News Column

Dolby Laboratories' Atmos sound, new star at movies

July 5, 2013


July 05--In one scene in "Monsters University," protagonists Mike and Sully are surrounded by a crowd of cheering, jeering, metal-banging students filling an underground cavern for a monster version of Greek games.

But in certain theaters around the world, the audience for Pixar's latest animated film will not only watch the scene, but they'll also be immersed in that same swirling sea of sound, thanks to technology developed by San Francisco's Dolby Laboratories.

Since its debut with Pixar's "Brave" in June 2012, the Dolby Atmos system has been used for about 50 movies that have premiered or are in production, including "Star Trek: Into the Darkness," "Man of Steel" and "Life of Pi."

Also in that time, the Atmos system has been installed in about 200 screens in 27 countries, including eight screens in the Bay Area. That compares to just 40 theaters with Atmos six months ago.

Dolby has also lined up deals with the world's largest theater-chain operators, including Regal in the United States, SPI Cinema in India, Wanda Cinemaline in China and Odeon and UCI Cinemas Group in Europe.

Dolby is billing Atmos as a next-generation sound system that brings a higher resolution to a movie's audio soundtrack, in a way similar to what high-definition video has done for TV. Chief Executive Officer Kevin Yeaman has called it "the future for entertainment sound in cinema."

Working with industry

Dolby has competition. Belgium rival Barco said last month that it has also signed agreements to deploy its Auro 11.1 immersive sound technology for 200 screens and has more than 50 films to be released with the format, including Lionsgate's upcoming "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" and "Ender's Game."

But Oscar-winning sound mixers Gary Summers and Michael Semanick, who both worked on "Monsters University," said Dolby may have a leg up because it has worked closely with the film industry to developed Atmos to be as easy and inexpensive to include in the post-production of movies as possible.

"If there's a huge added cost to make the movie in Atmos, it's never going to happen, because the budgets are getting smaller in our world already," Summers said in a recent interview. "They knew they had to make it very fluid for us."

"Dolby is a household name," Semanick said. "I can't think of anybody better because they know how to approach it from the creative side."

Dolby's 5.1 surround-sound system -- a six-channel system with five speakers around a room plus a subwoofer -- first debuted in movie theaters in 1992 with "Batman Returns."

Dolby's Surround 7.1 system made its debut in 2010 with "Toy Story 3," also from Emeryville's Pixar.

Sound from above

Dolby Atmos adds more speakers to the ceiling of a theater so that sound is coming from above the audience. But to moviegoers who think films are just too loud already, Brett Crocket, senior director of Dolby Research Sound Technology, said the ceiling speakers are not just to pump up the volume.

"We added more speakers, but it's not to make it louder," Crocket said. "It's similar to when television went from standard definition to high definition. That was to give it more resolution, not to make the screen brighter."

The system allows sound engineers to mix the audio so that a particular sound "object" can come out of a specific point in the room. A flying dragon, for example, can be heard belching fire from right above an audience's member's head while the hero reacts on the screen in front.

And the system will translate that point where the movie is played, compensating for the size and shape of the room.

"If I place a sound one-third down the wall in my room, the Atmos system will put that sound exactly one-third down the wall," Summers said before a recent screening of "Monsters" at Dolby's headquarters. "So it's very, very precise in how it can render the sound."

"The story is always the centerpiece and the sound is used to help tell that story," Summers said.

For movie sound mixers, that's like another color on an artist's palette to help audiences "hear a great story and be immersed by it," Semanick said.

For example, the director in "Monsters University" wanted the scene in which the main characters and their fraternity try to join the "Scare Games" to evoke an emotional response from the audience. Summers and Semanick moved the sounds of crowd reactions and general noise around to immerse the audience in a Mad Max-"Thunderdome"-style experience.

They said the Atmos system helped shape that scene in a subtle way. "You feel it more than notice it," Semanick said.

Longtime project

Dolby has been working on the system for about three years, including working with people in the film industry, cinema operators and scientists who study how human brains perceive sound.

"We've been thinking about this for about 10 years," Crocket said. "People have been asking us for the next-generation sound format, but we wanted to make sure it's was actually next generation."

Benny Evangelista is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail:


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