The iconic Hollywood AcademyAwards Ceremony has a newaddress. The Kodak Theatre,which had been home to UncleOscar since 2002, has been rechristenedthe Dolby Theatre. This is not just a landmarkmove for Dolby; it speaks volumesfor how cinema sound is becoming a focusarea for filmmakers across the globe.
Cinema is a visual medium but marrying quality scenes with crystal-clear sound is what makes a movie a thoroughly enjoyable experience. So while a few years ago, filmmakers as well as cinema owners restricted innovation mainly to visuals with the introduction of 3D technology, this year the focus is on sound innovation.
Dolby, a company which brought 5.1 surround sound to cinemas and then introduced an upgraded 7.1, has now launched Dolby Atmos. The technology is so immersive that some experts have dubbed it ‘the 3D of sound’! The best part is that no special earphones or other contraption is required to enjoy the Atmos experience.
Pankaj Kedia, Country Manager, Dolby Laboratories says, “Atmos is revolutionary.It is about rediscovering and re-designing cinema sound. Everything in the cinema chain has to change, from how content is created to how it is distributed to how it is played back in cinemas. It’s not an upgrade; it will change the way sound is played.”
The company has revisited critical areas of the theatrical replay environment, including the technology and standards by which dubbing studios and cinemas are aligned and monitored. Introduction of a new audio format allows changes to be implemented without breaking compatibility, making it an ideal opportunity to revisit existing standards.
While Hindi films like Dum Maaro Dum and Rockstar used the 7.1 technology for sound mixing, Disney Pixar’s recent release, Brave, is the first film that has incorporated Atmos. According to the company, many more films are on their way.
So what really is the main difference between the existing technology and the new one? There are two critical elements in Atmos that significantly improve the audience experience over 5.1 and 7.1 systems – sounds originating overhead and sounds originating from discrete sources throughout the auditorium. So, for instance, there is a scene in Brave where the main character Merida runs past the forest. While with 7.1 sound arrangements, you have the sound effect emanated from just one wall, but with Atmos, the viewers experience the sound from all around the auditorium.
Currently, cinema owners address all the speakers installed in the auditorium with one main channel of sound. With Atmos, each speaker can be addressed individually. The USP of this technology is that it also delivers sound through a speaker embedded in the ceiling. This facility has not been used by any cinemahall to date. Surround sound thus gets a new meaning as movie-goers will now be surrounded in a cube of sound at cinemas.
The technology is also very adaptable and has unlimited channels of sound too. Kedia says, “Every cinema is different in terms of size and number of speakers. Atmos can support any number of channels. It understands cinema space and does the acoustic measurements automatically. It then distributes the sound according to the number of speakers in the cinema hall.”
The sound in films is pre-rendered,which means that in one track of sound there are hundreds of elements. So if there is a scene where an actor is standing on the highway, there may be many ambient sounds of cars rushing past, people talking and the wind blowing.This one scene has one soundtrack with all these sound elements. In cinema sound, all these sounds are placed on one timeline and they are mixed together and rendered through various channels.
The rendering of the sound does not take place at the mixing stage any more.With Atmos, the cinema owner can use as many speakers in his cinema as he wants and the tracks get rendered in the cinema hall itself. And then based on the cinema reading and configuration, we programme this to understand the auditorium very well. So if one speaker breaks down, this technology will re-programme the soundon its own and redo the sound output.Dolby Atmos also allows up to 128 tracks to be packaged, usually a combination of beds and objects.
But since the technology is self sufficient and is not an upgrade, cinema owners need to make some significant investments too. These investments will mainly be on three counts. The number of speakers will have to increase and the minimum number of speakers will depend on the sound angle per size or simply put – the size of the auditorium.
Usually, sound speakers are installed up to two thirds of the screen. With Atmos,the speakers will have to be fitted all the way to the screen. The distance between the speakers needs to also reduce. While earlier, this distance was at 8 feet, now it has to be 6 feet. Single screen owners might need to buckle upto spend more as their audis are bigger than multiplexes and they will thus need to install more speakers.
Despite this, most cinema owners are ready to loosen their purse strings. According to Kedia, “We have received a lot of interest from Indian exhibitors for Atmos. When 3D films were launched, cinema owners had to upgrade their screens but now they don’t seem to be interested in waiting as Atmos will soon be a must-have technology for cinema sound.”
There has to be a differentiation between the home theatre and the cine experience and Dolby Atmos is the answer.But the new technology requires more speakers in the auditorium, which means more investments for cinema owners. There might be an initial reluctance to do this but eventually everyone will have to come around. In fact, a few years ago, 80 per cent exhibitors, who were reluctant to install 2K digital screens, have now gone digital. When Atmosis introduced in Indian cinemas, and if it is worth it, we will be the first ones to adopt it.
Technology, in almost every field, is evolving at a pace faster than any of us can easily comprehend and put to realutilisation. SRS Cinemas currently have 7.1 channel surround sound system and even when we talk about the 7.1 channel sound, one can’t ignore the fact that there are hardly any movies being made that are truly 7.1 channel audio compatible. Features like the Dolby Atmos will surely liven up cinema sound but as exhibitors we have to be front runners in keeping pace with emerging trends. Let’s look at digital screens, first it was the Plasma, then the LCD, followed by LED then Super AMOLED. I am sure that a vast majority of the end users hardly understand the difference or would really care to know how the technology enhances their experience but most of them are certainly interested in the price they have to pay for their TV and opt for the one more affordable.
Sound technology changes a lot faster than any other cinema feature and so it is important for exhibitors to keep track of all innovations. Sound is as important as visuals are. So we would not shy away from any new technology that will enhance the cine experience for movie-goers.Exhibitors Speak Sound technology changes a lot faster than any other cinema feature and so it is important for exhibitors to keep track of all innovations. Sound is as important as visuals are. So we would not shy away from any new technology that will enhance the cine experience for movie-goers.