Dolby's Great Leap Forward - 'Atmos' Aims to Take Theatrical Sound Where 3-D and IMAX took Visuals
What if you could hear Michael Myers' footsteps as he moved through a victim's house? Or be immersed in the soundscape of a gun battle, with such life-like quality that you might run for cover from that tower sniper? Dolby's newly announced format, Atmos, is aiming to push theatergoer's auditory immersion in the way IMAX and 3-D pushed visual immersion. So how exactly is this different from existing surround sound systems, and what effect will it have on a viewer's experience? Check this video out:
Not only does it give a nice overview of theatrical sound's evolution (from mono, to stereo, to surround, to 5.1 to 7.1), but it also shows just how Atmos aims for a different approach:
The idea is that by approaching sound elements as dynamic objects traveling through channels, you'll have a more life-like experience. In the built out version, using 64 speakers that will be placed both around and above the audience, the sound could travel through each speaker as it moved across a room, in what's called a pan-through array. In previous set-ups you could certainly provide a sense of movement as the sound moved from one channel to another, but with this new format, you get a much finer sense of direction and placement. So let's say you want to convey the sense of a swarm of bees moving threateningly around the hero -- instead of mixing in terms of channels, where you might have heard the bees moving side to side, back to front, with the new system you should be able to close your eyes and pinpoint just where the swarm is. That's pretty awesome. According to reports, it really is impressive. As the reporter for the New York Times said:
The new sound system is incredibly realistic. During one demonstration, audio clips of a thunderstorm were so realistic — with the sound of the rain pummeling down from above — I thought I might need a real umbrella.
Judging from some of the images in the video, it looks like they have some kind of 3-d mapping software that helps you control where in space you want the sound to be coming from and how much area it should cover (i.e footsteps vs thunderstorm). Hopefully over the next few weeks and months there will be more details on how that works (i.e whether you need to use a proprietary software, or you can somehow create the metadata through existing 3-d software). I don't expect this to be used much by indie filmmakers in the short-run, but don't be surprised to hear some very exciting sounds coming out of the bigger theaters near you as they switch their premium screens to this format.
**Update**: And, it looks like Disney/Pixar's Brave will be the first movie to be released using this new format. The movie comes out June 22 here in the States. I guess I'll have to find a theater that's been upgraded to check it out in its full glory: