On Wednesday January 30, 2013, Home Theater Forum was once again invited by Dolby Laboratories to attend a Dolby Atmos demonstration and panel discussion. Last June, we attended the grand opening of the Dolby Theater in Hollywood, which had at that time just been retrofitted with over 150 speakers to accommodate the new Dolby Atmos system. This week, the demonstration/discussion was held at the Zanuck Theater on the Twentieth Century Fox backlot in Los Angeles. The purpose of the event was to show how Dolby Atmos has been used for the benefit of Fox’s Oscar-nominated Life of Pi.
Panelists at the event were:
· David Gray, Vice President, Content Service Group, Dolby Laboratories (Host)
· Ted Gagliano, President of Post Production, Twentieth Century Fox
· Douglas Hemphill, Re-recording sound mixer,Life of Pi
· Ronald Bartlett, Re-recording sound mixer,Life of Pi
· Erin Rettig, Dolby Atmos Mix Tech,Life of Pi
· Stuart Bowling, Senior Worldwide Technical Marketing Manager, Dolby Laboratories (Moderator)
· Andy Potvin, Senior Staff Engineer, Dolby Laboratories
The event began soon after 7pm in the Zanuck Theater with an introduction by David Gray, who had previously emceed the Dolby Theater event last year. Gray updated the audience on the current status of Dolby Atmos as we know it today. Currently there are 70 theaters worldwide that can accommodate Dolby Atmos, and the number is growing. The number of movies with Dolby Atmos mixes is also beginning to grow. In the final quarter of 2012, Taken 2, Chasing Mavericks and Life of Pi all had Dolby Atmos mixes prepared for theaters that could handle them. (Gray took an extra moment to acknowledge that with each new Dolby innovation he has told audiences that THIS system is the most immersive creation Dolby has ever come up with. And of course, that continues to be true each time he says it. With Dolby Atmos, the idea of immersion has gotten to a place where it’s difficult to imagine what the next possible step would be.)
I’ll back up for those who are unfamiliar with the concept of Dolby Atmos. The new system is a program that transcends the idea of channels in theatrical sound. This goes beyond having a mix of 5.1, 7.1 or even 11.1 channels, where you have some speakers at the front, sides and back and you direct specific sounds at varying levels to each channel in the setup. With Atmos, you could range from having, say, 30 speakers all the way up to the 164 speakers we heard demonstrated last June. The Dolby Atmos system maps out where all the speakers are in the theater and then uses a software Panner to place “objects” of sound around the theater. Dolby Atmos also adds in a number of ceiling speakers to complement the arrays on the side walls and rear wall as well as behind the movie screen. The result of the new program is that you have a strong sensation of being in the middle of the movie’s environment as sounds literally move through the theater, crossing over and around the audience. Mixers describe the theatrical soundscape in Atmos as being more of a cube shape than prior ideas, given the ability to place sound in the areas above the audience’s head.
There is a fair amount of flexibility in the system, as shown in the difference between the Dolby Theater demonstration of 164 speakers last year, and the demonstration of 60 speakers in the Zanuck Theater this week. The system is designed so that the Atmos program can approximate the same effect in multiple theaters with varying numbers of speakers in varying locations around those theaters. For Wednesday’s demonstration, we were able to see Life of Pi in the actual theater where it was mixed – which put our audience in what would theoretically be the perfect environment.
The panel engaged in some discussion about the Zanuck Theater, noting that there 18 overhead speakers (2 rows of 9), as well as multiple speakers projecting off of the side walls at varying angles. After starting to discuss some specifics about the speakers, the panel simplified things to just say that these are good JBL speakers – much the same as the ones we heard last June. The speakers are set apart from the walls and angled so as not to give a flat experience coming off the walls. The intent is to have the speakers directed toward the audience, not just bouncing the sound off of the far walls.
The mix for Life of Pi was done in October, after the initial sound mix had been completed for conventional theaters. To accomplish the mix, the full sound team was reassembled in the Zanuck Theater, including composer Mychael Danna, supervising sound editor Eugene Gearty (nicknamed “Eugenius” by the mixers) and director Ang Lee. Once Lee was shown what the system could accomplish, he quickly embraced it. He was heard to ask why there were no speakers in the floor, since there were speakers everywhere else – one of the mixers joked that this was due to the fact that Americans spill too much popcorn and soda on the floor for this to be a realistic option… Lee made clear that he wanted the full Atmos effect to only be used when it would serve the story of his movie, as he didn’t want it to just be a gimmick. His instruction overall to the mixers was that he wanted the sound to be a “hug of empathy” for the audience. As a barometer of how the mix was done, the mixers were emphatic that even with all the surround effects, a major storm sequence was intended to be about Pi’s experience and not just a wow effect.
Ronald Bartlett commented at some length about the participation of Mychael Danna. Upon listening to the first pass at an Atmos mix, Danna was heard to say “This is very tasteful. Is it TOO tasteful?” Which prompted the mixers to become more aggressive with the placement of the music and vocals – using up to 9 stems and creating as much separation as possible. The solo singer heard at the start of the movie was moved into the front ceiling speakers, while the big choral moments later in the score were played through the rear ceiling speakers. Bartlett noted that Danna’s score was designed to mix well with the other elements in the mix – using instruments like the gamelan to both evoke the emotions of the movie and co-exist with the sounds of a movie set mostly at sea.
Bartlett and Doug Hemphill both noted that there is a paradoxical problem that mixers face with Dolby Atmos if they include too many elements in the mix. The rule they learned: The denser your sound field, the narrower your ability to move the sound around. There is a compounding effect from trying to fill a theater with sound in that the sheer volume of it, particularly coming from the sides and the ceiling at the same time, results in a mono effect. So the mixers have to be more sparing. Less elements in the mix make it a lot simpler to create separation – and it’s the separation that really makes something like Dolby Atmos work.
During the panel discussion, three clips from Life of Pi were shown using the Dolby Atmos mix but presented with 2D visuals. SOME SPOILERS HERE FOR PEOPLE WHO HAVE NOT SEEN THE MOVIE YET: The first one showcased the major storm sequence, with Atmos putting wind and rain all over the theater while localizing the various impacts as the freighter ship comes to grief. The second one was the attack of the flying fish, as seen in the movie’s iconic trailer. (The mixers noted that there was a score cue composed for this sequence by Danna, but the music was dropped to make the situation rawer and less programmatic.) The final one was the visit to Meerkat Island, for which the mixers and Eugene Gearty were taunted by Ang Lee’s comment “What are you gonna do to make the sound of a hundred thousand meerkats?”
Following the panel discussion, the audience was invited to a reception just outside the theater. I took this time to speak with Jana Spotts of Dolby’s Global Cinema Marketing group about the theatrical and home application possibilities of Dolby Atmos. Jana clarified that the mix heard in the Zanuck theater would essentially be the same one heard in any Atmos theater, given that the mix would automatically be adjusted by each theater’s system to place the objects in the same area of the soundscape for each environment. She also clarified that a home application is still a ways off. She did say that the 7.1 Dolby mixes available on Blu-ray are identical to the mixes created for the theatrical runs of those movies, as we saw in the demonstration of Megamind in Burbank two years ago.
A little past 9pm, the audience filed back into the theater and we watched Life of Pi in Dolby 3D, with the Dolby Atmos sound mix. Having seen the film previously on a 2D screener in a home theater, this was an amazing experience, particularly considering I placed myself in a seat directly in front of the mixing table, at the center of the house. But as per the director’s instructions, this was not an immersive idea for the whole running time. For many scenes of simple dialogue between the writer and the adult Pi, the Dolby Atmos and 3D effects were actually quite minimal. When the scenes were of the young Pi on the ocean with Richard Parker, the visual and aural 3D effects came into play. The three sequences sampled before the movie were of course the biggest impacts, but there were still plenty of interesting moments throughout, including the breaching of the whale and the general impression of being stranded on a boat with the characters in the middle of the ocean.
As with last year’s event, I’d like to thank Elizabeth Gordon and Joy Nestor of The Outcast Agency for inviting Home Theater Forum to participate. And a big thank you is in order to Dolby Laboratories, and to Twentieth Century Fox and the Zanuck Theater for hosting the event.
Here's a link to an online video about the sound mix done for Life of Pi. I am told that a transcript of the event will be available very soon. When it is, I will post a link here.
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