'I Origins' and Dolby Atmos
It will likely come as small surprise to anyone who is a fan of the sci-fi indie Another Earth the film’s director, Mike Cahill, is younger brother to two neuroscientists. “Scientists are real people,” Cahill asserted during a Q&A session at the Dolby screening room in Manhattan Wednesday night. “Scientists get laid. They’re some of the most romantic, poetic, funny people. They sometimes don’t get portrayed accurately in film.” It was a wrong Cahill sought to redress in his most recent science fiction movie, I Origins, out July 18. “In the first 10 minutes I wanted to show scientists getting laid.”
Perhaps they appreciated the nobility of Cahill’s humanizing wish; or perhaps, they liked the film’s blend of such “indie” intimacy with “big” themes concerning the nature of science and spirituality. Whatever their reasons, members of The Dolby Institute were suitably impressed with Cahill’s third feature to award the director the first-ever Dolby Family Sound Fellowship. The grant allowed Cahill and his team to enhance and remix the sound of I Origins under the guidance of Academy Award-nominated sound mixer Steve Boeddeker at the Skywalker Sound facilities (a division of George Lucas' Lucas Digital motion picture group) in California. “How I think about sound has been transformed over the past four months,” said Cahill. “I never realized to what extent it can viscerally carry an audience through a scene.”
The scenes within I Origins chart the emotional evolution of Dr. Ian Gray (Michael Pitt). Gray is an atheist fascinated with the human eye, a scientist who has dedicated himself to the pursuit of synthetically recreating our complex “windows to the soul” in an effort to prove they are, in fact, nothing of the sort. With the help of sarcastic and erudite lab assistant Karen (Brit Marling of Another Earth), and to the dismay of his spiritual girlfriend Sofi (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), Dr. Gray is out to disprove God.
While writing the film’s screenplay, Cahill sought to answer the question, “How do we make Dawkins pray?” Dawkins refers to Richard Dawkins, the atheistic biologist and author of The God Delusion after whom Cahill modeled Dr. Gray. “How do we make Dawkins believe there’s something more?”
Throughout their collaboration, the aural idea of “more” became something with which Cahill and Boeddeker liked to toy. In the video embedded below, the two discuss their dial-down method of working. They would begin with sounds grand and loud, only to soften their way to the correct decibel. Given his surroundings, however, Cahill sometimes found it difficult to exercise restraint. “With all these guns and explosives at your disposal, you want to use them,” he said of the many Skywalker Sound effects. In one key sequence it would be reprehensible to describe in any detail beyond referring to it as “the elevator scene,” sound both expansive and limited is an integral element. “The scene is the sound,” said Cahill. “The whole room feels like an elevator.”
It did indeed inside the Dolby screening room Wednesday night. Prior to I Origins, a promo for Dolby Atmos showed in simplistic albeit entertaining terms how the system works. In a room outfitted for Dolby sound, there are speakers along either wall flanking the screen, as well as behind and above the audience. On Wednesday, as viewers watched a cartoon helicopter fly about onscreen, speakers throughout the room activated in tandem with the aircraft’s progress: Now, the helicopter is “behind” us and to the left; now, it’s just above; now, it’s receding. Similarly, during the “elevator scene” in I Origins, the creaking of the aged conveyance sounded above and on either side of viewers. The characters’ voices echoed. Cahill and Boeddeker decided to “slant” the sound in order to achieve the necessary effects. (Speaking of effects, there are over 200 visual effects shots in I Origins. Apparently, visually enhancing the human eye is among the most difficult of VFX. “You realize how many bad ideas there are,” said Cahill. “Like contacts.”)
The filmmaker’s experience with Boeddeker and the Dolby Fellowship has affected the way he writes, he said. “I just finished a script and was so conscious of sound all the way through.” Speaking as if he were reading a directive from his latest screenplay about, naturally, aliens, “‘You hear a car – in Atmos!’”