The Return of Dueling Technologies


New technologies always breed new problems. Technology is good and necessary, but different formats of the same technology lead to redundant systems. One only needs to think back to the ’80s when movies for home viewing were being manufactured on either VHS tapes or Sony Betamax. The battle was fierce, but the consumer lost out.

With the introduction of digital sound, the movie industry was forced to accept three competing digital sound formats: Sony Dynamic Digital Sound (SDDS), Dolby Digital (aka SRD) and DTS. Again, the battle was fierce and this time the industry suffered.
So here we are in 2014 and immersive sound systems are the hot item. Two companies are competing in the market for a piece of the pie—Dolby Atmos and Barco Auro. And we are back once again to different formats that continue to complicate matters in the industry. Both Dolby and Barco require a specific audio system design and loudspeaker layout.

The industry is looking to determine if both sides can agree upon a standard so that when a print is mixed, it can be played back in all formats. SRS Labs, which was acquired by DTS last year, developed Multi-Dimensional Audio (MDA), a revolutionary end-to-end audio platform built on a foundation of object-based audio and designed to deliver true three-dimensional surround sound to consumers in a wide variety of playback environments and devices. Breaking free of the decades-old “channel-based” audio paradigm, MDA allows content creators to create, maintain and deliver three-dimensional positional data with soundtrack elements in a multi-dimensional audio space that includes height, depth and width, rather than standard planar (2D) speaker configurations. Since MDA is not channel-based, there is no restriction or mandate on the number of speakers that can be used to represent the resolution of a multi-dimensional audio soundscape. Yet MDA program playback easily maps to any number of speakers in any configuration a listener may have, from stereo to 11.1 and beyond.

The keys here are that MDA is interoperable and can work in any system with multiple types of processors, and is an open platform that is not proprietary to any one equipment manufacturer.

Essentially, SRS Labs is taking the adaptive, object-based audio that the game industry uses and putting it into a form that works for linear audio, but with different speaker configurations. Instead of converting sound effects to objects and placing them in a 3D field, SRS’s new system lets audio engineers take apart the pieces of a soundscape and place them in the appropriate speakers in the listener’s own physical environment. It’s an existing idea applied to a different kind of situation. But it also means you need a movie or music album mixed in MDA and an MDA-compatible system to decode it correctly, so it has to be a new industry standard across the board.

This is the rub. Some groups are on board and some are opposed regarding whether this is the best way to control and recreate the precise “artistic intent” of the filmmaker. So here we go again, with the only two companies that have commercial 3D immersive sound systems on opposite sides of the fence.

We asked NATO, Barco and Dolby to provide comments on their positions with regard to MDA.

John Fithian, NATO: “NATO continues to work in concert with studios and technology innovators to bring new experiences to our audiences. Digital cinema was executed with industry cooperation and we support the same for all new technologies—including immersive sound. Immersive sound may be an important next step for the cinema experience. As was the case with digital cinema, however, we strongly support the standardization of the immersive sound deliverable prior to wide deployment. Though progress has been made towards standardization, more work clearly needs to be done.”

Brian Claypool, Barco: “As announced at CinemaCon in 2013, Barco and DTS aligned to bring a message about the importance of having an open standard for immersive sound in the cinema exhibition market. To that end, Barco supports DTS, SMPTE and all participants in this space to work together to bring an open standard to the market that enables the exhibitors with the freedom of choice they need to choose the right immersive sound configuration for their business.”

Doug Darrow, Dolby:
“Let me make a couple of points that I think are relevant. First off, MDA is Multi-Dimensional Audio, and is currently a proprietary audio format from DTS. It has been primarily targeted at consumer applications, though it is our understanding that DTS is saying to some in the industry that it will be ‘opened up’ for use as a standard. We will see if this happens, though it is not necessarily how SMPTE works. SMPTE forms working groups that solicit input from across the industry to allow for the technical community to sort out the solution that best meets the needs of the industry. This usually involves input and sometimes intellectual property and know-how from multiple companies. It should be noted that the first company to make a submission to SMPTE to form a working group on next-generation sound for cinemas was Dolby. We did so with the support of multiple industry players. Actually, we submitted technical aspects of Dolby Atmos to SMPTE for standardization over a year ago, which have to do with how our audio processor interfaces to the video playback systems in the d-cinema environment. It has been our intention to facilitate the standardization of an object-based sound format and we are actively involved in this process. We are also willing to allow our audio processor (called the CP-850) to be used to play back Dolby Atmos, or any other object-based format that emerges out of the standardization process.”

It will take time to work this out, as there are no films yet mixed in the MDA format and no manufacturer has yet commercialized a processor to “render” an MDA-encoded DCP.

We thank QSC for supplying some of the technical aspects and wording for this editorial. Please note that we are simply reporting facts as they are presented and are not expressing any opinion on the subject at this time.

China’s Box-Office Leap

China has become the world's second-biggest movie market and in 2013 grew to $3.57 billion, an increase of 27 percent over last year's $2.8 billion. Although these increases are quite dramatic and are welcome here in the U.S., preliminary figures show the strength of this growth has been due to homegrown films and includes a small market share for Hollywood films. Of the top 10 films in China, seven were Chinese.

There are several reasons for this, and unfortunately the playing field in China is far from fair. Sometimes they will open major films simultaneously. Other times they will open a film weeks after it has opened in other markets to give homegrown movies a head start and allowing pirates to eat into revenues. And then, of course, films are pulled when they are doing big box-office numbers to allow smaller Chinese titles to play.

The biggest hit in China last year was Stephen Chow's Journey to the West:  Conquering the Demons, which earned $205.9 million. This was followed by Marvel's Iron Man 3, which took in $124 million. Other Hollywood movies in the top ten were Pacific Rim at $114 million and Gravity at $72 million.

A major reshuffle in the Chinese industry will take place shortly as La Peikang takes over as chairman of the powerful state organization China Film Group, which oversees most of the financing, production, distribution. export and import of films into China.

Currently deputy head of China Film Group, La will replace Han Sanping, who is retiring after the Chinese New Year. La's experience with co-productions is viewed as a hopeful sign for Hollywood studios trying to get a foothold in the Chinese market.

Kudos to Tom Sherak
One of the best-known charities in the motion picture industry, Will Rogers, also has a program that is a well-kept secret for many in the industry. It is the Motion Picture Pioneers Foundation. This organization is dedicated to helping indigent and needy members of the motion picture industry. The industry is definitely one of the most philanthropic businesses we know. If a person is in trouble, the Pioneers Assistance Fund is ready to step in and do whatever is necessary to help veterans within our great business.

Each year, the Foundation has a major fundraising event to raise the necessary dollars to sustain the assistance program. The goal is never to say no to a needy veteran of the industry. This event takes the form of a dinner that has now become a part of the CinemaCon convention in Las Vegas. This coming March 26, the Pioneers will honor Tom Sherak with their Lifetime Achievement Award. Tom is and always has been one of the most charitable individuals in this industry. He is a member of the board of directors of the Pioneers and has raised more than $47 million over the past decade for MS. Tom is a gifted professional and has a heart of gold. The Pioneers made an outstanding choice in recognizing him for his efforts to help people. Congratulations, Tom, on a well-deserved honor.