As if you’re re­ally there

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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 down- stream. 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.) ac­cord­ing to Stuart bowl­ing, feed­back on the dolby at­mos sound sys­tem from au­di­ences has been ex­tremely pos­i­tive.

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