Dolby's New 'Atmos' System Rockets Movie Sound to the Next Level

2012-24 BKLOT Dolby Illustration H
Oliver Munday

As "Brave" reaches out to moviegoers' ears from all directions, the audio company ups the ante with a new system that can express 128 sounds all at once.

As "Brave" reaches out to moviegoers' ears from all directions, the cutting edge audio company redefines once again the state-of-the-art in cinematic audio.

In an early scene in Disney/Pixar's Brave, the young princess Merida is learning to master archery when, after missing her target, she wanders into a nearby forest to retrieve an arrow. Using the immersive new Dolby Atmos sound format, seven-time Oscar-winning sound designer and re-recording mixer Gary Rydstrom was able to put the audience inside Merida's head as she hears the arrow take flight then notices threatening sounds in the treetops.

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"You hear the arrow 'swish' go through the theater and land way back behind the audience," says Rydstrom. "Then she goes into the forest. I love putting sound in the ceiling, things like scary forest birds. For a little girl, the forest feels even taller and more imposing if you can have weird sounds way up high."

The sound in multiplexes might already seem overwhelming to the average moviegoer, but Atmos ups the ante over previous systems to create a richer aural atmosphere. In 1979, Apocalypse Now became the first release with stereo surround channels, the pre-cursor to Dolby 5.1. Dolby 5.1 and 7.1 in turn introduced more advanced, multiple channel configurations. Atmos places speakers behind the screen, along the side and back walls and suspends them from the ceiling, positioned for as many as 128 channels or "simultaneous sound elements," as Dolby calls them.

It's fitting that Brave, which was mixed at Skywalker Sound, is the first feature mixed in Atmos because Disney/Pixar's Toy Story 3 introduced Dolby 7.1 Surround Sound in 2010.

"It's important when new formats come out that great movies push that format," says Rydstrom. "Star Wars pushed a Dolby stereo format that became very popular. Apocalypse Now pushed Dolby 5.1 six-channel sound."

The question is, how quickly will other movies follow Brave's lead, and how quickly will theater owners install the required equipment to play back Atmos-encoded soundtracks?

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Michael Karagosian, principal at MKPE Consulting, says Hollywood studios are cautiously weighing the economics of offering these mixes. "The studios want to be able to see that this can be monetized," he says.

To help control mixing and mastering costs, Dolby has developed the system in a manner that allows studios to create an Atmos mix and then automatically extract from it a 5.1 or 7.1 mix for other theaters, eliminating the need to create multiple mixes separately.

Theater owners looking to offer Atmos will be able to upgrade existing systems by adding speakers and amplification. But the "average midsize" cinema auditorium, according to Dolby, can still expect to pay $25,000 to $30,000 for an upgrade.

The cost could limit quick, widespread adoption by theaters, many of which have just completed the transition to digital projection. "This goes beyond Dolby," says Karagosian. "There has been around $4 billion spent on digital cinema equipment around the world that is not producing a return on investment. Borrowing more becomes a problem."

But Stuart Bowling, Dolby's senior worldwide technical marketing manager, nonetheless predicts there will be 100 Atmos-supported auditoriums worldwide by year's end and nearly 1,000 by the end of 2013. About 20 theaters worldwide already have been announced as Atmos sites, and 14 of them, including the El Capitan in Hollywood, are part of Brave's Atmos trial.

Dolby is not the only firm interested in bringing amped-up audio experiences to theaters. Barco offers Auro 11.1 -- priced "under $25,000" -- which uses 11 channels of sound plus a subwoofer and has a "few dozen" installations worldwide, including Edwards Grand Palace Stadium 6 in Calabasas. Others offering competing technology include Imm Sound and Iosono, but, says Karagosian, "exhibitors are paying the most attention to Dolby."