Dolby Laboratories invited High-Def Digest to an early 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes' screening, presented in conjunction with LA Times' Hero Complex and, of course, 20th Century Fox. The screening took place at the TCL Chinese Theatres, a six-plex sibling to the recently renovated, historic TCL Chinese IMAX. Our particular auditorium was upgraded from a 5.1 setup to the new object-based Dolby Atmos surround format on April 1st of this year. During this conversion, Dolby installed 18 new JBL 9320 overhead speakers, bass management for the 28 existing side and rear surrounds, and they performed some maintenence on the five existing behind-the-screen speakers (now individual channels).
Dolby made tech headlines last week by finally announcing Atmos for home cinemas, but this night was all about the theatrical experience, which was topped by a spoiler-heavy filmmaker Q&A. Feel free to read that HERE, but you probably want to see the film first.
Dawn of the Mini Review
I'll leave the full review to my colleagues over in The Bonus View, but my initial instinct is to start pitching this movie as hard as possible because it's that good. A cut above the normal blockbuster, 'Dawn' is emotional, thrilling, suspenseful, and pretty much a master class in action filmmaking. It's a movie you're teenager-self would absolutely adore. But also one your adult self wouldn't later hate your teenager self for loving.
Given my initial praise for 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes', expectations have been high. Despite my best efforts to keep an even keel, 'Dawn' exceeds expectations in so many ways. The set-pieces are white-knuckle, edge-of-your-seat experiences, and the filmmakers are smart to juxtapose bombastic ferocity with tender character moments. A movie without villains, it's a drama tackling deep themes about the nature of humanity, about our inherent fears and thirst for violence. Honestly, I'm simply in awe anyone could make a film this complex and character-rich in the current corporate studio system, and can't wait to see this franchise grow. Especially after director Matt Reeves agreed to return for the next installment.
Granted, you might not feel the same way, but if you do I'm sorry for stoking blogger hyperbole flames. Please know my excitement, my desire to get the word out that the filmmakers have succeeded, is also tempered with the notion that I don't want anyone to know what actually happens in the film...Before he or she experiences it first hand.
Because that's the best way to see 'Dawn'. Completely free and open.
If you're already sold on the project, step away from the computer now. Stop watching trailers. Close your eyes when ads pop up on the TV. I'm not kidding, if you're a 'Planet of the Apes' fan, in any way, just go. It's a thrilling, emotional experience, one that will only be undermined by the marketing department's final push to put butts in seats. The latest trailer and TV spots feature numerous images from the movie's final reel, which disgusts me. Even this incredibly evocated Teaser Trailer -- which has no hard spoilers, and doesn't depict what this movie is really about -- shows you images best discovered on your own.
So that's it. 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes' is grand-yet-grounded blockbuster filmmaking and worth the price to see it on the biggest screen possible with the best sound available (more on this in a moment).
Dawn of A Few Plot Details For Those Who Want Them
For those who must know a little bit about the plot before dipping a toe in these cinematic waters, 'Dawn' takes place ten years ('winters') after the events of the first film. After a global pandemic, created as an attempt to cure Alzheimer's, wiped out humanity, Caesar and his band of super-intelligent apes have taken to the forests north of San Francisco where they are doing quite well. They've built home-like structures in the trees, hunt for food, and are using their increased brain power to build a society. In fact, it has been two winters since anyone has seen a single man. It is a time of peace...
Until human survivors show up looking for a hydro power plant in the apes' territory. Caesar alone must decide what to do. If he sends the humans away, they will surely return to start a war. But, if Caesar helps the humans turn the city's power back on, is he betraying his own kind, and making a potential enemy stronger?
'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes' in Dolby Atmos
Enhancing 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes', we have another impressive Dolby Atmos mix. At this point, two years into the format, I find myself torn in a couple different directions.
Now that the novelty has warn off, it's pretty much impossible to rank all of these releases. Theatrical (and home) surround sound experiences continue to push what's possible in terms of dynamic range and directional panning. We've come to expect sonic aggression.
But movies like 'Dawn' remind me of the auditory marvels filmmakers are still able to achieve. 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes' excels in juxtaposing delicate character moments with surges of percussive violence. There are numerous sequences set in the pattering rain, which then launch into cracking gunfire and other actions beats.
Basically, what I'm starting to learn about Atmos, and numerous other surround formats, is the more you push things -- the more croweded individual moments become -- the less it really matters. With loud moments and auditory overload, with lots of guns and explosions, it's harder to tell the difference between 5.1 and 7.1 and Atmos.
But when the scene itself is tame... When there are small moments in the rain... When there are little world-building details... When there are a hundred apes all around us, each calling out at different times... That's when Atmos shows its true potential because it fades away into an invisible, life-like quality.
I know some of you thought the IMAX mix outperformed the Atmos version, but I think 'Gravity' is still my favorite theatrical sound experience because the Atmos mix was so measured, so precise in its vocal and effects arrangements. 'Dawn' has a similar quality in the way it balances action with character, sonic overload with intimate clarity.
Either way, I personally loved 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes' for its character work, photo realistic visual effects, suspenseful action sequences, and a top-tier sound mix, all of which should make one hell of a Blu-ray, especially if it rolls out in the home version of Atmos set to debut later this year.
Speaking of which...
A Few Updates About Dolby Atmos in the Home
While we're at it, last week High-Def Digest broke the news that Dolby Atmos is finally making its way into our homes, which was then followed by announcements from partners Onkyo and Pioneer about their first Atmos products. In the forums, we've been chatting about the possibilities, asking tons of questions, and I even reached out to my Dolby contacts. As a few other sites have already reported, Dolby wrote a follow-up blog to clear up some early misconceptions. Feel free to read the whole thing, but here are the highlights:
Atmos is scalable, focusing on individual objects rather than channels.
In cinemas, Atmos works in any configuration from 9.1 to 64.4, but is often somewhere in the middle. However, the home version is slightly different. For starters, Dolby is working to recalibrate the way we think of our home theatre setups.
For example, the minimum Atmos setup is described as "5.1.2", which translates into five standard surround sound speakers at ear level (left, center, right, surrround right, surround left), one subwoofer, and two height channels. In this configuration, you will need an AV reciever (or amplification) for seven channels plus a powered subwoofer. Depending on budget, Atmos in the home is capable of 24.1.10 (twenty-four surrounds, one sub, ten overhead), though at present, the most powerful Atmos AV Reciever will have 32-channels.
The key to all of this is that, as home theatre enthusiasts, we have to think in "channels" mainly for logical pruposes -- running wire, amplification, etc. -- but content producers won't be producing different mixes for the guy with "5.1.2" versus "24.1.10" because Atmos-enabled tracks adapt to your home theatre environement. Pretty impressive.
You will most likely need to purchase new gear, but maybe not.
The saddest part for any tech geek. Saving up. Droppping mad cash. And then you need to replace gear to get the newest evolution of a sound format. Damn it!
Right now, we know Onkyo, Pioneer, Denon, and Marantz are going to produce Dolby Atmos capable AV Recievers. While Denon and Marantz have only listed model numbers, Pioneer and Onkyo have already started advertising and detailing their new products HERE and HERE (a lot of great information there, so definitely check those out).
So far, Pioneer is topping out at 9-channel AV Recievers capable of 5.1.4, 7.1.2, and 9.1 Atmos setups. Denon, Marantz, and Onkyo have also proposed 11-channel AV Recievers capable of up to 7.1.4 and 9.1.2 Atmos configurations. However, unless you own a Pioneer Elite SC-85, SC-87, or SC89, or an Onkyo TX-NR838, TX-NR737, TX-NR636, you will most likely need an new AVR to experience Atmos in the home.
[Personal side-note plee to Denon: please please please firmware upgrade the AVR-2113ci]
What about speakers? Here things get a little easier (potentially).
In an optimized setup, Dolby recommends four height channels -- front and back stereo pairs. However, one pair will suffice. For the most precise experience, you will want to install the height channels in your ceilding. The challenge, of course, will be installation costs and running wire. But the good news is you can use conventional ceiliing-mounted speakers.
If you don't want to, or cannot, install speakers in your ceiling, you have the option of purchasing Atmos-enabled speakers. Onkyo and Pioneer both announced front and surround speakers that feature traditional horizontally firing drivers as well as a vertical-firing driver designed to bounce the height channels off 8-14 foot, flat ceilings (taller ceilings and diagnol rooflines will cause problems). However, this method would require replacing two-to-four of your speakers, which isn't cheap, and what if you love the speakers you already own?
As a final option, Onkyo announced add-on speaker modules, which are essetially vertically-firing satellite speakers you set atop your current speakers. These come in pairs.
To recap, if you happen to own one of the firmware-upgradable AVRs, all you need to do to experience Atmos is to install two speakers in your ceiling, or purchase a couple add-on modules. Without the upgradable AVR, you're looking at the cost of a new Reciever plus at least two new speakers or add-on modules. If you're designing a new room, or have a bigger budget, the sky is really the limit. And, if you wait a year or two, I'm sure there will be plenty more options, but, while prices should drop over time, the challenge here is that extra amplified channels (done well) always always costs more. If you're cool with a seven-channel 5.1.2 setup, it should be a pretty affordable goal. For those seaking an eleven-channel 7.1.4 Atmos configuration, I'm not sure if a price drop is in the immediate future.
What About Dolby Atmos Content?
Dolby Atmos will be an extension of Dolby TrueHD (via Blu-ray Disc) and Dolby Digital Plus (via Streaming). All current Blu-ray players, and HDMI cables, should be able to handle Atmos assuming you are outputing sound via bitstream.
No specific Atmos Blu-rays (or digital downloads) have been announced, but the obivous guess is to look at films releasing in Atmos this year that are mentioned in the Dolby press releases. 'Godzilla', 'Noah', 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes'. Maybe even 'Edge of Tomorrow'. These titles are definitely coming to Blu-ray later this year, so why not? It all depends on which studios have deals to release Blu-rays in DTS-HD MA; I'm sure there are tons of negotations going on behind the scenes right now. Regardless, it's hard to tell just yet, but guess what, you don't technically even need Dolby Atmos Blu-rays to experience Atmos.
Unlike its theatrical cousin, which requires a specific mix, Dolby Atmos home cinema recievers will be able to adapt, or process, native stereo, 5.1 and 7.1 content -- ie, your existing Blu-rays and DVDs and even your cable/satelitte receivers -- into Atmos. Bascially, if you ever run ProLogic IIx to get a 7.1 mix out of stereo and 5.1 tracks, Atmos promises to do the same for overhead height channels. Basically, part of me is starting to wonder if Atmos (in the home) is a reconfigured version of ProLogic IIz, which added height-but-not-overhead channels.
Thanks again to Dolby and Hero Complex for a great night. 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes' is an awesome cinema experience, one I can't wait to experience again theatrically and most likely at home on Blu-ray. If we're lucky, it might even be one of the first Dolby Atmos enabled Blu-rays.