Dolby Breaks A Sound Barrier

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.

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.

"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?

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."


JAMES CAMERON'S SHRINKING 3D CAMERA: After reaching the ocean's depths, the system got another workout at L.A.'s X Games.

James Cameron likes to take things to extremes, and the latest ultra-mini 3D camera being tested by Cameron Pace Group is no exception.

In March, Cameron brought the camera when he made his historic dive into the Mariana Trench's Challenger Deep, about seven miles beneath the surface of the Western Pacific Ocean. And from June 28 to July 1, the system got another test run at ESPN's X Games Los Angeles.

The camera system includes two HD cameras with lenses (one to capture the right-eye image and one for the left) on a CPG 3D rig. "Size was critical. I think it is 9 ounces for the full 3D rig," says Vince Pace, who co-founded CPG with Cameron. "Jim worked with the developer of the camera, and [CPG] integrated it for Jim's use."

At the X Games, the system was tested on rally cars for point-of-view shots. "The key for us is to continue to move toward small broadcast cameras, and this is a broadcast[-quality] camera," says Pace. The camera test was part of ESPN's coverage of the extreme-sports competition -- it was the most sophisticated use to date of CPG's "5D" strategy of capturing images for 2D and 3D broadcasts simultaneously on a single 3D rig. CPG shot 16 events totaling about 23 hours of live coverage used by ESPN for its 2D channel, 3D channel, online and international sites.

"We look at all of this technology as cross-platform," says Pace. "With the wave of digital, that line between what is scientific and what is broadcast and what is digital cinema has gotten blurred."