Monday, July 01, 2013
I've always known that watching a movie in a movie theater gives you a better experience than watching the same movie at home, whether it's your home theater system or a plain old tv or your laptop, tablet or phone. But I never really knew how much better it could be until I was invited by Dolby Labs to watch the movie Monsters University in a special screening room wired with their latest surround sound technology, Dolby Atmos. I had already watched Monsters University twice before, but I was unprepared by how much difference superior sound technology can make!
The Dolby Screening Room is located at Dolby Labs in San Francisco. It looks like a small, luxurious theatre, the kind a millionaire might have somewhere in his mansion, with comfy chairs, upholstered walls and fancy light fixtures.
But this is no ordinary theatre. This screening room is where Dolby does their testing, and right now it's wired up with Dolby's latest and greatest sound technology, the Dolby Atmos system. Each wall panel opens up to reveal high tech speakers with padded backings. The screening room itself is build independently of the building that surrounds it, so the vibrations of the building have no effect on the theater. Dolby's researchers can move sound anywhere they want throughout the theatre, so they can make this room sound like any room they want -- from a regular movie theater to a high domed cathedral. The San Francisco Symphony has recorded in this very room! I felt quite privileged to be there.
Before the film started we had the chance to meet the two me behind the final soundtrack for Monsters University, Gary Summers and Michael Semanick. Much like Dolby Atmos, Gary and Michael are part of soundtrack royalty. They have worked on films like Titanic, Jurassic Park, Avatar, Star Wars VI, the Lord of the Rings, Alice in Wonderland, Cars, Toy Story 1 & 2, Ratatouille, WALL-E and Monsters Inc. Between the two of them, they have 17 Academy Award nominations and 6 wins -- so when they say Dolby Atmos is a cool technology, you'd better believe it.
Gary and Michael talked about how they created the final soundtrack for the movie -- putting together the dialogue, sound effects and music. I was impressed at how detail oriented sound engineers have to be -- they even went to Berkeley and other college campuses to record the sounds they heard on campus! I had already watched Monsters University twice before my visit to Dolby, and I never noticed that before... but according to Gary and Michael, that means they've done their job. The sound effects aren't supposed to stand out, they're supposed to draw you in and contribute to the feeling of actually being a part of the action.
That immersive experience, according to Gary and Michael, is actually one of the best things about using Dolby Atmos technology. With Dolby Atmos, they were able to specify exactly where in the theater the sound comes from, and how it moves across the theater as the object associated with the sound moves across the screen! Unlike previous surround sound technologies like Dolby Surround 5.1 or 7.1, Dolby Atmos does not tie sound to channels (5.1 splits theaters into 2 sections and 7.1 splits theaters into 4). Instead, sound is tied to the object, so engineers can be extremely precise about sound locations, with sound traveling from one speaker to the next. Theaters wired for Dolby Atmos even have overhead surround, so you are really immersed in the sound, and in the story.
Sure enough, watching Monsters University with Dolby Atmos was a completely different experience. (spoiler alert: this next section contains descriptions of scenes from the movie!). Every time objects fly across or around the screen -- the 2-headed pigeon, Dean Hardscrabble, glowing urchin bombs, the scream can that Sulley and Mike broke -- you can hear the sound following the object from the back of the room to the front, from side to side, wherever it goes. When large monsters go thudding across the screen, you can actually feel the room vibrate, as you would if you were actually standing in the Monsters University campus. When the monsters enter a sewer for the first challenge of the Scare Games, you can hear the echoes of monsters cries and banging pipes. It really does make for a richer, more immersive experience. It's amazing how sound can pull viewers into the story!
If you ever get the chance to experience Dolby Atmos sound, I highly recommend it. Check the Dolby website for a list of Dolby Atmos theaters near you, as well as a list of movies mixed with Dolby Atmos sound.
Disclosure: Dolby Labs invited me and my family to a special screening of Monsters University. The views and opinions expressed here are my own.