Indiewire has published a guest post by Dolby Institute’s director Glenn Kiser in which he talks to filmmakers about the importance of sound design from the beginning of production.
Making a movie is a never-ending series of compromises, and nothing is as good as the original concept you had in mind. But if you’re really lucky, there’s a moment of alchemy that can happen in the editing room when you put the right piece of music or the right sound effect into the cut. Suddenly something magical happens, and the thing comes to life. You forget about the perfect location you couldn’t secure and the cold your lead actor had on the day you shot the emotional scene. It stops being a maddening litany of disappointments and becomes a movie.
Let’s talk about surround sound systems for a quick second, shall we?
A modern surround sound system, in its simplest form, consists of six channels; Left, Center, Right, Left Surround, Right Surround, and the Low Frequency Effect channel. The first five channels are all fairly self-explanatory, denoting the location of the speaker itself and the channel’s location in the sound field. That last one, the LFE, is a little bit more complicated.
Sitting there as credits rolled after a Dolby Atmos presentation of Brave this past summer, I felt excited for the potential of this budding format. Before the film, a few seated moms and dads were even verbally excited as the usher announce that we would be watching the film in a new sound format. During the film, the theater was saturated with sound, I truly felt immersed at times. Yet as I watched the credits fly by, I couldn’t help feeling that until sound crews sink their teeth into the format, we won’t really hear Atmos fully realized. For the format to really sparkle, films need to be designed, edited, and premixed with Atmos in mind or as Dolby would like it, premixed IN Atmos entirely. After reading about the impression Atmos left on Shaun at AES and trying to find a way to contribute to an already excellent month of ambient discussion, I decided I should contact a few sound crews that mixed in Atmos, ask how backgrounds are handled, and with that initial experience how they would approach BGs in their next Atmos mix.
One of the hot topics at AES this year…and by “hot,” I mean a subject that had multiple conference sessions devoted to it…was the concept of adding height to the spatial information presented by multi-channel surround formats. I’m sure a fair bit of the enthusiasm for this subject is caused by the announcement and release of Dolby Atmos earlier this year.
My experience with Dolby Atmos prior to AES was non-existent. To date, there are only 14 theaters in the U.S., and one in Canada, currently equipped for Atmos playback. The closest theater to me is in New York, and that’s not exactly a short trip from the Washington, DC, metro area. Thankfully, my trip out to San Francisco for AES provided me with two opportunities to listen to the system at work. The first was a technical demonstration at Dolby Laboratories, scheduled as a “Technical Tour” within the AES events program. The second was the AMC Metreon, which had two daily showings of Chasing Mavericks; the latest film release to be mixed in the new Atmos format.
Just imagining all that could be done in creating subtle backgrounds and ambiences, I was excited to hear what this system could do…though I fully expected the bulk of the examples that Dolby would be showing would tend toward spectacle. That proved, for the most part, to be true. Which made the opportunity presented by Chasing Mavericks all the more important; a chance to truly hear how editors and re-recording mixers would make use of the system throughout the course of a story. Before I get too deep into those experiences though, let’s talk about some of the interesting technical abilities of the system.