CinemaCon: Rough Immersive Sound Standard Might Be Ready Next Year

"This could be like a format war," asserted NATO technical advisor Jerry Pierce. "The challenge is time. We need to move quickly."
Jerry Pierce

LAS VEGAS – The digital cinema community gathered at a crowded CinemaCon session on Thursday that offered an update on the call for immersive sound standards. While all of the speakers agreed on the goal and expressed optimism, clearly the challenge is that this will take some time.

National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO) technical advisor Jerry Pierce pointed out that it took five years to create the Digital Cinema Initiatives spec. "I think by next year we’ll have a common standard that isn’t fully baked [but] close enough," he said. Pierce added, to laughter, “and then it will take 10 years for SMPTE [standards-setting body Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers] to standardize the rest."

"I think this will be successful over time," he asserted. "The challenge is time. We need to move quickly."

Immersive sound is a hot-button issue because it is a viable option for theater owners, with installations and commitments to install various systems approaching 1,000 screens worldwide. Costs to install these systems range from around $35,000 to well into six figures, depending on the configuration and size of the auditorium. But, noting that it’s not yet clear which system or systems will ultimately go mainstream, Pierce warned, “Immersive sound has a fairly significant installation cost so we have to be careful.”

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“This could be like a format war,” he admitted, noting that NATO, UNIC [Union Internationale des Cinemas] and studio consortium Digital Cinema Initiatives have all called for standards -- a single version that can be delivered to a theater and played by multiple sound systems.

SMPTE recently launched an immersive sound working group to lead the effort. The chair of the group, SMPTE past president Pete Lude, acknowledged the “urgency” for this standard, but explained that with the standards process, “everyone's views need to be taken into consideration; it can seem to take time.”

At this stage, immersive sound is effectively a two-system race between two incompatible technologies, Dolby Atmos and Barco Auro 11.1, both of which were introduced in 2012. DTS is also a big part of the conversation with its MDA [Multi-Dimension Audio], a format proposed as an immersive sound standard, whose supporters include Barco.

DTS’ John Kellogg pointed out that “while immersive audio is a real hot button … we have yet to provide tangible value.” He therefore believes a successful standard should be one that allows sound professionals to “mix once and play anywhere” from immersive sound systems to today’s widely used 5.1.

“There’s no reason that we can’t make this work technically and commercially for everyone,” he added.

Dolby’s Dean Bullock agreed on the need for standards, but warned, “It can be a barrier to innovation if they get too detailed.… You don't want to go for a lowest common denominator.”

Sound mixers ultimately create the soundscapes for these various versions, and Barco's Bryan Claypool emphasized that “production sound budgets are not going up, if anything, they are going down." He asserted that production costs and workflow challenges must be minimized.

Just prior to CinemaCon, The Hollywood Reporter spoke with sound editor, designer and re-recording mixer Craig Henighan, who recently completed Noah in Atmos. “We want to support new sound formats, and we want people to see these movies as they are intended with the full sound.”

“But it would be great if we had one standard,” he added, echoing a view that has been expressed by other sound mixers. “Delivery is a big thing and it’s not very seamless yet.… There’s not always enough time to get everything done on our end.”

Twitter: @CGinLA