater],” Matt Cuson, senior director of cinema at Dolby, asserted in a conversation with The Hollywood Reporter. “You need to have control of how to capture and reproduce the artists' work. The NATO spec is suggesting that you break them apart. Then you lose control of the quality and consistency of the experience.

"The industry needs standards. Some portions need to be open. … Some parts are best kept closed," he argued.

Cuson related that Dolby supports openness in packaging, security, streaming protocols and picture and sound synchronization, but “how the original intent is captured and rendered needs to be tightly coupled.” He added that Dolby wants its developed Atmos system to control that part of its pipeline, saying, “We believe it’s in the best interest of the industry and consumer experience. ... That is the only way to ensure consistent playback. ... It does the industry a disservice to specify a file format without specifying a speaker configuration or a render method."

But Brian Claypool, senior director of strategic business development at Barco, told THR that while there always have been variables in theater configurations, Barco believes its “recommended workflow allows for consistent results.”

Added Claypool: “We’d like to find a standards-based approach that everyone can participate in.”

With immersive sound still new -- and installation costs that could range anywhere from $50,000 to more than $200,000, depending on system, size of theater and other variables -- the stakes are high, as any requirements could potentially impact a theater owner's decisions as to when or what to adopt.

DTS doesn't offer an immersive theatrical sound system, but insiders tell THR that they believe an advantage for DTS would be to have content available in its MDA format, which could potentially give the company a boost in the home audio market.

An entity that will have a lot of influence in this area is global standards setting body Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), whose technology committee on digital sound systems -- which invites all stakeholders to the table -- is working to lay the groundwork for a new audio standard aimed at creating a consistent sound experience in theaters, and a parallel project involves incorporating immersive audio content into the new standard.

Speaking Wednesday at CinemaCon, SMPTE committee chair Brian Vessa -- who is executive director of digital audio mastering at Sony Pictures Entertainment -- urged studios and exhibitors to get together and push for a common standard, saying that this is needed for wide adoption of immersive sound.

Vessa reported that SMPTE’s early study likely will conclude in June or July, then it would take about a year to develop the common file format and probably another year to implement it into production workflow and theaters.

He told THR that he views MDA as a good starting point but that more work is needed to fulfill all industry requirements.

Various stakeholders discussed the issue on panels or privately with THR this week at CinemaCon.

During Wednesday’s sound panel, Mark Collins, director of projection technology at Marcus Theatres, said: “We are sometimes getting 12 different Digital Cinema Packages (the digital equivalent to a film print), including versions for 3D and different light levels. We’d like a common standard for sound.”

While he viewed immersive audio as the “next step” in large-format theaters, he asserted that “[exhibitors] are looking at a considerable cost” for such installation, and he therefore believes standards are key because “we have to know we are making a long-term investment.”

Director Sam Raimi weighed in on the subject during Wednesday’s filmmakers panel.

Nothing that he used both Dolby Atmos and Barco Auro for Oz The Great and Powerful, Raimi said: “Both systems are great. I hope [exhibitors] put them in theaters. They create sonic dimension, and I don’t think home systems will have this for a quite a while.”

But he warned that studios haven’t started to account for the extra time that will be needed should they choose to use multiple immersive formats. “You need to do different mixes,” he said. “It is very complicated to maintain the quality over different formats. I hope a standard will come out soon and get rid of two track and maybe 5.1.”

A similar view was shared by three-time Oscar winner Richard King -- supervising sound editor of DreamWorks Animation’s Turbo, which will get both a Auro 11.1 and Atmos mix. He visited CinemaCon on Wednesday to introduce the Turbo trailer in Auro for a Barco presentation at Cinemark’s Century 16 South Point Theatre.

“For certain films, [immersive sound] will be great,” he said, adding that it can offer an experience in a theater that consumers can’t get at home.

But he admitted to THR that he hopes eventually there will be just one mix when a studio chooses to release in multiple immersive sound formats. “It has created havoc in schedules; we have weeks for extra mixing,” he said. “I think filmmakers would be more comfortable if there is just one version of their film out there.”

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Barco’s Auro has been used for eight releases since it debuted in 2012 with Red Tails, and 17 more are in the pipeline, including the upcoming Turbo and Elysium (both also are being released in Atmos). The company reported that 67 theaters worldwide are now equipped for Auro.

In 2012, DreamWorks Animation committed to releasing all of its upcoming titles in Auro. It also installed Auro in its Campanile Theater on its Glendale campus as well as equipped one of its mixing rooms on the campus with the sound system.

Atmos -- which was installed temporarily at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace for CinemaCon presentations -- launched in June 2012 with Disney/Pixar’s Brave and to date has roughly 40 released and upcoming titles and about 100 installations in theaters worldwide. Postproduction installations include the Zanuck Theatre on the Fox lot and Disney Stage A.

Upcoming Atmos titles include Transformers 4, Godzilla and Star Trek Into Darkness.