Oscars' Dolby Theatre Unveiled With New Sound System (Photos)

Dolby Theatre Exterior P 2012
Dolby Theatre

Iconic sound company previews the installation of its immersive new sound format, Atmos.

A week before the unveiling of the Dolby Theatre, two 50 ft., 1,400 pound trusses carrying 22 sound speakers each were assembled and flown high over the orchestra seating section of the auditorium as part of the Dolby’s most challenging installation ever.

The iconic audio company is bringing its new immersive sound format Atmos to the newly-named Dolby Theatre — home of the Academy Awards — which was unveiled Monday. 

"We continue to be guided by Ray Dolby's commitment to excellence and innovation," said Dolby president and CEO Kevin Yeaman, noting that Dolby will introduce new technologies and experiences in the theatre. “At the end of the day this is emotional experience. … We were looking for new way to tell stories in new ways and connect with audiences.”

A grandstand and red carpet are already positioned in front of the theatre, and a red drape hangs over the soon-to-be-unveiled sign. That ceremony is slated for 6 p.m. Monday evening.

As part of the rebranding, the grand ballroom at the Hollywood & Highland complex that houses the Governors Ball will be renamed the Ray Dolby Ballroom, after Dolby's visionary founder. Also, the theatre's VIP lounge will be named the Dolby lounge.

The Theatre will have its grand opening on June 18 with the premiere of Disney/Pixar’s Brave, as part of the Los Angeles Film Festival.

STORY: Disney/Pixar 'Brave' Premiere To Mark Grand Opening Of The Dolby Theatre

Highlighting the theatre is Dolby's dazzling new sound format, Atmos, which the company's vp of content services David Gray called  a "complete game changer. You can put sound anywhere in space."

Citing 3D and digital cinema advances, he said, "It’s time for sound. Mixers and sound designers are looking for way to grab the audience with another dimension and to share their creativity.”

"The goal is to tell stories as the artists intended," added Ramzi Haidamus, Dolby's executive vp sales and marketing. "The technology we create is about preserving this intent."

Atmos creates a lifelike sound experience by lining speakers along the theatre’s front, rear and side walls, as well as overhead. It can play up to 128 channels of sound at once. In dramatic contrast, today's widely-used 5.1 and 7.1 surround sound system use five channels and seven channels (plus a subwoofer), respectively.

Atmos can be used for theaters of any size, but the Dolby Theatre will likely be the largest installations, as the theater contains seating for up to 3,400, covers 180,000 sq. feet of space and boasts as 86 ft. high ceiling. “It’s gigantic, so getting audio coverage is challenging,” explains Gray, who is leading the installation effort. “In the most simplistic form, the challenging is to ensure the dialog is correct everywhere people are seated, and (for instance) you want to hear the left surround speakers if you are sitting on the right—and that is a very big room.”

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Adding a level of design complexity—particularly to the installation of the heavy, overhead speakers—is the fact that Cirque du Soleil performs its show IRIS in this theatre six days a week. “IRIS has performers flying out over the audience, and they would hit these trusses,” he explains. “So they can’t stay in place.”

For the purposes of the Brave premiere, these speakers will likely be removed after the performance. “Our time frame right now is excruciatingly tight …  eventually they will be on a sort of mechanical rig.”

In total there will be no less that 160 speakers (from suppliers JBL and Meyers) used to create the Atoms experience. The design team effectively divided the auditorium into “three rooms,” those being the orchestra section, the parterre and the first mezzanine. For each section, sound had to be able to reach guests from around the sides of the auditorium, as well as from overhead.

Gray started to think about the logistics of the installation even before the deal for Dolby to take over the theater’s naming rights from bankrupt Kodak was in place. The deal was announced in early May and planning kicked in to have the Dolby Theatre ready for its debut.

In addition to the installation of Atmos, the team has installed a new 60 x 32 ft. screen, Dolby 3D system, two Christie 4K digital cinema projectors and related operational technology.

The actual setup that guests will see and hear next week at the premiere was actually put in place in less than 48 hours. It was a daunting challenge as Monday is the only night that Cirque du Soleil doesn’t hold performances. So the Dolby Content Services team (which handles installations including those for special events and premieres) started work on the night of Sunday, June 3, and by working around the clock finished by dawn on Tuesday morning. However, the schedule was even tighter because there were long windows of time during which they could not work on Monday, due to IRIS maintenance and scheduled safety checks.

STORY: Dolby Reveals Theaters Set to Install New Immersive Sound Format Atmos

Some of the speakers will be on stands for the premiere, due to the tight schedule. In time, they will be wall mounted.

The most noticeable portion of the installation are the overhead trusses, which will hang roughly 40 feet in the air, parallel with the top of the first mezzanine to stay out of the sight line of guests seated in that section. The second and third mezzanine levels will not be used for Atmos performances, meaning that seating for these programs will be roughly 1,500. (The top mezzanine is similarly not used for IRIS.)

Perhaps LAFF’s most anticipated premiere, Pixar’s latest adventure—which will be screened in Dolby 3D—is set in the mystical Scottish Highlands and introduces Merida, a headstrong protagonist with fiery red hair.

There’s a test Atmos mix of Brave being made at Skywalker Sound, led by sound designer and re-recording mixer Gary Rydstrom with additional sound re-recording mixer Will Files.

The team was working on the mix at press time, and it was therefore still unconfirmed if Atmos would be used for the premiere. Up to 15 theaters around the world are expected to play the test mix of Brave when the movie opens.

Demoed on Monday was a new Dolby Atmos trailer, from Academy Award-nominated sound designer Erik Aadahl (Transformers: Dark of the Moon) and aforementioned mixer Will Files,  as well as Atmos-mixed clips from The Incredibles and MI4.

Haidamus emphasized that in addition to cinema, Dolby is looking to improve sound in a range of experiences, including in Windows 7 devices, Apple devices, Blu-Ray players. As part of the unveiling on Monday, the theatre lobby will temporarily house demonstrations of technologies including Dolby's glasses-free 3D technology, professional reference monitor for postproduction, and a string of Dolby Digital Plus-supported consumer tablets, smartphones and laptops (from the likes of Acer, Samsung and Sony).