LOS ANGELES — At the recent premiere of Disney-Pixar’s Brave, an animated tale about a bow-wielding Scottish princess named Merida, the whooshing of arrows seemed to glide even closer to the audience’s ears, a bear’s roar felt even more dangerous and a storm sounded like it was swirling over the audience.
It’s the Dolby Atmos system at work, the latest innovation in movie theatre audio that’s aiming to make the big-screen 3-D experience sound as three-dimensional as it looks.
Brave is the first feature film mixed entirely for the new audio platform from Dolby Laboratories Inc. “It’s a new way of thinking,” said Brave sound designer Gary Rydstrom. “We had to make sure we captured the opportunities that the Dolby Atmos mix gave us, without getting gimmicky.”
Because of Dolby Atmos’ unique ability to immerse and envelop audiences, the film’s audio engineers had to craft the soundscape inside a screening theatre at Skywalker Sound in Northern California instead of in a typical sound mixing studio.
Scenes from films such as The Incredibles, Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol and Rise of the Planet of the Apes have previously been test-mixed in Dolby Atmos, but Brave is the first feature film to totally use the new platform from start to finish.
“The audience is way more sophisticated now,” said David Gray, Dolby’s content services vice-president, following a demonstration earlier this month at Dolby’s Burbank, Calif., facility.
“There’s a whole generation who grew up with multichannel sound, so this is the first time a generation has really demanded this kind of evolution.”
Brave in Dolby Atmos is being test-released beginning today in 14 domestic theatres that typically charge a premium for 3-D and other enhancements.
“If there’s new technology that we can put into place that enhances an experience, then we’re all for it,” said AMC operations vice-president Neal Katcher.
Unlike Dolby’s previous audio advancements that added digital sound and multiple channels, Dolby Atmos boasts the ability to render and individually direct sounds to certain speakers. For instance, an explosion from a witch’s spell in Brave can be pinpointed to one spot within a theatre instead of just broadcast along the front, back, left or right walls.
The biggest update with Dolby Atmos is two arrays of overhead speakers. Depending on the layout of a venue, the speakers can be installed on the ceiling or on trusses hanging over the audience.
Rydstrom, the veteran Academy Award-winning sound designer of such films as Jurassic Park and Saving Private Ryan, utilized the overhead speakers in Brave to broadcast such sound effects as rain drizzling down on Merida and her mother in a dense Scottish forest.
Since developing the platform, Dolby has been petitioning filmmakers to mix upcoming movies in Dolby Atmos, but the company is remaining mum on what films might be next.
The cost of upgrading a theatre with the technology can range from $30,000 to $100,000, depending on the infrastructure and existing sound system.