Brave new audio worlds: AMC Theatres and Dolby join forces for Atmos launch
Theatrical exhibition and distribution continue to move at the speed of digital. One such example of innovation, expertise and expediency is the commercial rollout of Dolby Atmos with Disney/Pixar’s Brave to 14 screens across North America and six internationally within two months of the arrival of the revolutionary sound platform at CinemaCon 2012 (see our May issue). And the fact that the animated adventures of Merida world-premiered at the iconic home of the annual Academy Awards of Merit added some timely symbolism.
Officially christened the Dolby Theatre on June 11, 2012, the historic venue quickly found a new champion when our San Francisco-based friends stepped in after Kodak could no longer meet its obligations as part of the original sponsorship agreement. Some called this the manifestation of the official end of film material, but this author prefers to characterize the changeover as emblematic of an ongoing grand tradition and of new technologies to come. After all, Dolby is an amazingly well-known brand, closely associated with filmmaking and the experience of going to the movies.
The people who oversaw the Brave new sites for sight and sound showed real fortitude in getting to the finish line. Film Journal International had the opportunity to speak with Neil Katcher and Dan Huerta, senior executives at AMC Theatres in charge of technology and facilities, about their six Dolby Atmos installations, and with David Gray, VP, worldwide production services, at Dolby Laboratories, about the acrobatic maneuvering that was going on at the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood & Highland. (Another location, Cinetopia 23, is also featured in this issue.)
In both instances, the first step was to take inventory and assess the feasibility of converting the existing spaces to accommodate Dolby Atmos. At the Dolby Theatre, “fortunately we had been involved previously with a number of different film presentations,” Gray explains. “I really didn’t even have to go there to know that we could do 5.1 and 7.1 perfectly fine there. The real trick was to make this a compelling experience in Dolby Atmos. The initial investigation was very mechanical in nature. We had to determine how we could fly speakers in for overheads and where to install additional surrounds.” (We’ll get back to challenges posed by those flying acrobats from Cirque du Soleil later.)
Similarly at AMC Theatres, the circuit’s prior investment into upgrading several premium auditoriums with its proprietary large format ETX systems (FJI October 2010) paid off. “We started talking with Dolby well over a year ago,” recalls Dan Huerta, VP, digital systems, “expressing our desire for a multi-channel sound system that would complement the uncompressed audio tracks that are received within the digital-cinema package.” In other words, “we wanted to make sure we were future-ready.” Working hand in hand at Dolby’s facilities and internally at the AMC d-cinema lab at company headquarters laid the groundwork firmly, he says. “Dolby’s plan for what would become the Dolby Atmos format was very complementary to our proprietary developments,” confirms Neil Katcher, senior VP, facilities, sight and sound. “The fact that AMC’s ETX screens were already 13-channel-capable is really the bottom line why it was relatively easy to convert a good number of those ETX auditoriums for the first Dolby Atmos feature.” The “Enhanced Theatre Experience” of ETX was the result of “a lot of amplifiers, a lot of extra speakers and a lot of design work at the front end and throughout,” he summarizes. “Since we already had all the associated speaker devices and wiring in place, we could upgrade with one or two additional amplifiers in most situations.”
Of the 17 ETX-branded AMC auditoriums to date, five were specially chosen for the Dolby Atmos launch. “Dolby was involved in the selection process,” Huerta confirms, in order to assure a countrywide presence given the limited number of available Dolby Atmos (production) processor units at this time. Additionally, “with Dolby guaranteeing full oversight from a technical perspective, the availability of human resources played into the implementation process as well.”
The installs span from headquarters in Kansas City, Missouri (AMC BarryWoods 24), to both the East (Garden State 16; Paramus, New Jersey) and West coasts (not surprisingly, given the presence of filmmakers, Dolby secured three AMCs and four additional theatres there), and south to Lake Buena Vista, Florida (Downtown Disney 24, former home of ShowEast screenings). The West Coast AMC roster included one non-ETX test commercial location, the AMC Van Ness 14 in San Francisco.
With that workload, it is a true credit to the AMC team that they actually found the time to speak with FJI when they did. “All locations are up and running, and testing,” Katcher confirmed on Friday, June 15, a full week ahead of the Brave release. “The vast majority of our infrastructural work will be completed by the end of business today. Dolby is doing the final pieces of their testing over the course of this weekend and during the day on Monday. Our expectation is to be fully tested and ready to go by Tuesday morning, June 19.”
The time frames for the Dolby team were even more compressed. Since Cirque du Soleil is presenting IRIS six days a week there, access to the Dolby Theatre was very limited. Not to mention that the crew uses the show’s dark days for maintenance. “Without Cirque being so very accommodating, we would not have pulled it off,” Gray gratefully acknowledges. “They all are just great people. From the electricians to the riggers, everybody was really, really helpful.”
Dolby, in turn, made a determined effort not to interfere with the demands of the live show either, first arriving for set-ups after IRIS had closed on Sunday night around 10 p.m. In addition to the world premiere (June 18), Dolby also had the official unveiling of the Dolby Theatre on its schedule (June 11), with both events preceded by only one “proof of performance” trial run. “Even with all the best laid plans, it took us about eight hours the first time” to get the 20-square-inch box trusses for the overhead speakers into place, 35 to 40 feet in the air.
“There are always modifications,” Gray has learned. “It was around four in the afternoon on Monday when we actually got sound during that first time,” he laughs. “For the theatre unveiling and demo, we had everything cabled up in 3.5 to four hours, and for the Brave premiere, we had both trusses in the air in less than 2.5 hours.”
It helped that the two 50-foot-long trusses had most of their 44 speakers already installed. “While they come out every time, the overheads for parterre and mezzanine are permanently attached. Cirque has trapeze artists that swing over the audience, so those trusses would be heavily in their way,” he says with obvious understatement. After lowering each of the trusses over the auditorium aisles on either side of the center seating, “we came up with a method of rolling the speakers into the middle of the truss and then taking the trussing apart in 10-foot-long pieces” to be taken up and out across the stage and stored in two stacks of five. An additional 75 feet of trussing is in place for various drapes and masking used in hiding equipment from Cirque du Soleil.
For the side and back surrounds, Dolby had Meyer Sound speakers in mind “that we really wanted to use,” he says, “so we figured out how to hang them.” Although plans call for their permanent installation, “with the possible exception of the Academy Awards,” it was decided to go with rental equipment initially because there wasn’t enough time to pull all the necessary permits. “The numbers in the Dolby Theatre are absolutely daunting,” Gray notes, citing 184 speakers for the system including subwoofers, 234 amplification channels, and nearly 20,000 feet of cable “running all over the place.”
“For such a large theatre, the room is fairly dead acoustically,” he continues, looking at 180,000 square feet (16,723 sq. m). “It doesn’t have that kind of big-barn like echo that a lot of rooms of that size actually have. For us that works very, very well in that we can control exactly what we want to do. The room ended up sounding really, really great.”
Gray names one more area that needed special attention. The enormous stage space at the Dolby Theatre could have become some kind of echo chamber, he notes. Most of the sound from the speakers will not travel through the perforation but is reflected back from the screen instead. “Then it bounces around in that gigantic concrete cavity of the stage area and, after a brief delay, is back again joining with the main sound,” Gray describes the trajectory. “If you don’t find a way to dampen all that, you will end up with this kind of echo-y sound. What we discovered during the dry run was that we didn’t have enough dampening. We ended up adding a second full-length, very heavy-duty curtain directly behind the screen and, in case anything was still getting through, a third one further back in the stage area.”
Advising that this was not necessarily the “biggest” installation in his many years of coordinating and supervising special events and premieres, Gray readily admits the Dolby Theatre was “far and away the most challenging project, [mainly] because we had to deal with limited access to the space.”
“Big is one of those difficult words to define,” he elaborates. “We’ve been involved at Comic-Con with six projectors, and even twelve. That’s huge. While the Dolby Theatre is a very large room, it is also somewhat contained and sound was our singular focus. We’d been involved with Disney there before and I’ve been working at Radio City Music Hall, which is also a very, very big venue,” he laughs. “Doing overheads, however, and getting a really big, bright, sharp and precise image with dual projectors on that particular scale, that was another first. For me at least.”
Speaking of that scale, Christie provided two vertically stacked Solaria Series projectors with the “automated features” of the Christie Duo integration kit (www.filmjournal.com/filmjournal/content_display/esearch/e3i893065c8892f5...) to calibrate, align and optimize 2D and Dolby 3D images on the 60 x 32 feet (18.3 x 9.8 m) Harkness screen. Given the breadth of that image, Gray says it was decided to add another two sets of ten JBL screen speakers each, for a total of five screen channels “to make panning even smoother.”
Smooth sailing remained the objective throughout all 14 installations and, indeed, “we checked every single one for alignment and calibration,” he confirms. “Nothing major went wrong. It went what I would call spectacularly well.”
Near deadline, Gray was presented with another daunting challenge. The El Capitan, Disney’s showcase movie palace that took over the commercial run of Brave right across from the Dolby Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard, was very difficult, he admits. “It was unclear whether we are actually going to pull Dolby Atmos off or not” in this 1926 Spanish Colonial revival auditorium. “Installation was very tricky there,” he recalls, mainly due to time limits. “You just can’t fool with the ornamental plaster of this historic space. But, again, it worked out really, really well. The El Capitan sounds absolutely wonderful with its high ceiling and big balcony. It was not until about two days before the opening that we were saying yes, we’re going to make this happen.” One can still hear the relief in his voice.
Given the recent load of Brave new installations, Dolby has surely learned a lot that can be shared with their exhibitor clients as they prepare to launch Dolby Atmos in more locations. “Absolutely, without a doubt,” Gray reassures our readers. “We helped with design aspects and installation plans. We were checking calibrations and alignments and assisted with specifications for some of the items and equipment that exhibitors weren’t perfectly happy with.” In addition to providing feedback on what was in their theatres already, in some instances “the exhibitors wanted us to tell them exactly what to buy. We ran the whole gamut of advice and support. We expect that to continue, offering design and plan checking services to our clients as we move forward.”
As one of those clients, AMC Theatres is pleased with the results. Since their Dolby Atmos playback screens “were all designed with the same quality-control measures in place, as well as the construction and quality of hardware that were put into our ETX auditoriums,” Katcher and Huerta “feel very comfortable with the acoustical properties and quality in general… This delivers on what we were looking for.”
Like anything else, ultimate success will depend “on the quality of the content and whether the creative community will engage to use this technology as part of the post-production and mixing process,” Katcher observes. “If they make the time to properly incorporate this into their work, it will be very complementary to the experience of all moviegoers.”
To learn more about Dolby Atmos, visit www.dolby.com/Atmos. To share an educational video on Dolby Atmos, visit https://vimeo.com/40699179. To see the Dolby Theatre sign-unveiling ceremony, visit http://vimeo.com/43909365.