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Film 40, 2013 Back to Reports & survey Listing

Immersive surround sound technology is creating new possibilities for filmmakers, says Adrian Pennington

Audio has always been an emotive part of the cinema experience. For George Lucas, a movie is 50% composed of audio; for Danny Boyle sound is 70%. Either way, a film soundtrack is hugely important to telling the story, yet too often audio plays second fiddle to the visual.

That could be about to change with the emergence of new audio technologies designed to match the immersive experience of higher resolution 4K projection and stereo 3D pictures.


The front runner is Dolby Atmos, used to mix over 40 features including Oblivion, Man of Steel, Star Trek Into Darkness, The Hobbit and Gravity since debuting for Disney Pixar’s Brave last summer.

The system uses up to 64 loudspeaker tracks, introduces a ceiling array to the traditional surround speaker configuration, and allows object-based sound design for the first time.

While the basis of the mix is a 9.1 bed – familiar territory to sound engineers and mixers – there are up to 128 additional audio objects (sounds) which can be flown anywhere around the speaker set-up. Unlike channel systems (stereo, 5.1, 9.1 etc) this approach gives audio mixers precise spatial control resulting in what they describe as a more natural and immersive soundfield.

“It creates a pure quality of sound so that you can really feel where you are within the film,  putting the audience deeper into a situation than before,” describes Sound 24’s Glenn Freemantle, sound designer and supervising sound editor on Trance and Gravity. “Where sounds felt degraded or effects cheated in 5.1, now we can create moments – rain overhead, a forest, the movement of thunder, a spaceship landing – that have a beauty and richness.”

“It’s a much bigger leap than from 5.1 to 7.1,” confirms LA-based Erik Aadahl, supervising sound editor on Argo and sound designer on Tree of Life. “Atmos means working in more of a hemisphere. You have height from ceiling speakers and much more resolution on the walls, plus it’s expandable.

Channel systems are one size fits all, yet every room has different dimensions, with different speaker layouts. With Atmos you can have a room with 30 or 60 speakers and whatever the mix is, Atmos will automatically scale it to the room. Dolby calls it adaptive rendering.”



Aadahl, who mixed Transformers: Dark of the Moon in 7.1, is helping prepare Michael Bay’s latest sequel in Atmos: “In 7.1 we could fake an overhead sensation of a missile by starting in one of the rear surround speakers and wrapping it around the side of the room. Now, I can slice like a scalpel, from rear overhead to successive ceiling speakers to screen with much more articulation.”

The elimination of crude surround pans is the distinction drawn by Ian Tapp, sound re-recording mixer at Pinewood, where, along with Niv Adiri, he mixed Trance – the first British movie to be entirely mixed in Atmos.

“The big difference is that when you bring sounds off-screen and into the room it all feels part of the same track, whereas in 5.1 and 7.1 audiences were really conscious of that movement. You could feel the hand of the filmmaker manipulating things.”


Tapp continues: “Although you are adding more information with Atmos, you can do it so it’s perceived subtly by the audience. They accept it much more as part of the movie as opposed to being a tricksy add-on. Not only does it deliver a wow factor, it genuinely seems to generate heightened emotion.”

So far, Atmos has mainly been used for action movies such as A Good Day to Die Hard, but sound artists are itching to use it on less bombastic productions.

“

The obvious thought is that Atmos is applicable to 3D, sci-fi and action films where you can start throwing gun shots and helicopters around the room,” says PDSoundDesign’s Paul Davies, whose work includes The American, Hunger and Lynn Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin.

“Techniques like this provide a new way of working with atmospheres to create subtle textures, ambience and spatialisation, which was not possible before.”

Davies is collecting atmospheres for Hossein Amini’s Two Faces of January on location in Greece and Turkey, and believes that, with Atmos, the use of surround mics in the field to record effects will become more common. 


“It’s getting to the point where anything sounds better in it [Atmos] even if we’re not being conspicuous about doing it,” says Tapp. “It just raises the quality threshold of whatever your movie is.”



While the approach to recording audio on location hasn’t substantially changed, what has changed – perhaps fundamentally – is that immersive sound systems are altering the way directors think about mixing movies. “One of things we are playing with in Transformers 4 is the idea of psychoacoustics [sound perception] in which we can use the ceiling array to spin a room in a 360-degree arc that is just impossible with one plane of speakers in 7.1,” explains Aadahl.

“Michael [Bay, the director] is getting visual ideas based on this new ability we have with sound,” he adds. “Usually it’s the opposite way around; the director starts with the image. The technology allows for a lot more cross-pollination between picture and sound.”



Aadahl is also experimenting with director Gareth Edwards for Warner Bros’ 2014 reboot of Godzilla. “When Gareth comes into the theatre the sound is sparking discussions and ideas about what he can do in the script to heighten the emotional feel of the film,” he says. “Gareth is coming up with sequences while listening to sound. That is the ideal scenario.”

Atmos would appear to add a dimensionality to the filmmakers’ ability to tell their story within the cinema. “Danny [Boyle] says Atmos makes him think about the spaces he is shooting,” says Freemantle. “Directors will begin to think about how they use the space around an audience – think of camera angles that they can now cover with sound.”

Although intended to draw punters away from their home entertainment systems and back to theatres, there’s no reason why object-based techniques can’t be applied to packaged media like Blu-ray 
or even broadcast, down the line.

James Caselton, head of product marketing, Dolby: “While we are not talking today about Atmos for the home, the implication for the future is toward much more placement and customisation of sound for the consumer.”



Pinewood is the lone UK Atmos mixing stage, but Halo Post is in discussions with Dolby about investing and De Lane Lea is understood to be likely to upgrade at least one of its theatres to the format.

Currently a handful of flagship cinemas worldwide, including the Empire Leicester Square, can replay Atmos, though Dolby says it has signed further UK chains pending announcement.

“It’s a Catch 22,” says Tapp. “Distributors may like to use Atmos but they want to see more content before exhibitors will make the investment. Producers may like to do it but there’s only a few screens able to play it.” 

The 5.1 and 7.1 formats are likely to be superceded by this new generation of immersive audio. Bit rates are likely to advance, from the current 48khz standard to nearer 96khz and 192khz, providing higher fidelity. “The big limitation now is the picture,” says Aadahl. “We truly have 3D sound yet the picture only fills 45 degrees of your vision. To me that is holding us back. The picture needs to evolve as much as the sound.”

The corollary to that comes from Mark Herbert, producer of This Is England and The Stone Roses: Made of Stone [post produced at Halo]. “The only fear I have with new technologies is that probably only 15-20% of the audience for our films see it in the cinema as opposed to streamed on Netflix, on TV, or DVD. Before [director Shane Meadows and I] sign off a film we sit and watch it on a cheap telly to make sure it translates for everyone.”



Rival immersive audio solutions include Auro 11.1 from projector manufacturer Barco, which uses 11 channels plus a subwoofer; the Swiss-developed Illusonic 3D distributed by French group DMS; and Iosono from German research outfit Fraunhofer, which employs wavefield synthesis.

A fourth option, Immsound, was acquired by Dolby last year for incorporation into Atmos.

Of these, Auro 11.1 has gained most traction, largely because DreamWorks Animation has vowed to release all its titles – from George Lucas’ Red Tails to animated features Rise of the Guardians and The Croods – in the format.



Barco reports 70 cinema installations worldwide, Dolby has around 100 and while some films such as Oz The Great and The Powerful are being mixed in both formats, there are fears of a format war. “Potential chaos, cost and confusion,” loom for the industry without a new open standard, warned John Kellogg, senior director at consumer audio tech developer DTS which is pushing its own standard, MDA (Multi Dimensional Audio), supported by Barco.

While Atmos and Auro can be distributed as part of the Digital Cinema Package (DCP), producers don’t want the expense of mixing multiple DCPs and exhibitors need the assurance that they can playback any movie regardless of the investment they make in new speakers and amplifiers – a cost that can range from £20k to over £100k.



Standards authority SMPTE is laying the groundwork for a fresh audio standard aimed at creating a consistent sound experience in theatres. It’s also evaluating immersive audio content but to what extent rival vendors will participate is open to question. The winner could potentially dominate big screen audio for a generation, making millions of pounds from studios, exhibitors and ultimately home video licensing.

“There has to be a suitable balance between what the market is choosing to be a successful format and of time spent on standards setting which ultimately could stifle innovation,” says Julian Pinn, Dolby’s European director of cinema marketing.


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