NAB: Can Hollywood Avoid an Immersive Sound Format War?

At the National Association of Broadcasters Show's Technology Summit on Cinema, stakeholders debated how to balance economic and creative issues.
Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Immersive sound systems such as Dolby Atmos and Barco Auro have already started to invade theaters, and stakeholders see great artistic promise. But how do you avoid a format war while also keeping the creative intent of the systems and finding an economic model that works?

That’s the balancing act that standards body Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) is working on as it sets immersive sound standards, reported Sony Pictures’ executive director of digital audio mastering Brian Vessa, who is leading the standards effort, speaking Saturday at the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) Show’s Technology Summit on Cinema.

“We have new storytelling options, but with this comes some issues,” Vessa explained. “We have a bunch of sound systems out there, and we have to make a unique version and set of deliverables for each … and this takes time and money. We want one version that can play in any theater and also downstream [for home formats] and that can be archived.”

This desire for a standard isn’t just coming from the studios. It’s also coming from exhibition. In February 2013, the National Association of Theatre Owners 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. Numerous stakeholders believe the current lack of consistency is holding back a wider immersive sound rollout.

Currently, prepping movies for these sound systems does take extra time and money. “You might mix [a master] for two to three weeks and then spend another two weeks mastering for the different formats,” said Skywalker Sound’s re-recording mixer and sound designer Will Files, whose immersive sound credits include Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Brave.

But Vessa warned that with studios looking to control production budgets, mixers might not have the luxury of those extra weeks. “We can’t spend a whole lot of money; the studios will get up and walk away,” he asserted.

Still, Vessa said he was “optimistic” that the SMPTE committee will have some immersive sound standards determined around the end of the year. “Immersive sound is going to be part of the next generation [of entertainment],” he said. “My suggestion is to start building that immersive sound library now. It’s going to be a game changer.”

Dolby has been resistant to certain parts of the standards process, which it says might impact its Atmos system. Files raised this point during the session, saying that the standards effort should consider the artistic intent. “If we are going to go toward an open standard, how to do you make it fit?” he asked. “The speaker configuration certainly isn’t the same [for the different systems]. In practical use, that sounds different. That’s going to be the challenge as a creative.”

Files added that he likes the idea of “a company shepherding their own technology.”

Said Vessa: “We don’t want to mess with anyone’s secret sauce; we are just looking to get the piece standardized [that would allow us] to deliver it in a reasonable fashion. … We want to foster innovation in a way that everyone knows the playing field. The sandbox is still pretty big.”