There’s a new immersive cinema sound system in town.
IN 1974, cinemagoers flocked to see the disaster movie Earthquake, not for the astounding special effects of the day, nor for the star appeal of Charlton Heston, but for the literally earth-shattering new sound system called Sensurround.
The system, developed by audio manufacturers Cerwin-Vega, utilised low frequencies to shake audiences in their seats, thus approximating the experience of a real earthquake. It was an instant hit and was also used for the war movie Midway (1976) and another disaster movie, Rollercoaster (1977), as well as two Battlestar Galactica movies.
Over the years, cinema audio systems have seen various improvements. When American digital surround sound specialists DTS introduced digital surround sound with 1993’s Jurassic Park, people queued around the block to catch the realistic roar of the Tyrannosaurus rex.
But surround sound only enabled sounds that went around the cinema hall. Now sound specialist Dolby has gone a step further by introducing Dolby Atmos, a system that enables sound to come even from above, thus creating a wholly realistic and immersive aural environment. Now, sounds can be anywhere in the cinema hall, not just at the front or back or left to right and vice-versa. For example, dialogue doesn’t have to be just in the centre any more. As was demonstrated by the animated film Brave, with which the Atmos system made its debut last year at the Los Angeles Film Festival, a voice can follow a character in any direction and position.
GSC One Utama in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, is the first cineplex in Malaysia to install the Dolby Atmos system. It recently held a demonstration for the media that showed off the system’s impressive capabilities with the sounds of a jungle, a thunderstorm and pattering rain, and a singer playing an acoustic guitar seemingly walking around the cinema hall. Simply put, it is sound in 3D.
Dolby Atmos can utilise more than 60 speakers (including an array on the ceiling) and up to 128 channels, depending on the size of a cinema hall. The hall in GSC One Utama has 54 speakers and 46 channels. The large set-up ensures that there is no sound deterioration during panning, and the possibilities are endless for a filmmaker.
Notable directors such as Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro, Alfonso Cuaron and Ang Lee have mixed their films in Atmos. This year alone, 85 films have been mixed in Atmos. To date there are 300 screens worldwide that are equipped with the Atmos system, while 40 studios around the world are equipped to mix in Atmos.
Asked if the added cost of installing the Atmos system was substantial for GSC, Heng Beng Fatt, the exhibitor’s deputy general manager, said: “This is a new technology that will bring customers to the cinemas. We look at it as enhancing the cinema experience. More people will come and the occupancy will be higher. We only charge an extra RM1, but we will recover the cost.
“We have been continuously upgrading with digital 3D and so on. We have to keep up with the technology because, otherwise, it would be like the old days when the cinemas faded away.”
Stuart Bowling, Dolby Laboratories’ market development director, was on hand to answer questions about the system.
How have cinema audiences responded to Atmos?
The feedback that we got from exhibition has been extremely positive. There’s an exhibitor in California, whose venue, after putting in Atmos for Man Of Steel, actually outgrew the IMAX cinema near it. We have other examples of exhibitors actually seeing an increase in occupancy rate. Even if you just search on Twitter for Atmos, there’s a lot of positive feedback.
Which film do you feel best used Atmos?
It’s a bit like asking which child do you like more? (Laughs.) I think Gravity used Atmos incredibly well.
I think part of that was because silence was used very powerfully in that movie. The great thing about Atmos is, can it make an explosion big and life-like? Absolutely. But it can also make you acutely aware of subtlety and detail, which is what happened with Gravity.
Obviously every movie is driven by an artist, and it’s how the artist uses the instrument to the best of his ability. It’s open to debate and interpretation.
Is there a “sweet spot” in a cinema hall for the best experience?
The system is designed to give a uniform coverage of sound pressure across the seats. Obviously, the way our brains put sound and visuals together means if you’re in the middle, then you’re basically in the main spot where you’re going to be immersed in the picture and audio. But in general, you would get a better experience than you would with 5.1 or 7.1 channel systems.
Because we’re now creating a spatial environment, you can get a slightly different experience no matter where you sit. For instance, in (the first instalment of) The Hobbit, Gollum was in a cave, and if you sat in the front of the cinema, then you would hear water drops coming down from the cave ceiling. If you were in the back right-hand corner, you would hear some of the water coming in filling the pool inside the cave.
No matter where you sit, we’re giving you a representation of that environment so that if you really were there with the characters, that would be exactly how you would experience the sounds.
How much does an Atmos mix add to a film’s budget?
We had a production recently that went through the Atmos mix, and they actually shaved time off the production.
They cut down three physical days of mixing. But there is an additional day in print mastering. But ultimately they saved two days.
Any plans to make Atmos available for home theatre?
If you look at what Dolby’s done over its history, then either technology has transitioned into other areas, or parts of the technology have transitioned and provided improvements downstream. Right now Atmos has only been a product for six months, and it’s too early to tell yet how Atmos could transition beyond the cinema space.
It’s very difficult to replicate what Atmos does. Not many people can put 64 speakers in their house! They probably could, but they’ll be single for the rest of their lives! (Laughs.)