Thus far, the majority of my “Modern Theater Experience” series of blog posts (The Avengers & The Hobbit) has focused on the visuals. IMAX, 3D, and HFR are all adding size, depth and speed to the classic theater viewing experience. What about the sound? Theater sound has changed a lot in my lifetime with Dolby and DTS sound becoming more prevalent around my teenage years. However, theaters were left behind as these technologies were moved into the home and sound fantastic in a well constructed home theater. In the last few years, there really hasn’t been any advancement in theater sound. The only thing close is IMAX sound becoming more widespread but IMAX sound is really just louder. It isn’t a revolutionary new format. That’s where Dolby comes in with their first major new format in many years. It’s called Dolby Atmos and it represents the first major sea change in theater audio in over a decade.
The two basic concepts that define Dolby Atmos are that it supports up to 64 channels of audio and a lot of those speakers are above you in the ceiling. For those of you who don’t have a home theater, the current standard at home is a 5.1 setup. That’s five channels of audio with one subwoofer. Some homes have a 7.1 system equipped where there are speakers directly behind you but that’s more rare. The concept of a “channel” is you can specifically put sound in that speaker as opposed to a classic stereo effect where you’re using two speakers to make sound appear in the center of them. Having more channels allows for more precise placement of sound in space around the listener. So Dolby Atmos’ 64 channels obviously create a whole lot more possibilities for sound engineers to tinker with their mixes. The other big advancement is the height information the listener gains from having speakers in the ceiling. The possibilities with this format are pretty much infinite.
To audition the new Dolby Atmos format, I went to see Iron Man 3 in the only theater that supported it in my state of Florida; The AMC 24 at Downtown Disney. First off, you don’t really notice that there’s anything different about the theater’s speaker setup because all of the new speakers are hidden above the ceiling. If you look closely, you can notice that the ceiling has a mesh look to it to allow the sound to escape. The demo that’s shown before the movie highlights the advantages of Dolby Atmos. The listener is placed in a forest setting while a single leaf floats around the room. The effect is immediately striking. Sounds are coming from everywhere and the definition and specificity of those sounds are unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in a movie. The leaf is floating to the left, right, above and behind the audience and you can exactly place its location at all times. Overall, I think it’s the best demo Dolby has ever had. Of course, that’s a demo and it’s purposefully created to wow you. How does the Atmos effect work in an actual movie and more specifically, Iron Man 3?
So Dolby Atmos supports up to 64 channels of audio with an emphasis on “up to”. That means if it’s just a typical dialog scene between two people then the mixer will probably only use a few of those channels to make the dialog sound good and that’s it. If it’s a scene where say, a guy in an iron rocket suit if fleeing from an exploding Air Force One then they will probably use more of the channels. That’s how it plays out in Iron Man 3. A lot of the early scenes in the movie don’t really wow you in the way the Dolby demo does because the mixers are really only utilizing the few channels they need and the first 20 minutes or so of the movie is mostly dialog heavy. Then there is the attack on the Stark compound that you see in the trailer. That’s when the mixers go nuts and the full potential of Dolby Atmos is revealed. This attack involves helicopters, rockets and a lot of Iron Man suit pieces flying around. All of these on screen elements pan around and above the theater to create a truly immersive audio experience.
Does this effect help the story or is it just a gimmick? I would argue vehemently that it absolutely helps improve storytelling, especially an action epic like Iron Man 3. The scene I described above is improved by the Dolby Atmos mix because the sense of chaos and helplessness is palpable. Stark’s entire world is being reduced to ruins around him and he’s trying to do whatever he can to fix it before he loses everything. The audience is placed right in the middle of this chaos and the effect is intense. I also mentioned the Air Force One scene earlier and that plays out in a similar fashion. What I was able to note in that scene was how well the Atmos mix allowed me to process the geography of what was going on in the scene. For example, there’s a shot where Iron Man has a woman in his arms that he’s saved while he’s plummeting to the earth in the bottom right frame and the plane is exploding in the top left frame. It’s a great shot. In Atmos, the sound of the plane exploding is coming exactly from the top left section of the theater while Iron Man and the woman’s sounds come from the bottom right. Throughout all of this the sound of air whooshing by fills the rest of the theater. In this scene, I had a clear understanding of where things were and the gravity of the situation (no pun intended).
Of all of the new theater experiences I’ve covered in this series, Dolby Atmos is the one that excites me the most. There really is no downside to it. It’s all positive. Movies can only be enhanced by this format and I look forward to it being installed in as many theaters as possible. The only other effect that I could say would pair well with it is a full-sized IMAX screen. A movie that was shot with an IMAX camera and presented on a full-sized IMAX screen with Dolby Atmos would be film nirvana. I don’t think we’re going to get that but I can dream. My final recommendation is that if you live near a theater that has Dolby Atmos, then you should definitely consider it for your next movie night. Keep in mind that there aren’t a lot of options right now and you may have to put up with 3D you don’t want in order to experience the new audio format but I’d argue that it’s worth it. Hopefully Atmos and possible future formats like it will be installed in more places soon so that everyone can enjoy it in the visual format they prefer.