[UPDATE: AMC and Dolby originally called these auditoriums Dolby Cinema at AMC Prime, in an ode to the exhibition chain's previously established premium cinema auditoriums, but they've since been renamed Dolby Cinema at AMC, which I think is a smart choice.]
A white dot pops up on a darkened, sixty-foot cinema screen. It looks like every movie you've ever seen projected digitally. Clear white encircled by black levels that are not only grey, but bright enough to partially illuminate the room. This test pattern represents the industry standard 2,000:1 contrast ratio at 14 foot-lamberts (fL).
Then the image shifts so drastically an entire audience of A/V enthusiasts audibly gasps. The white dot now shining a bright 31 fL. As for the screen? Seemingly gone. Perfectly black. The auditorium plunged into total darkness. The contrast ratio a staggering million to one.
Welcome to Dolby Cinema at AMC.
More specifically, welcome to auditorium 14 at AMC Theaters' flagship Burbank 16 location where we are seated to demo a new premium large format theatre offering that's been rolling out at AMC since May of this year. AMC initially announced plans to first convert 50 Prime and ETX premium large format auditoriums to meet Dolby Cinema specifications by 2018 (and 50 more by 2024). However, early reactions by filmmakers and customers have been so positive, AMC hopes to have 50 Dolby Cinema at AMC Prime locations open by the end of 2016.
What is Dolby Cinema at AMC?
In the broadest sense, it's a premium movie-going experience designed to transport audiences into a film's universe using three components:
1) Dolby Vision -- a new dual-4K Christie laser projection system designed for films that have been color graded for Dolby Vision HDR (high dynamic range), giving content 500-times the contrast ratio of conventional projection systems. Pure black levels, expanded color gamut capabilities, and twice the brightness (up to 31fL).
2) Dolby Atmos -- a reference quality sound system capable of decoding object-based surround mixing. In Burbank's case, that's five in-screen speakers plus 48 surrounds, 4 ceiling-mounted subwoofers, and in-seat transducers for extra rumble.
3) Comfort & Aesthetics -- not only does the auditorium boast leather recliners facing a large screen, but the entire space has been painted matte black to control ambient light, color lights have been used to highlight the numerous speakers, and there's the Signature Entrance, an audio-visual pathway meant to evoke a journey into the mindset of watching a particular film.
Demoing Dolby Cinema
To show off the room's capabilities, we sampled five clips from four 2015 films that have be graded for Dolby Vision and mixed in Dolby Atmos.
'Tomorrowland' -- The first Dolby Vision title remains the only one I've seen all the way through. I can't comment on the HDR versus the standard color grading because I've only seen the Dolby Vision version, but we watched a vibrant one-take shot where Casey (Britt Robertson) gets an extended look at the Tomorrowland universe. Bright and sparkling with saturated colors, this demo felt exceptionally lifelike, with extra points awarded for its blue skies and cloud details when these things normally blow out. In short, this demo, much like the scene it depicted, offered a window into another world. It reminds me a bit of seeing HD for the first time back when SD was still the standard.
'Inside Out' -- I mistakenly assumed color grading was less essential to animated features. That assumption imploded the moment we watched two clips from Pixar's 'Inside Out', which I had seen earlier this year in non-HDR 4K digital projection. Pixar films are always cutting edge in terms of fine details, textures, and bold colors. But seeing 'Inside Out' in Dolby Vision is nothing short of a revelation.
We began with the movie's opening scene, the birth of Riley and the four emotions who live inside her head -- Joy, Sadness, Disgust, and Anger. In this sequence, character designs boast much more dimension and more detail in their skin colors. Meaning, without Dolby Vision, they appear as yellow, blue, green, and red; in Dolby Vision, their skin textures are more present and include other shades in the same way that human skin textures flush or pale. It was like someone had upgraded my glasses prescription.
Next we were treated to a sequence set in the part of Riley's mind where she locks up her fears and nightmares. Joy and Sadness must trudge deep into a dark cave tinged with fluorescent walls to rescue the missing Bing Bong. What's notable about this particular sequence is that, while the theatrical standard for color space is P3, this scene is the first in the history of digital projection to use the wider Rec.2020 (aka BT.2020) color gamut. It was, outside of 70mm or 70mm IMAX, possibly the best looking 2D projected imagery I've ever seen. 'Inside Out' benefits from the taller 1.85:1 aspect ratio, which makes the day and exterior sequences seem brighter, but this scene, set in a near-dark cave, was remarkable for its Kuro-quality black levels, shadow details, depth and resolution, and vibrate, fluorescent greens and purples.
'Inside Out' looked so good part of me is worried next month's Blu-ray release will feel a bit like a disappointment.
'Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials' -- Fox is currently touting the 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray release of the original film, but Maze Runner II was the first in the series to be Dolby Vision color-graded. We watched the opening sequence, which comprises of a nightmare/flashback of a military checkpoint and then Thomas (Dylan O'Brien) racing upwards in a freight elevator before waking in a helicopter and fleeing for the safety of a factory environment.
Though I'm unable to personally compare the Dolby Vision 'Scorch Trials' to its standard color grading, I will say it offered tons of depth and shadow detail in what was very dark material with a muted color palette. However, this was my least favorite demo because the letterboxing at the top and bottom of the frame was not true black. Apparently, even though Dolby Vision is capable of that million-to-one contrast ratio, it's up to the filmmakers to decide how to use it. In this case, they might have selected less than true black levels for the letterboxing, or perhaps ambient light from the rest of the frame could have affected black levels. It's hard to say exactly what we experienced without talking to the actual folks who graded the film. Either way, I wish Dolby Cinema and AMC Prime auditoriums had moveable matte panels they could slide into place for 2.40:1 aspect ratio films, or that the letterboxing was a darker color. Granted, it's only possible to have such a complaint once you experience how amazing the black levels can be for other material.
'Everest' -- Our last demo featured a scene from 'Everest' where Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin) nearly falls to his death while crossing a crevasse on a rickety ladder bridge. It's a thrilling sequence that evokes a chilling sense of vertigo on larger screens. I recently saw 'Everest' in 3D at the TCL Chinese IMAX, which features 4K laser projection and the second-largest screen in North America. Without more time in each to compare and contrast, I can't say Dolby Cinema topped that experience in total -- they each have their own strengths -- but I prefer the film's Dolby Atmos mix (it is much more detailed and articulate), and Dolby Vision brought a lot more fine details to snow and ice. Also, my leather recliner was much more comfortable, so there's that. Hehe. Regardless, the point of this final demo was to go to the other end of the spectrum from the 'Inside Out' cave sequence. Dolby Vision will plunge you into darkness without crushing as easily, as it will display detailed spectral and highlights for objects that would normally bleed white.
In short, this demo proved the Burbank 16 Dolby Cinema at AMC is easily one of the best looking and best sounding commercial digital cinema auditoriums I have ever experienced (and yes, that includes professional stages where they create Dolby Atmos sound mixes you hear in cinemas and at home).
Welcome to the future of cinema.
Apart from the fantastic demonstrations, the other huge takeaway from this event was learning, much like Ultra HD Blu-ray, Dolby Cinema at AMC Prime auditoriums are going to be 2D exclusive. Turns out the Dolby Cinema projection system is only capable of 14fL in 3D and, since AMC already has 2,300 RealD and 150 IMAX screens capable of 3D, they want Dolby Cinema auditoriums to offer a different kind of premium experience. It's a bit of a shame to know we won't be getting 3D + Atmos ('Mad Max Fury Road' at a pre-Dolby-Vision AMC Prime was so good I saw it three times there), but at the same time this should appeal to many purists and I can't help but admire the notion of ensuring the customers only get to experience this remarkable projection system at peak output
Where Can I Experience Dolby Cinema at AMC?
There are currently eight locations in operation with four under construction.
Keep your eye on THIS PAGE for an updated list.
What Will Be Playing in Dolby Cinema at AMC?
Nine films have so far been color-graded for Dolby Vision and mixed in Dolby Atmos this year —- 'Tomorrowland', 'San Andreas', 'Inside Out', 'Pixels', 'Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation', 'The Perfect Guy', 'Everest', 'Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials', and 'The Martian'.
The next batch of titles will include 'Pan' (10/9/15), 'The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2' (11/20/15), 'In the Heart of the Sea' (12/11/15), and 'The Jungle Book' (2016) along with many others that have yet to be announced.
I very much enjoyed my short time with Dolby Cinema at AMC. Dolby Vision plus Dolby Atmos plus the creature comforts of AMC Prime is an intoxicating mixture worthy of its premium surcharge (currently the same as IMAX). Together with the historic Chinese, this auditorium offers one of the two best cinema experiences in all of Los Angeles, and I'm very much looking forward to visiting more AMC Prime and/or ETX conversions (seriously, let's get the Century City location done ASAP) over the next few years.
Had a chance to visit a Dolby Cinema at AMC? Hop over into the forums, or to the comments below, to let us know about your experience. Cheers.