by Jeremy J. Glowacki
Having read about the ceiling speaker aspect of Dolby’s new Atmos commercial movie theater surround sound technology, I was very curious to experience it first hand during my visit to Dolby Laboratories headquarters in San Francisco this week.
The first thing I learned after sitting down in the company’s private screening room/mixing stage for a demo, was that Atmos was never intended to be a theme park attraction. The company is treating its new format very seriously and plans a full roll out of the new technology with the hopes that studios will embrace Atmos production tools and mixing techniques and that movie theater company will start retrofitting their best rooms first, with more to follow after that.
Dolby technicians added these full-range surround speakers (top photo) and ceiling surround speakers (bottom photo) into the movie theater/mixing stage at their headquarters, to showcase and mix movie soundtracks using Atmos.
I won’t delve into all of the technical details of Atmos, because that’s what a well-written white paper is for (click here for that), but I will say that in a nutshell the goal is to enable more discrete surround sound experiences (like the sound of a bird chirping in the back left corner of the theater) and create much smoother panning effects around or over a room by using new tools in the post-production process and adding full range speakers to the entire room, instead of just behind the screen.
The results were truly over the top. A custom audio clip created for a cell phone company promo featuring a engine blowing up, literally gave me chills. Then the patter an animated character running “past” the screen made me want to turn my head to see where he went. A demo to showcase the panning tool itself was most helpful in illustrating how Atmos will improve the audio experience in the theater. We were shown how a traditional 7.1 surround set up could leave gaps in the effects surrounding the audience or muddle ambient room effects in a crowded restaurant scene, for example. With the addition of a lot more surround speakers that are full-range, thus timbre-matched to the speakers behind the screen, the Atmos panning sounded seamless and balanced around and above the room. And yet for an effect where a sound needs to jump from the front of the auditorium to the back without the it carrying overhead, the system was equally effective.
The first feature film to be produced for Atmos will be Disney Pixar’s Brave, which will premiere June 22. Retrofits for a single screen in each of the major markets is underway and should be ready in time for that release.
I hope that many films and screens will be adapted to the Atmos format. It’s a lot cooler than 3D and though it may not specifically draw theatergoers to the movies, it will make the experience when they get there something they won’t forget.