Posted Sun May 31, 2015 at 06:55 PM PDT by Brian Hoss
The spread of a new standard.
Last week, one of my favorite High-Def Digest colleagues, Michael S. Palmer, wrote about seeing 'Tomorrowland' in Dolby Vision at El Capitan, but I opted to go one better, and see 'Tomorrowland' & 'San Andreas' in one of the new AMC Prime theaters.
Back at CES 2015, the folks over at Dolby were talking about Dolby Vision and Dolby Cinema. But in spite of their suite presentation (with clips from 'Oblivion') and a willingness to discuss at length the various aspects of their approach, the best they really could do is relate a series of concepts. The only actual Dolby Cinema in existence at that time was the JT Bioscopen Dolby Cinema, located in Eindhoven, Netherlands. I made a mental note to stop over the next time I passed through the Netherlands, but I had to table a solid feel of these related Dolby terms, Cinema and Vision.
Meanwhile, my own fascination with Dolby Atmos (and DTS:X) began an ascension that has yet to peak. Having multiple nearby Dolby Atmos demonstration areas, nearly all of which were assembled by different companies (AVR and speaker manufactures as well as Dolby) tends to make one think even harder about the different ways to set up and optimize an audio presentation.
When it comes to the idea of a Dolby Cinema, I'm of the ilk that is instantly intrigued. Assembling, maintaining, and optimizing a home theater takes an important mix of planning, implementing, referencing, and best practice. For example, matching, orientating, and calibrating speakers takes some forethought and refinement. And of course, serious compromises (and blatant misdeeds) for any home theater causes me varying amounts of distress. Thus, the concept of a Dolby designed theater, with a reference set for the audio and video that extends from all the way to where the theater goer walks into the doors, is very attractive as it speaks to the idea of consistency. The Dolby Cinema concept is impressive (especially when accompanied by Dolby's renders) but when Dolby Vision is added to the package, the significance increases drastically.
Naturally, Dolby Vision calls for a cutting edge projection system, one which Dolby partnered with Christie to develop. This system is meant to reproduce a picture that incorporates a number of cherished characteristics, with the standout being the coupling of HDR with an impressive contrast ratio. But there's more to Dolby Vision than the tech, rather it's the concept of getting HDR as part of the dailies that was eyebrow-raising. Not just HDR, but the entire Dolby Vision standard being used as part of a major film all through its production is a concept to regard. Again, with my ilk, having a film created with Dolby Vision playing a major role carries with it the eventual frustration that can be found with aspect ratios, noise levels, or anything else in the area of creator intent. But then again, it's not as though more traditional video presentation is suddenly forgotten in terms of "intent." At any rate, at the beginning of the year, Dolby Vision was a promising concept. It's only now that I have some results to really take in.
This past weekend, the very first Dolby Cinemas in North America debuted. These theaters are the fruit of a partnership with AMC, and exist as the new AMC Prime installations. In essence, AMC has renovated a handful of their AMC Prime theaters to feature Dolby Cinema (as well as some other premium theater aspects). Their debut would be paired with the premiere of 'Tomorrowland,' the Disney/Brad Bird theme park ride turned major motion picture and all ages' sci-fi yarn. Among its other features, 'Tomorrowland' can boast of being a Dolby Vision film, and thus, I decided to make the trek to one of the new Dolby Cinema at AMC Prime locations, AMC Deerbrook 24. (After writing the bulk of this article, I elected to return for 'San Andreas.')
Prior to venturing to the theater, I contacted AMC, and let them know my interest in writing up a piece. I asked if they wouldn't mind chatting about the new theater either before or after my visit. AMC's response was quite cordial, but throughout our email exchange, they seemed to act as though I might be being just a bit too curious. (Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.) Ultimately, I attended a weekend showing, after which I had AMC answer a few follow-up questions.
The experience was a bit bizarre to say the least. The AMC Deerbrook 24 location is not in a major metropolis, but it is part of a shopping mall. The theater is perched above a series of mall parking lots and features a dozen stairways that lead to one-way theater exit doors.
Within the food court adjacent mall theater, there's a full service bar, a half dozen custom Coke soda fountains, and an array of concession stands and cardboard movie promos. For such a large theater, what seems to be missing, is any kind of giant lobby. All of this is to say that while the AMC Deerbrook 24 is a fine all around theater complex, there's very little to outright suggest that a Dolby Cinema is on the premises.
That is, until I was met by this façade, which is located smack dab in the middle.
A fancy marquee for sure, but it's pretty sedate compared with Dolby's own video wall (more on that later). Regardless of the outside trappings, what I found within was well worth the journey.
I've attended some pretty impressive theaters, sports venues, art installations, amusement parks, demonstrations and so forth all over the world, but almost none of that prepared me for this new AMC Prime. (I had seen AMC's photos prior to my visit, but they lack the oomph delivering by that first reveal upon taking in the whole theater as a whole.) AMC is pushing the premium theater experience in full, which is why the new theater features reserved seating, with the seats themselves being pairs of electrically reclining seats.
Unlike every professional demonstration I've attended. This fancy theater, which uses understated red highlights to drawn the eye to each speaker, was half full of normal movie goers and their families. But unlike my normal standbys, IMAX and RPX, this massive theater seats a bare minimum of people. (It's like a large airliner that's been full decked out in first class reclining seats.) Each row has enough room to walk even when the seats are in the fully reclined position, and thus my associate and I found are seats and easily walked past a family of six (all reclined).
The all-red theater lighting and reclining seats do invoke comparisons to one of those custom home theaters built in the spirit of a Klingon warship, and I was dismayed to find that the wall-like dividers that backed each row are topped with six inches of plexi-glass. (Recline fully and those plexi-glass toppers might just come into view.) Still, the recliners, with their four-button controls, appear to be a winning choice, at least in their current pristine state. They are noiseless and allow for easy fine-tuning at a given moment, like say when George Clooney starts talking about Edison and Tesla in the middle of a "chase," or when the Rock starts getting lost in his on-screen daughter's memory box.
If you think you've heard the best a movie theater can sound, do think again. Before 'Tomorrowland,' before the barrage of kid's movie trailers (including 'Inside Out' & 'Pan'), and before the sensational 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' trailer, we were greeted by an extremely long trailer for the documentary styled 'Hillsong: Let Hope Rise.' This would appear to be a movie about a mega successful Australian gospel band. Not only did the trailer features lots of the band performances, but it also featured long, detailed quotes from all of the half dozen band members on their feelings about their success. And while I worried that this particular trailer might never end, I was astounded (minute by minute) by how good it sounded. When, (several trailers later), the new 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' trailer played, I was beginning to think that the sound system was the best that I had heard for film. The Dolby Cinema demonstration trailer, was of course, fun to take in.
When 'Tomorrowland' began, and Dolby Atmos playback took over, I was feeling quite sure.
Remember how I mentioned that the large theater held a comparative few seats? Now think about the object-based audio of 'Tomorrowland,' complete with competing narration and Foley being delivered with amazing sound precision in a giant theater without even the slightest doubt as to the theater's sweet spot. All of those speakers that line the walls and ceiling (and those unseen) are for more than just show.
When it comes to sound, 'San Andreas' is a different animal. Starting with the in-seat transducers, 'San Andreas' is an audio presentation that you can feel, and yet, I was never concerned for my ears, or even really challenged in terms of conversing with my neighbor. Even better, there was nothing even remotely like rattle or an out of place hum, even when entering, exiting, or standing just outside the theater, the massive sound is kept in control. I really devoured it, and again, though I was in a different area of the theater compared with the 'Tomorrowland' showing, I felt as though the audio was directed perfectly towards me.
'Tomorrowland' features three lead characters who all suffer from the same problem, they've been half-realized in a spectacle of a movie that can't decide if it wants to show off a cool future or have a compelling doomsday plot, which is such an odd dilemma since we're so used to seeing cool futurescapes on the cusp of some world-ending event (nefarious or otherwise) that the "future in peril in media" is one of the movie's core themes.
I recently visited the Expo Milano 2015, and before that I was in Chicago chasing the ghosts of the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, so I can understand somewhat where 'Tomorrowland's Fascination with World's Fairs as showcases of what's to come, but I've also been there on the little boats hearing "It's a Small World After All" in a dozen different accents wishing that I was somewhere else less confined.
The key here is that 'Tomorrowland' is pretty uneven in my eyes, but with that unevenness comes some damn fine visuals.
I'm not a fan of disaster flicks, and I think it's remarkable how many recent movies have sought to hammer (or outright destroy) San Francisco. I did find 'San Andreas' to be good fun, and was relieved to find the movie didn't take it itself too seriously. As buildings and vehicles (and some people) were obliterated with the tempo of a teenage slasher flick, I mainly enjoyed all the popcorn laden carnage. There's a moment, when the Rock and his wife crash into a mall that touches on some dark feelings, but after stealing from a pair of criminals, it's all sunny again and back on track.
Without the Dolby Cinema presentation, I would have skipped 'San Andreas' outright, and every time logic, logistics and so forth were chucked aside during the movie, I focused in on the audio and video (and the admittedly enjoyable cast, I'm a huge fan of the movies' would-be no. 1 jerk, Ioan Gruffudd).
There are some scenes early on in 'Tomorrowland' that are set in modern times that flex the muscle of Dolby Vision, and one particular sequence, which takes the viewer from a stylized version of the 1964 New York World's Fair to the titular Tomorrowland makes for a very nice reveal. Later on, when 'Tomorrowland' is revealed to another character in a much more general and friendly manner, the film struts its best stuff. It's here where the futuristic alt space has its warmest color palette and its most diverse set of cast and eye-catching set pieces. The character is tow ends up longing to return to that place, as does the audience I think.
Attempting to judge the difference made by the HDR authoring and reproduction requires more than one-shot viewing, but I can easily state that the screen and projection system of the new AMC Prime is sumptuous. Early on, when Clooney is attempting to drone on directly into the camera (and thwarted at interval by an incessant off-screen voice), all I could do was stare and count fibers on his shoulders. The stitching detail was not only wonderfully discernable, but I could follow the subtle degradations in light that garnered the garment with an enjoyable amount of depth. Of course, it's really in the Casey Newton scenes where the cool tones are swapped for warm ones.
That said, the film is bright, and the settings are a mix of sterile and clean or otherwise artificial in a movie back lot kind of way. Whether it's Clooney's house of tricks and holodog or the entirely laughable collectibles shop that is insincerely set in Houston, or the evil robot types that occasionally fight to the death, few things seem as genuine as a wet footprint. The artificial nature suits the film, but makes scoring color tough. The few nighttime scenes are so perfectly clear, that it's easy to take the well-executed range of darkness for granted.
Not only was the theater lacking any of those "the staff forgot to frame the picture" correctly moments, the screen and projection (and seating diagram) did an even better job of illustrating the lack of a sweet spot for viewing as the viewing angle and picture intensity never waned or seemed obscured in any part of the theater.
I can't imagine a better way to have seen 'Tomorrowland,' and I look forward quite eagerly to future Dolby Vision titles.
So eagerly in fact, that I dialed up 'San Andreas.' Now we're talking about a movie with real sites and landscapes to take in… except that they are all beset by disaster-filled CGI and endless (and unsettling) falling buildings. Again, trying to judge the extent of picture improvement attributable to the Dolby Vision part of the production and presentation is tricky without a direct comparison, but the film looked extremely bright without a single hint of washout to be found anywhere on-screen. Through sunny California to the newly created deep waters of the skyscrapers, 'San Andreas' looks crystal clear (minus some full rendered disaster areas) with a hearty color gamut.
This new theater, which has a presentation that I can't imagine will be beaten anytime soon in public or private, feels like a hidden gem. (At $15 a ticket, I was surprised they don't charge more.) One thing that concerned me was the effect of the movie's sound on the seats. The seats are billed as having vibrating transducers keyed to the film, but in 'Tomorrowland' I'm not sure the effect had it a proper showing. (It's certainly wasn't overpowering or distracting.) In 'San Andreas,' however, the complementary bass feel was much easier to discern and enjoy.
In my dialog with AMC Theater's Director of Corporate Communications, Ryan Noonan, and the senior vice President, Facilities/Sight & Sound at AMC Theaters, Cynthia Pierce, I asked if non-Dolby Vision films would be featured at these new AMC Prime theaters, and the answer was that AMC "can and will show non-HDR content in the auditorium."
When I asked about the thinking behind the move to Dolby Cinema, I was met with a very matter of fact set of responses. "Dolby has a recognized brand name in sight and sound," and the idea was to have a "premium cinema offering that combines spectacular image and sound technologies with inspired design and amazing comfort" as well as to use the Dolby Vision laser projector to achieve the "clearest of images, including the brightest of whites and the blackest blacks." Even so, I was assured that the move to Dolby Vision/Christie visual and audio components, while requiring some refinement, did not present "any significant challenges."
As I mentioned earlier, the Dolby Cinema design calls for a video wall entrance (As described by Dolby, the wall is "dynamic audio/video pathway with a huge projection wall showing floor-to-ceiling video while enveloping sounds pull you toward the entrance doors.") That feature isn't currently part of the AMC Deerbrook 24 AMC Prime. I asked if there were any other major differences between the new AMC Prime and the Dolby Cinema reference design and was told that the entryway was currently in design and would be introduced later this summer.
Amazingly, the rollout of new AMC Primes is going to happen faster than these first few theaters suggest, AMC Willowbrook 24, which is only about 20 miles from the Deerbrook location I attended, will open later this summer.
As it stands, the new Dolby Cinema at AMC Prime presentations of 'Tomorrowland' and 'San Andreas,' have me convinced that some of 2015's biggest movies (like 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens') now have an obvious first-choice set of theaters for which viewing is a kind of can't-miss "see it in Dolby Cinema while you have the chance" opportunity.
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