Surrounded! 'Toy Story 3' plays well with new Dolby 7.1


At Disney/Pixar, “we are always trying to make the audience experience better,” insists Paul Cichocki, post-production supervisor at the animation powerhouse. “For the last eight to twelve months, we’ve been working hard to see where else can we improve upon the experience. Obviously, there’s digital cinema out in the theatrical world and digital 3D. Yet sound hasn’t really changed much for ten or twelve years now. So we started looking there and found that Dolby Surround 7.1 is a viable option that offers a lot of bang for not a lot of money.”

As the name implies, Dolby Surround 7.1 adds two Back Surround zones to what has hitherto been tuning up 5.1 and Surround-EX: Left, Center and Right screen channels, Low-Frequency Effects (LFE), Left Surround and Right Surround. The expanded 7.1 format offers “four surround zones to better orchestrate audio channels in a movie theatre environment,” explains Dolby’s worldwide technical marketing manager, Stuart Bowling. “Having four discrete channels widens the sweet spot in the auditorium… Sound representing 50% of the experience, 7.1 is all about being used as the tool to reinforce your focus back on the screen.”

Adding discrete Back Surrounds for Left and Right to the traditional surrounds “enhances true directionality and control for panning 360 degrees around the theatre.” Drawing a comparison, Bowling explains that in Surround EX, “we basically encode Back Surround channel information into the Left and Right Surround during the mix. Then we have to decode it so that information can be placed into the Back Surround channels.”

For a first-hand report on how that all sounded at ShoWest 2010, check out Kevin Lally’s report. “As a surround sound format,” Bowling feels, “Dolby 7.1 is definitely a great tool for content creators that allows them to widen their creative palette. They certainly have more choice and realism in what they are trying to achieve with creating ambiance in the room, along with full control over the positioning.”

Three days away from completing the final mix of Toy Story 3 at Skywalker Ranch, Cichocki couldn’t agree more. “We were always working in 7.1 here,” he notes. Traditionally, that mix was then down-converted to 5.1 EX. While the presentation will utilize six or eight channels, during the post-production process that number almost goes to infinity and beyond.

“From the scoring stage alone, we deliver about six different sets of 5.1 music channels,” he says. “Adding effects and Foley and dialogue to that,” Cichocki ventures Toy Story 3’s mix to be “safely in the neighborhood of 300 distinct channels that were brought together to the final eight.” No wonder he wholeheartedly agrees how nice it would be to have even more channels in theatres than “just” 7.1 of them.

In order for exhibitors to add the new format to their multiplex-technology toy chests, Dolby will be providing 7.1 playback capabilities in its digital-cinema audio processor lines. Bowling reviews the necessary physical changes: “If a theatre already has a Dolby CP650 or CP750 and a digital-cinema system with 3D, and it was already pre-wired for Surround-EX, the only thing a theatre owner needs is our firmware update to the cinema processor. And that update is free to early adopters of Dolby 7.1 for Toy Story 3.”

If they are not set up that way, “theatres basically would need to rewire the rear surround channels. That also requires an additional amplifier,” which Bowling estimates comes to $700 on average. To help determine whether one would want to upgrade the speakers as part of the process, Dolby has prepared a detailed document “that explains what is required with regards to sound pressure levels and power handling.”

Are on-site measuring and analysis a necessary part of the power-balancing equation? Again, where Surround-EX is in place, “nothing needs to be done,” Bowling assures, “other than adding the firmware and potentially rechecking the surround pressure levels around the room. If it is a more involved upgrade from 5.1 with breaking out the rears, then the standard process applies.” Meaning it will be necessary to “verify inside the theatre that a signal is going to each one of the surround speakers, as well as re-verifying sound-pressure levels within the room.”

At this point, it should be clear that the added sound and pressure levels are only possible because of d-cinema and that 35mm prints will not carry the 7.1 imprint. On the latter releases and for those digital screens that have not yet opted to upgrade to the extra rear surrounds, the soundtrack will be Dolby 5.1 and Surround-EX. “Disney distribution is issuing two audio versions on the drive that goes out,” Bowling explains. “Theatres have to register with distribution where 7.1 is available, so that the KDM key that is used to unlock the movie actually points to the correct soundtrack to play back.”

The same goes for foreign-language editions, Cichocki advises. “In mixing, we’ve jumped into the international as if everyone is going to be interested. Because we have to plan ahead, we’re making that leap.” Convinced that “just like all the domestic theatre chains have done, overseas exhibitors will grab onto this great opportunity,” Pixar has made a 7.1 mix available to “the top ten or 15 territories,” he assures.

On the equally global marketing front, Dolby is working on a special trailer to be distributed on the drives for Toy Story 3 along with “creating posters and a new bumper for advertising to call out Dolby Surround 7.1,” Bowling says. “We are also working with Disney/Pixar as a marketing partner with regards to co-branding Dolby Surround 7.1 as it rolls out with the movie.”

After introducing the technology at ShoWest, Dolby is presenting 7.1 with a similar demonstration at Cinema Expo “to get Europeans exhibitors excited.” Bowling notes, “We are building a theatre room in the RAI that has demonstration content available for attendees.” That very same content is also designed for testing purposes “so theatres can verify that everything is playing correctly prior to the release of Toy Story 3.”

Given this new toy for the third story, did the Pixar master mixers feel like playing it up a bit? While “there are definitely moments where you can’t miss what 7.1 does,” Cichocki assures, “we didn’t do the call-out silly thing that would make you notice. This is not at all something that we wanted to exploit or use to cheese up the story of our film. It’s another tool to tell our story even better… Having so much more size, separation and directionality to the sound is really where 7.1 is going to express itself very well.”

Turning to expressiveness of the image, “7.1 can certainly help reinforce strongly what’s happening with the 3D elements in the visuals,” Bowling feels. And indeed, “the 3D image was part of the motivation behind looking to see what to do with sound,” Cichocki confirms. “But it also feels right for us—story-wise and for the audience—to do everything in 2D and 3D. If there is a vehicle moving left to right while coming into the theatre, essentially you can make that sound move now in the same way as the car is moving.” In the 3D world, “Pixar’s stereoscopic style is more depth than it is visuals coming towards the audience in the auditorium. All those films that do those sort of things, where the sound comes forward of the transom and the screen…they’re going to have a field day with 7.1!”

Returning to the film at hand, Cichocki says, “There were creative opportunities that our director and our producer felt were really enhanced by 7.1. Toy Story 3 is very dense. There are lots of characters and there is lots of sound happening all the time. 7.1 gave us the ability to put sounds in all the right places, helping us story-wise and giving added directionality to the visuals... Dolby Surround 7.1 was extremely successful and we are super-excited that it is going to see the light of day.”