What do you do when you don't have the technology to get that perfect shot? Invent it, of course.
When Mike Day was filming his award-winning documentary The Islands and the Whales, he encountered a particular production challenge.
His film, shot over the course of four years, reaches deep inside the controversy surrounding whaling on the Faroes, an archipelago of 18 volcanic islands in the north Atlantic ocean between Norway, Iceland, and Scotland. Forces including vehement anti-whaling environmentalists and the increase of pollution threaten to dismantle the entire foundation of the Faroese existence; whaling is the only sustainable option for the islanders.
To transport audiences into their world, it was incumbent upon Day to create the most immersive experience possible given the constraints of the medium. The film's sweeping cinematography captures the dramatic oceanside cliffs and the faces of the island's hardworking people, but images are only part of the story.
Day decided to recreate the environment's soundscape in order to provide viewers with the full experience of the Faroes. But in order to do this, he needed a very specific kind of multi-directional microphone. He contacted George Lucas's Skywalker Sound. Together, they invented a groundbreaking sound technique: an ambisonic microphone which allowed Day to remap the full sphere of sound in the field—including the sound from above and below the microphone. In other words, they created the ultimate experience of spatial audio.
"It worked—subtle, but present," Day told Moviescope. "It's not a fireworks FX, but it takes you there to the windswept cliffs."
Harpex developed software specifically for Day to translate the ambisonic recordings from a specially designed tetrahedral mic to Dolby Atmos. The Islands and the Whales is the first film to use ambisonic sound recordings in production and to reproduce them in cinemas. The theater system uses 128 speakers, including vertical channels, which allow audiences to experience the sound as it was when it was originally captured in the field.
"This technique adds another tool for us to transport audiences into the world on the screen," Day said. "It’s been great to hear audience reactions to it, many not knowing the system was being used, but feeling its effect. It gives another reason to see the film on the big screen, and that’s always a good thing!"