The odds are pretty good that you haven’t heard a film in Dolby Atmos yet. Fewer than 200 movie screens worldwide are equipped with the three-dimensional sound system so far, about half of them in North America. But if there’s an Atmos theater near you, your ears deserve to experience the technology for themselves.
While Atmos isn’t yet a multiplex staple — retrofitting for it is a substantial undertaking, requiring closing the theater while new speakers are installed — it’s also only a year old. And Dolby is doing a good job of getting moviemakers interested in the technology, especially for cartoons and superhero blockbusters. Recent, current and upcoming releases available in Atmos versions include Oz the Great and Powerful, A Good Day to Die Hard, The Croods, Iron Man 3, Star Trek Into Darkness, Epic, Monsters University, Man of Steel and The Wolverine, among others. The format seems to have a healthy head start on Barco’s Auro 11.1, another next-generation sound technology; that one’s available in only a half-dozen theaters in the U.S., and its movie lineup is dominated by DreamWorks Animation releases.
Why would a studio want to use Atmos? Unlike previous approaches to movie audio such as Dolby’s own Surround 7.1, Atmos doesn’t require movie makers to mix their sound for a particular number of speakers in certain locations in a theater. Instead, it abstracts the specifics out of the process, so Atmos, rather than the mixer, does the heavy lifting of figuring out how to use the available speakers to pinpoint sound effects anywhere in the room. The idea is to allow movies to sound their best and most dimensional whether they’re in a giant theater with scads of speakers — Atmos supports up to 64 of them — or on a smaller screen with a simpler setup.
Atmos incorporates overhead speakers as well as wall-mounted ones, for a more enveloping experience. (Auro also mounts speakers above the audience.) And Atmos movies can be mixed using a plug-in for Pro Tools, the industry’s standard software, then converted into versions for older, more pervasive sound formats — so working in Atmos isn’t a quirky side project that benefits only a tiny number of moviegoers.
“It’s incredibly freeing as a mixer,” says sound designer Will Files of Skywalker Sound, who worked in Atmos for Star Trek Into Darkness. “You can stop worrying about channels and speakers and start thinking about where in 3D space you want to put a sound, and just put it there.”
“There are lots of moments in the film where we were able to create an experience that felt more like being there,” Files told me. “It’s like having a higher-resolution lens.”
I first heard Atmos last year at a screening of Pixar’s Brave, the first film released in the format. It sounded fine, but I wasn’t completely wowed. I was more impressed when Dolby played me some clips from more recent movies — such as Life of Pi’s flying fish scene — in its own Atmos-equipped theater at its San Francisco headquarters. And when I saw the new Star Trek at Dolby’s screening room, knowing that I’d be writing about Atmos and therefore listening attentively, my ears were at as dazzled as my eyes. (Maybe more so: We saw the film in Dolby 3D, and though it was reasonably easy on the eyes, I remain unseduced by the very concept of 3D movies.)
Even though Dolby’s screening room was small, the sound was big, and the on-screen action benefited throughout from the dimensionality of Atmos. Space, the final frontier, felt that much more real. Once or twice, I found myself reflexively ducking as something whooshed over my head.
Of course, an epic like the new Trek — full of explosions, hurdling objects, shouting people and melodramatic music — was born to be recorded in a three-dimensional sound system. So I asked Files whether, well, quieter genres of movies would also benefit from Atmos.
Yes, he said, they would: “It’s a huge opportunity to improve the quality, no matter what the film is — it’s a bigger box of crayons to play with.” Sounds promising to me.