Randy Thom Urges Directors, Screenwriters to "Create Moments" for Immersive Sound

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Summer Sequel - H 2014
20th Century Fox

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Summer Sequel - H 2014

Skywalker Sound’s two-time Oscar-winning sound designer and re-recording mixer Randy Thom urged the sound community to encourage directors and screenwriters to “design scenes and moments around immersive sound to take advantage of the sonic cinematic experience” during a keynote at an Immersive Sound conference hosted by Mix with the Motion Picture Sound Editors and Cinema Audio Society.

“The technology is here to do that; I don't think the creative people have the mindset yet," Thom told The Hollywood Reporter during the event, whose presenters included leading sound pros and manufacturers. During his address, Thom also pointed out that collaborators such as cinematographers get involved in the creative process early, and the sound departments need to "be more bold" and contribute their storytelling skills early in the process as well.

Also Saturday on the Sony lot, John Kellogg of audio systems company DTS warned that the community additionally needs to create an immersive sound business that is affordable for theater owners. Noting that The Wall Street Journal recently reported that AMC is spending $600 million on larger, fully reclining seats, he said “comfy seats, booze, food—they can upcharge. We need to create an affordable option [for immersive sound] or they are going to buy chairs.”

To that end, an issue is not just the installation costs (which can range from around $35,000 to well into six figures, depending on the configuration and size of the auditorium), but the fact that the two key immersive sound systems—Dolby Atmos and Barco Auro 11.1—use different mixes and different deliverables to theaters. The Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers has been working to create a standard that participants can agree on. DTS has proposed standardizing on its MDA (Multi-Dimensional Audio) format, whose supporters include Barco. Dolby has submitted a different proposal.

Many believe the uncertainty surrounding standards is in part keeping more theater owners from investing in such systems. Atmos and Auro both launched in 2012 and to date there are an estimated 1000 installed immersive audio systems in theaters worldwide.

Kevin Collier, director of engineering at Warner Bros. Sound, noted that this standard would become less of an issue as digital cinema transitions from delivering hard drives to electronic delivery. But he also admitted to some frustration about immersive sound because “very little marketing is being put into what we do.”

Sound editor and designer Mark Stoeckinger of Formosa Group questioned how many consumers are even aware of – or care – about these systems. “It would be great if there was more audience awareness,” he said, suggesting that perhaps theaters could play teasers so that audiences “understand the benefits.”

“We are an invisible art,” sound editor and re-recording mixer Will Files of Skywalker Sound admitted, adding that while “very few people are going to a movie for the sound system,” what they do is a big contributor to the overall experience.

Re-recording mixer Chris Jacobson pointed out that while the theaters are not necessarily promoting the sound system per se, they are used in premium-billed theaters, so the audiences are aware that this is a different experience.

Sound editor and designer Scott Gershin of Formosa Group, who just completed work on Guillermo del Toro’s The Book of Life (which has an immersive sound mix) told the audience, “the whole point is you are not supposed to ‘hear’ it, but just have the experience of the story. You have more options to tell the story in a clearer way with immersive sound.”

Stoeckinger agreed, adding that he is about to use immersive sound for The 33, the upcoming film about the Chilean miners that were trapped for 69 days in 2010. “The sound will be very subtle. It will be used to make the audience feel like the miners did.”

Files noted that his recent work on Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, “has fun action, but also has quiet scenes with tension and communicating nonverbally — and it’s raining. [Apes director] Matt Reeves is a surround junkie. He became hip very quickly to the fact that we could put sounds anywhere. Directors like Michael Bay (who used immersive sound for Transformers: Age of Extinction) and Matt Reeves and getting used to what you can do with immersive sound."

Technicolor re-recording mixer Greg Russell (Age of Extinction) kicked off discussion of the compatibility issue, warning that currently some movies require mutiple mixes, in formats such as 5.1, 7.1, Atmos or Auro. Some can be easily converted from one to another. Gershin said his team went back to Book of Life’s Atmos mix and adjusted it for 5.1, keeping in mind that many consumers will hear it in 5.1, particularly through home entertainment systems.

To that end, Dolby is already working on a version of Atmos for the home. And Kellogg related that DTS is developing technology that could bring immersive sound to the home.

The busy weekend for Hollywood’s sound community wrapped up Sunday with the MPSE’s sixth annual charity golf tournament.

Email: Carolyn.Giardina@THR.com
Twitter: @CGinLA