Hollywood’s big pitch with their tentpole franchises is they are so big, so overloaded with spectacle, that you need see them in the biggest, best, and loudest theaters. The latest technology becomes a marketing tool to justify not only a higher-priced ticket, but the theatergoing experience itself.
When Alfonso Cuarón was making “Gravity,” he went to see Dolby pitch their latest sound advancement: Atmos. By equipping theaters with dozens of high-fidelity speakers above and around the viewer, it gives filmmakers the ability in the mix to pinpoint exactly where in the theater sounds radiated from when screened in an Atmos-equipped theater. For Cuarón, a director obsessed with how his audience interacts with the three-dimensional space of his cinematic worlds, he saw a tool for filmmakers who think in terms of spacial reality rather than visual-effects fantasy.
“I remember saying, ‘This is a brilliant system,'” said Cuarón. “‘But this is a tool that the real function of this tool is going to be in intimate films, not in this big loud tentpoles, because loudness and Atmos, they don’t come together in my opinion.’ It’s about spread, and the beautiful thing of spreading all these sounds, and being able to be very geographically specific, that that’s something that no other system gives you.”
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After Mexico-based sound department head José Antonio García collected and built the layered soundtrack of “Roma,” Cuarón secured for legendary sound mixer Skip Lievsay and Craig Henighan an extraordinarily long time to mix the film in Atmos — a mix that lasted months, stretching over three cities, including a seven-week stretch in London — to dig into and experiment with Atmos in ways it hadn’t been used before “Roma.” But it wasn’t the length of the mix, but more the type of work being done.
“If you look at your average Marvel movie, there’s a ton more stuff happening physically,” said Lievsay. “There’s so many big, loud sound objects moving around the room. That takes a similar amount of time and patience. You’re making really big things that really move around the room and are very dynamic. You’re pulling the audience into a place, which is not a reality. You’re imposing a point of view, where the audience is like a passenger. That takes a lot of time and patience, and you got to do it right, and make it sound right.”
With a just a few noticeable exceptions, “Roma” doesn’t have those type of scenes. In fact, it’s Cuarón’s most static movie. The immersive camera movement of “Children of Men” and “Gravity” is noticeably absent, replaced, to some degree, by his conception of an immersive Atmos mix.
“Since the beginning, when we start shooting, I defined it as this goes from the present that besets the past,” said Cuarón. “It’s just hovering, detach, observing everything. Yeah, there’s a certain detachment from the camera, but the camera is our center of perception. I wanted then to place the camera in a physical environment, for the camera to be surrounded by the sounds of that space. When we are watching the film, we’re not only seeing what is onscreen, but the existence of that place that isn’t on the screen.”
Cuarón’s idea was that in giving us a window into this three-dimensional space, it would be the sound that would — as Lievsay described it — pull the viewer past the front door and into this world.
“Alfonso had set this up with his photography, with long takes and slow moves, and not a lot of cutting, which we felt let there be a way where the picture and the sound can actually give the audience greater access to the story,” said Lievsay. “When the audience is watching, the proscenium around the screen drops away. [We believed] there was a way we can push that, and heighten that, and grant the audience more access with sound.”
This meant digging into the sound design by fully mixing in three-dimensional space in way Lievsay said he’d never be able work with such detail before. The densely layered soundtrack, utilizing an incredible number of sounds Garcia’s team recorded in the Roma neighborhood in Mexico City, would be spread around the theater. Then tracking movement, like the young boys running through the house, in 360-degree space with sound, which draws the viewer into frame. Most importantly, when the camera does pan or move, the sound was joined to the change in visual perspective; in other words, the mix would adapt the aural perspective of moving through space.
“That was the experiment — all of those parts, they all followed the movement of the camera, so as we rotate, all the atmosphere is rotated as well,” said Lievsay. “We found — but not scientifically, just kind of emotionally — where you just sort of break through, it becomes very realistic. You’re no longer distracted by things that are slightly off because the realism level is so high, and the frame around the screen just goes away, and now you feel like you’re absolutely standing in the situation.”
For how densely layered the soundtrack is, the Atmos spread is realistic and almost eloquently quiet in the film’s opening scenes. There are key moments of outburst in particularly dramatic scenes where Cuarón plays off that quiet.
“The dynamic range was so great that it was very startling and dramatic for the audience,” said Lievsay. “And I think Alfonso being the extremely clever filmmaker that he naturally knows about that whole idea where before the loud things, make it quiet so it’s even more dynamic. I suspect that he wrote the movie in episodes like that so he could have this really bold dynamic range.”
One of the most incredibly pieces of sound mixing is the dramatic climax of “Roma,” the beach scene, where the sound of waves start foreshadowing danger, before overwhelming the viewer and the characters.
“We could never play things that specific and also very loud, within the room – that’s new with Atmos, even 7.1 of course we had speakers in the room, but we were limited to four channels,” said Lievsay. “And now on the Atmos we have 65 specific locations that we can create within the room.”
For Cuarón, for whom water has played such a key role throughout his films, the scene becomes the ultimate moment of purification. A dramatic loudness that makes even a Marvel film sound small.