Editor’s note: This post is presented in partnership with Dolby Laboratories and AMC Theatres in conjunction with Warner Bros. Pictures and Village Roadshow Pictures’ action adventure film, “In the Heart of the Sea,” coming to Dolby Cinema at AMC Prime December 11, 2015.
Joining Indiewire’s Chief Film Critic Eric Kohn following a screening of Ron Howard’s “In the Heart of the Sea,” sound re-recording mixers Chris Burdon and Gilbert Lake shared what it was like bringing this massive whaling epic to the big screen. But while their stories about new technology and the challenges of creating water sounds were highly informative, one remark stood out above the rest in revealing the future of sound in cinema.
“The reproduction of cinema is changing,” said Lake when asked about the future of his industry. “Especially in an auditorium like this, you can see how much effort has been put into the sound system here. If you get really good theaters, you feel much more confident in being bold with your choices in the mix.”
The Dolby Cinema at AMC Prime Experience
The auditorium Lake referred to was the brand new Dolby Cinema at AMC Prime at New York City’s AMC Empire 25, but it is just one of many new large format theaters across the country to be retrofitted with new sound systems and screens and brought under the Dolby Cinema name. Before the screening, presented by Dolby Cinema at AMC Prime, the audience was treated to a demonstration by Stuart Bowling, Director of Content and Creative Relations at Dolby Laboratories, that provided a preview at just how impressive Dolby’s new technology is and how it’s poised to change the moviegoing experience.
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“We looked beyond technology at the entertainment experience,” he shared. “Dolby has been known for surround sound, but we realized that also as moviegoers there are a lot of things that happen inside the movie theater that go beyond technology. And so we looked at what happens inside movie theaters and said, ‘How can we make the experience better? What can Dolby do? What can the value proposition be that we bring to audiences around the world?'”
The answer to Bowling’s question is Dolby Cinema, which is a full theater experience that extends from beyond just the sound equipment that Dolby is best known for. All Dolby Cinema theaters are black-matted, for instance, and include no bright colors so that there is absolutely no distraction from the viewing process. “It’s all bout being lost in the dark, being lost in the moment and looking at the beautiful images on the screen,” said Bowling. “Really bright movie theaters can detract the contrast, which is the difference between light and dark of a movie, and the images can become washed out, which means they become less engaging and pull you out of the movie.”
Surround sound as also been maximized with Dolby Atmos, which in the particular AMC Empire theater means 42 surround speakers and 5 screening channels behind the screen.
“We want to give the best possible audio reproduction inside these rooms,” he added. “All Dolby Cinemas have a studio reference grade Dolby Atmos sound system, which means maximum density. It’s the same standard we set for the rerecording industry.” Throw in a floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall screen that is slightly projected off the back wall of the theater so that it “floats,” giving the impression of suspended 3D for the viewer, and Dolby is redefining the capabilities of exhibition.
Nowhere is this more clear than in their attempts to enhance the clarity of digital projection. Dolby Cinema uses two projectors capable of screening 2k, 4k and high frame rate (HFR) resolution and increases the contrast ratio by using Dolby Vision. As Bowling explained, “A standard projector today can only deliver a contrast ratio of 2,100:1, and so we took a completely different approach when we designed our projection technology. By utilizing lasers, we’re able to deliver a much higher dynamic range and then also an incredibly higher contrast ratio.” According to Bowling, the Dolby Vision project increases the contrast ratio from 2,100:1 to 1,000,000:1, which he cites as a “game changer in the quality of images they can deliver.”
“We have this technology called Dolby Vision, and the way that it works is that we work with filmmakers during the post process toward the end of their movies. Now the filmmaker can deliver incredible looking visions,” he continued. “We can actually widen the color space, [which is a] a three dimensional color volume of red green and blue, and those perameters were set by our industry to closely match what we were doing with 35mm celluloid. We’ve used that consistency because the projectors have been based on xenon based lightbulbs, and those lightbulbs inside the projector had a limited spectrograph, which limited the amount of colors they could reproduce. With lasers, though, because they have a much wider color range, we can actually push the boundaries even further…we can really push out reds, greens and blues and make things very fluorescent and neon.”
Behind the Dolby Atmos Sound
For the viewer, the results of Dolby Cinema create perhaps the most immersive theater experience imaginable. But more importantly, as Lake shared after the screening, it’s allowing sound designers, mixers and re-recorders the chance to be a bit more daring in their mixing choices. The freedom to try things in different ways is also being allowed, which is important when working on projects as large scale as “In the Heart of the Sea,” in which Lake handled effects and Burdon handled dialogue and music re-recording. Both sound mixers talked about how clarity of the dialogue is the most important in any mix, something Dolby Atmos helps with maintaining.
“It’s always a bit of a dance. You can’t ask the audience to concentrate on a huge amount of events happening at once,” said Lake. “You have to lead with certain events and key plot points and try to keep the focus on certain points at the screen as well. If we put everything in a film, it would be overwhelming in every detail.” With Atmos, however, the mixers can direct different layers of sound to different parts of the room to create a balance of different sound tracks. When you have effects, music and dialogue in one scene, the organization of these sounds in the Atmos surround sound can go miles in helping the dialogue remain as crystal clear as the visuals.
Part of what makes viewing a film like “In the Heart of the Sea” so involving is the Dolby Cinema presentation, in which you feel the crush of every wave and the pounding of every diving whale. For Burdon and Lake, getting these sounds and mixing them in a realistic way proved to be one of the biggest challenges in working on the movie.
Working With the Sound Team
“From an effects point of view, water is hugely challenging because it’s natural, we all know what water sounds like, and a lot of what water sounds like is noise, it’s like broadband frequencies, and it’s hard to find edges and transient, specific sounds within it,” said Lake. “If you go for too much of that stuff you end up with just noise, so it’s really crafting when you want to hear certain parts of water and using the geography of the room to separate different elements and feel you’re able to create something that has shape rather than just an assault. I hope that comes through when you watch it.”
The storm sequence was a similar challenge for Burdon. “At the beginning of the storm starting up, you got little bits of dialogue that are key but you want it to be against this huge soundscape,” he said. “We tried all along to keep energy, keep tension, but keep clarity of what we’re doing. When you see a sequence like the storm, you can imagine that almost every element you want to throw at the screen, but actually then when we’ve prepared it like that, we then re-access and we might start to pare it back and take away certain elements. We might find something from a different movie and I might suggest it because it works better tension wise. We’re always in danger of putting too much sound in film.”
Between Lake and Burdon’s sound work and the Dolby Cinema presentation, “In the Heart of the Sea” is further proof that Dolby is forever changing exhibition as we know it. For more information on Dolby Cinema, including where to find the format at a theater near you, visit the website here. “In the Heart of the Sea” is now playing in theaters nationwide.
Indiewire has partnered with Dolby Laboratories and AMC Theatres to present an advanced screening of Warner Bros. Pictures and Village Roadshow Pictures’ action adventure film, “In the Heart of the Sea,” coming to Dolby Cinema at AMC Prime December 11, 2015. “In the Heart of the Sea,” directed by Ron Howard, is based on Nathaniel Philbrick’s best-selling book about the real-life maritime disaster that would inspire Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. When their ship, the Essex, is assaulted by a whale of mammoth size and will, Captain Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) and the rest of his surviving crew are pushed to their limits and forced to do the unthinkable to stay alive.