Surround symposium: Dolby invites audio auteurs to sound off on 7.1 impact


On July 11 and 12, Dolby Laboratories offered an exclusive, in-depth workshop surrounding the latest developments in the company’s storied 40-year involvement in cinema (FJI April 2011). Kicking off with a “Filmmakers Forum” on the impact of Dolby 7.1 Surround Sound and closing with a look into the third dimension with “The Dolby 3D Experience,” Dolby’s worldwide technical marketing manager, Stuart Bowling, presented seminars and hosted screenings at the legendary reference/research/screening room at corporate headquarters in San Francisco.

On hand during day two to extol the virtues of this extraordinary “listening room,” to use yet another word to describe the truly unique venue, was none other than industry legend and Dolby Laboratories’ senior VP Ioan Allen. In his many years at Dolby, since 1969 to be exact, Allen admits to having seen many screening rooms—but this one is by far the most sophisticated and technologically advanced. It’s constructed as an independent box, floating on concrete slabs separated by two-inch Neoprene cubes at two-foot (61 cm) intervals that ensure no rigid connection to the host building. Forty-two tons of sheetrock was deployed to make up the triple-layered walls.

Towards the projection booth, the wall is three feet thick (91 cm), with an inverted V-shaped set of coated and reflection-free 18-inch (46 cm) porthole glasses for improved sharpness and contrast. With a baffle wall behind the 1.0-gain matte white screen, absorptive side walls and responsive seats, the room was the perfect setting to be “Surrounded,” as the event was dubbed.

And it represented the ideal nest for Allen’s “The Egg Show” as well. This educational and exquisitely entertaining, non-technical survey of sound design and acoustical properties in film is part of Allen’s curriculum that he teaches as an adjunct professor at the University of Southern California School of Cinema-Television, and has been presented at other industry events, film festivals and technology seminars. With pictures of eggs ingeniously illustrating his points, and an array of 35mm clips (replete with sensuously scratchy leader and still perfect sound), Allen explained mixing and editing techniques that sound designers and filmmakers have developed over the years.

Before attendees learned how creative and technical talents are using such tools today, they received a warm welcome from Kevin Yeaman, president and chief executive officer of Dolby Laboratories. Bowling then invited participants from media, industry and creative communities to hear firsthand why 7.1 Surround has become the fastest-adopted Dolby technology, not only in Hollywood but also worldwide. Since launching the expanded, discrete channel format with Toy Story 3 (for more details, see our July 2010 report), 2,100 theatre screens have already been enabled for “360-degree directionality” and 25 feature films released that present left and right rear-surround separation to “match the image with superior audio placement.” Bowling congratulated the panelists on raising the bar for immersive experiences at the cinema.

On stage to discuss their art and craft and technical wizardry were Eric Brevig, director of Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D and Yogi Bear; two-time Academy Award winner and additional six-time nominee Michael Semanick, the 7.1 re-recording mixer for Toy Story 3 and Cars 2; and Erik Aadahl, supervising sound editor on Revenge of the Fallen and sound designer on all three Transformers movies. Like Aadahl (who brought Dark of the Moon 3D courtesy of Paramount and Michael Bay), Kinson Tsang, supervising sound designer of Legend of the Fist: Return of Chen Zhen, and Rohan Sippy, director of Dum Maaro Dum, had sent their films over from Hong Kong and India, respectively. Hearing them make their auspicious North American debuts in Dolby 7.1, rest assured that kung-fu kicks and Bollywood songs never sounded so good.

Before turning up the volume, Bowling reminded attendees in the room and audiences in seven countries that had tuned in to the live stream on Dolby’s Facebook page that “digital cinema and 3D represent the biggest change in filmmaking and moviegoing in many decades.” By year-end, he anticipates digital playback to be dominant as capabilities of bandwidth increase and Dolby server, sound and image technology continue to raise the bar on immersive experiences. About the latter, everybody on the panel concurred that 7.1 Surround opens up new opportunities for filmmakers, sound designers and audiences alike—in 2D and, even more so, in 3D image design.

Discreteness, stronger amplification, clear directionality, more precision; expansion of the auditorium, making it longer and/or wider; bringing out music and score; pulling elements away from the front channels, opening them up rather than piling on; sound effects being pulled into the room; creating a sound environment and off-screen universe that help to surround audiences: Those are some of the advantages that the creatives named in working with this “great toolbox” of 7.1 Surround Sound. Looking ahead and citing his work from Toy Story 3 to Cars 2, Semanick felt that discrete sound should develop into more of a tool to tell the story better, rather than calling attention to itself. “It should not be a distraction,” he opined, but “with more layering,” the sound should create “the subtle presence of life around us in the entire room.”

For Brevig, 7.1 Surround in the theatre is “the gold standard,” whose accuracy is to be maintained when the film is “folded down” for the home. (The event was entitled “Cinema & Beyond,” after all, and there was another breakout session dedicated to the home, games, mobile and more.) “Theoretically, it should be the same.”

Within the 3D-to-2D space, that becomes even more important, Brevig emphasized. It’s about “making sure that it all feels right and the eye goes somewhere with the sound.”

Semanick believes in maintaining the theatrical mix as much as possible. “People want to experience and see it in the same way that they remember it.” Even though Sippy and Tsang deplored the lack of theatrical infrastructure in their countries for 7.1, not to mention the absence of standards and control over versioning for the after-markets, they felt equally strong about continuing to use the expanded Surround format in the future. “The space is different and more effective,” Tsang said, drawing a comparison to the 5.1 standard, whereas Sippy spoke of having “much more freedom” in working with his sound designer on the background score, for instance, and in creating a scenic “atmosphere that comes full circle.”

Aadahl mentioned his syncopation of the “ticking sound” of the twisting and building-drilling Decepticon—which found its original sound source in a very excited baboon, by the way—and its “pinging around” between the speakers. Thanks to the 7.1 options of discrete surrounds, he created for Dark of the Moon what he referred to as “quad image.” Together with John Loose, Dolby’s senior manager of audiovisual and print production, and David Gould from Avid Technology, during their breakout session entitled “7.1 Surround Sound at the Source,” Aadahl shed further light on the layering of sounds for the visual bluster of Transformers.

To facilitate the best possible insight into the process, not only had Dolby erected two rows of stadium seating in the lobby, they also brought in a professional mixing console with who-knows how many sets of speakers surrounding the demo space. “Sound is accumulative,” noted Loose. “Too much and it becomes a mess.”

Aadahl also believes in the mantra of “less is more,” and feels 400 tracks represent the mixing maximum—“and not all of them at the same time.” That said, the Transformers title logo alone deployed some 24 tracks, with many more individual sound units organized in “food groups” such as robots (further broken down to motors, feet, et al.), weapons, vehicles, hard and soft effects. For Aadahl, it’s all about “finding the soul” sonically, about “creating a sonic character that is within the range of the character onscreen” and in the story. To do so, he didn’t rely on materials created for the first two Transformers films. Ninety percent is fresh material, Aadahl assured.

Every panelist could name an impactful and memorable theatrical experience that excited them, ultimately leading them on their career paths. Aadahl vividly recalled watching Indy and his father tied up in the Bavarian castle of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, hearing the fire crackling behind him. “I turned around wondering: What is going on here?” Tsang and Sippy both credited six-track presentations of Apocalypse Now as their defining moments at the cinema. During the second day’s breakout session, material from the recent 4K remastering of Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece was on stunning display. (The director/producer made sure to remain truthful to the original film image, not even digitally removing a hair that got caught in the camera gate at the time.) Using Dolby’s color-brilliant and true-to-detail Professional Reference Monitor PRM-4200, the company’s director of production and post-production solutions, Bill Admans, expertly demonstrated the “Infinite Range” and “Infinite Possibilities” afforded by this state-of-the art display. Good to know that Dolby Laboratories is setting its sights on image quality as well. Approximating the full gamut of film, PRM-4200 makes digital intermediate color correcting, grading and mastering possible without using a digital projector. In other words, this monitor shows technicians and filmmakers exactly what the DCI P3 Digital Cinema image will look like on your theatre screens, Admans confirmed. The monitor also supports 3D LUTs (look-up tables), “allowing it to be calibrated to perfectly match digital screening environments and to emulate the response of film-print stocks during the digital intermediate color correction process.”

Back to day one and sound experiences at the cinema, Semanick lauded The Right Stuff, where so much of the audio design added to the overall feeling and to the story, making him part of the movie in the process. His first indelible impression, however, was left by a spaceship flying over him during Star Wars. “Not only was this something I had never seen, but also something I had not heard before.” (No wonder he went on to garner an Oscar nomination for Wall-E.) “We must have been at the same screening,” Brevig joked before describing the magical feeling of how “the lasers were hitting all around us.”

But the creative community also issued words of warning. Brevig is hoping that technology providers like Dolby can help “to bridge the gap between how a film is made and how it is actually presented.” He has been to cinemas where the lamphouse is running at one-third of capacity and speakers are buzzing or have been out altogether. “This is not the reason why people come back to the theatre,” he insisted. “The last step of delivery should not be the place where it all stumbles.” Semanick also called for keeping the same romance alive that he felt when he went to the movies with his parents, experiencing the big screen and big sound. “All of us need to enhance the experience, so that people can forget the outside world and truly enjoy the story and someone’s vision.”

Going forward, Stuart Bowling asked where they see the future of cinema heading: 7.1, 3D, 4K, higher frame rates and/or all of the above? While Tsang wants more speakers, “but not too many,” Aadahl believes everything to be about recreating “the experience in more and more realistic ways where it ultimately becomes indistinguishable from reality.” Short of “plugging cables right into people’s heads,” he envisioned, “we can have speakers on the ceiling and run sound over and under and around. Why stop there?” Agreed Semanick, “If we can get that many speakers, we can rock your heads off!”

The Audio Impact of 'Apocalypse Now
In November 1979, Apocalypse Now became the first Dolby Stereo 70mm film exhibited commercially with stereo surround (in 15 theatres). Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece won an Academy Award for Best Achievement in Sound the following year. The use of stereo surround for Apocalypse Now became known as 5.1 surround sound and then led to the innovation of Dolby Digital 5.1, which is now ubiquitous in cinema, broadcast and home theatre and is the foundation for the surround sound experience Dolby brings to gaming, PC and mobile products as well.

Beyond helping to bring the Dolby 5.1 surround sound experience mainstream, the impact Apocalypse Now had in the content-creation community was significant. Dolby Stereo allowed sound designers to mix with four channels of sound and provided a mono surround channel that wrapped around the theatre. This was a significant improvement to the reproduction of optical film sound that uniquely carried four channels of sound with two tracks for left/right through matrix encoding (the premise for Dolby Pro Logic). With 5.1, discrete mixes and greater dynamic range in digital and stereo surrounds meant you could have more headroom and immerse audiences with a stereo surround field.

You couldn’t achieve this with Dolby Stereo with a mono surround track. Walter Murch showed this capability off with his mix of Apocalypse Now by the use of stereo surrounds in scenes like the attack on the village with the fleet of Hueys accompanied by OH-6As, as Kilgore launches his attack on the beach: The helicopter sounds and Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” really set the pace and emotion of what was happening on the screen, as the audience was drawn into the onscreen action and the walls of the theatre seemed to fade away.

Still, there were only about a half a dozen 5.1 stereo surround movies a year after Apocalypse Now, until Dolby delivered the ability for digital releases on film in 1992 with Batman Returns. That’s when movies started really getting out in Dolby Digital 5.1. Prints with Dolby Digital sound struck worldwide in 1995 were estimated at 400,000 and there were 40,000 Dolby Digital prints in circulation globally at any given time.
—Stuart Bowling, Worldwide Technical Marketing Manager, Cinema, Dolby Laboratories