by Michael S. Palmer
Last week, HDD was fortunate to attend a Dolby ATMOS Q&A session with the Oscar-nominated sound-mixing team behind Ang Lee's 'Life of Pi'. Not only was the panel informative in terms of the new theatrical surround sound format's history, but we actually got to hear 'Life of Pi' in ATMOS in the legendary Zanuck Theatre on the 20th Century Fox backlot, the very same room where the film was mixed. Please note, if you have not seen 'Life of Pi' and wish to remain 100% spoiler free, you might want to skip the three scene descriptions below.
Dolby's own Stuart Bowling served as moderator for the panel, which included: Ted Gagliano, president of post-production at 20th Century Fox. Ron Bartlett, sound re-recording mixer for 'Life of Pi', 'Prometheus', and 'A Good Day to Die Hard' and Doug Hemphill, sound re-recording mixer for 'Life of Pi', 'Blade Runner', 'Apocalypse Now', and 'The Dark Knight' (among many others). Erin Rettig, the Dolby ATMOS tech for 'Life of Pi". And Andy Potvin, a senior staff engineer for Dolby who help Fox install ATMOS in the Zanuck Theatre and assists clients with new technologies.
Dolby ATMOS is currently available in 70 cinemas, globally. 24 titles have been mixed in the format. And, as previously reported, the goal is to reach 1,000 screens before the year's end. The panel began with Andy Potvin describing how he oversaw the team that upgraded the Zanuck Theatre last summer. The technicians installed 50 JBL (model 7215) speakers, including five behind the screen, nine along each side wall, six on the back walls, and nine in each of the two overhead arrays.
The new format was in development for 8-10 years of testing to provide optional sound coverage (editor's note: when I played in Dolby's "sandbox", they hinted at a brand new surround format but would not confirm). Dolby ATMOS-equipped theatres (both for general audiences and Hollywood mixing stages) close the gap between the front, behind-the-screen, speakers and the side walls for better panning. Further, each speaker is full range, individually amplified, and there are extra subwoofers in the back so all the auditorium speakers have the same timbre. The dual overhead arrays are precisely aimed to not waste energy and, again, enhance panning.
Ted Gagliano then spoke about Fox's long history with various Dolby formats. Fox was actually the first studio to embrace ATMOS and, last year, gave Dolby access to 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' to do an initial ATMOS demo for studios and filmmakers. Mr. Gagliano called ATMOS "different, immersive, and sonically like 3D."
After ATMOS was ready, 'Taken 2' became Fox' first ATMOS mix, but the film itself had already been finished, so the filmmakers went back in to add ATMOS elements [editor's note: this probably explains why the 'Taken 2' Blu-ray is only in 5.1 rather than 7.1]. 'Chasing Mavericks' came next, and was the first film fully mixed in the format, followed by 'Life of Pi'. Mr. Gagliano called ATMOS "a special format for a special movie" and went on to describe why he loves the format from both an audience and a studio perspective. Not only is it more immersive, but ATMOS software/hardware monitors all of its speakers to make sure everything in your cinema's working, to ensure audiences hear soundtracks as filmmakers intend.
Next, we watched the first of three clips from 'Life of Pi', the film's sinking ship set-piece. [BEGIN SPOILERS] If you haven't seen 'Life of Pi', this sequence follows our young hero, Pi, who has gone outside onto one of ship's top decks to see and feel a terrible thunderstorm first hand. What starts as wonderful fun takes a tragic turn, when giant waves besiege the boat, and she founders. Alarms wailing, and entire zoo's worth of animals panic, Pi desperately tries to go back to his family's cabin, only to find the water rapidly rising in the ship. Exhausted, Pi seeks out help, but crew members force the young man into a life boat, which crashes down into the torrential sea, Pi forced to watch the ship founder and sink with all of his loved one's on board. [END SPOILERS]
When I knew we were going to get to hear 'Life of Pi' in ATMOS (unfortunately, the one mix I missed theatrically), I was most excited for this sequence. It's bombastic and chaotic. A literal maelstrom. It really shows what ATMOS can do for action. Rain poured. Waves crashed overhead. You felt submerged underwater in various moments. It was terrific and terrifying and then, as the sequence transitioned from action to heartbreaking emotion, the score enveloped the room.
These are the scenes for which surround sound was made. I was blown away.
Afterwards, Ron Bartlett and Doug Hemphill spoke about their work on the film and their collaboration with director Ang Lee. Lee was apparently so enthusiastic about ATMOS he asked why there were no speakers in the floor. And the rule for 'Pi' became "when it serves the story, we will use it". For example, in the clip we saw, when the orchestral music comes up, Lee wanted to "give the audience a hug of empathy with the sound." So they wrapped the musical score around you, and pushed the choir element to the top rear.
Later, when they showed scenes to the film's composer, Mychael Danna, he first said, "this is a tasteful mix, but is it too tasteful?" Danna encourage Ron and Doug, who always mix films as an audience first, to push things.
The second clip was the film's flying fish sequence. [BEGIN SPOILERS] Pi is stuck on a raft with Richard Parker, a huge Bengal Tiger, and both are starving. Richard Parker has eaten the other "passengers", but now they're both starving until a school (flock?) of flying fish crash into, over, and around the boat. This is the moment where Pi stands up to Richard Parker, to make sure the beast isn't the only one who gets fresh fish. [END SPOILERS]
It's a pretty important moment in the movie, but as a demo, I was less impressed, if only because there was so much sound, it didn't wow me like the ship sequence. It was almost too dense, too much going on, that I wasn't able to tune into the audio-story being told. But I suppose the good news is that the sound certainly wasn't overwhelming the story and calling attention to itself.
Doug and Ron went on to described how Ang Lee wrestled with this sequence. The first cut included music as well as sound effects, but the music seemed to let the audience off the hook, so they took it out. With no music, the fight, the desperation, and the struggle became much more apparent.
This tought the sound team an important lesson. One of their collaborators -- Eugene Gerty, the Supervising Sound Editor -- couldn't be there for the panel, but everyone calls him "Eugenius". They were in the middle of mixing the flying fish sequence when Eugene started playing around with the controls, swirling sounds over heads, tons of objects everywhere. But the more objects on screen, Eugenius figured, the less literal you can be with the sound. You have to become more impressionistic.
The final clip was from Meerkat Island. [BEGIN SPOILERS] Imagine spending months at sea, alone with a blood thirsty tiger, and one day, you come upon a strange floating island in the middle of the ocean. A green oasis with beautiful large trees, and thousands upon thousands of friendly Meerkats huddled around crystalline pools of fresh drinking water. When Pi discovers this place, he thinks he is saved, but when night falls, Richard Parker flees the island, bounding back to the lifeboat. The Meerkats too have left the open plains and forest floor, climbing into the trees to sleep. What Pi sees is extraordinary, as the water in those strange pools turns to acid, killing and digesting fish. Pi then pulls a flower from the tree he's in and discovers at the center of it, a human tooth. [END SPOILERS]
Wow, as much as I love tremendously aggressive mixes with crashing waves, what really sells me on a quality mix is the quiet moments. A true sense of being there. And with ATMOS, it seems like you were on an island surrounded by thousands of fury critters, with a breeze softly blowing in the background, creaking branches and shifting leaves. This sequence really showed off ATMOS' immersion abilities. So very impressive.
Doug and Ron started wrapping up the panel with describing how ATMOS allowed them to take Mychael Danna's score, which is made up of hundreds of elements, and pan so many of the individual instruments as individual objects. They said the full range speakers really help keep "the integrity of the instruments." This Meerkat Island begins calm and then slowly becomes moody. Ron and Dough moved the score across the room, down along the walls, highlighting the gamelan, strings, and brass -- all of which are separate from the choir in the back.
Mixing, for Ron and Doug, comes down to creative sensitivity. Do you feel detached? "Did you smell the mixing?" Mr. Gagliano chimed in with great advice, "[ATMOS] is not about louder. It's about being more organic and natural."
The re-recording mixers also spoke about their next ATMOS mix, 'A Good Day to Die Hard'. In cinemas February 14, 'AGDTDH' has a lot of great stuff in it, but the more dense a movie's sound field, the more condensed (the more "mono") the picture becomes. They said their favorite moments are McClane father and son in a quiet moment in a big, open warehouse. "You can feel it."
Overall, Doug and Ron love ATMOS. Using it for the last few movies has been "like being a kid taking his parents car out for the first time." It's too late to see 'Life of Pi' in ATMOS, but look for this beautiful film on Blu-ray March 12 (2013). To see 'A Good Day to Die Hard' in ATMOS on 2/14 -- Yippe Kay Yee Mother Russia! -- check here for a list of Dolby ATMOS cinema screens and check here to find other Dolby formats in your area. Finally, if you'd like to learn a little more and watch the entire Q&A panel, here's the full 50 minutes: