In an era when more people are watching movies at home or on their mobile devices, Dolby and Hollywood are hoping sound will lure people back into theaters.
Dolby Atmos, an evolution of Dolby's 5.1 and 7.1 systems, was used on two of this year's Oscar-nominated movies for sound mixing, "Gravity" and "The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug." The system includes speakers in the ceiling theater, in additional to the front, back, and sides of a theater. The real audio innovation comes from the ability to isolate sounds and control where, when, and which sounds come through each speakers.
Stuart Bowling, Dolby's director of market development, explains: "When something moves through the room, it basically goes from speaker to speaker to speaker instead of the way it does normally when it hits every speaker and then fades."
As a theater goer, you can track sounds as they make their way around the room. So, for example, when a helicopter flies across the sky in a movie, you can distinctly hear the sound of the blades travel above your head and across the ceiling from one end to the other. Currently only 450 theaters are equipped with the Dolby Atmos system.
Bowling said "Hobbit" Director Peter Jackson used the sound technology to draw the audience into the movie's fantasy world. "He really wants you to feel like you're part of Middle Earth, feel like you're part of the journey the characters, Bilbo, are going through," he said.
Academy Award-winning sound mixer Christopher Boyes used Dolby Atmos on both "Hobbit" movies: "Atmos is the opportunity for me to take the next step forward in immersing the audience in sounds that push the story forward. And at the same time, help the audience be in the environment of the film itself."
Working closely with filmmakers Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, Boyes says the trick was not to overwhelm the audience with sound, especially in scenes with a lot of action where the audience needed to focus on certain characters. "We're in orchestrated chaos at times in the 'Hobbit,' with hundreds of Orcs attacking and trying to keep our eyes on our heroes as they battle all these forces," Boyes said.
We'll find out this weekend if Dolby Atmos, which can also be used to remix older films, has what it takes to. Whether Atmos can convince people to spend a night out at the movies, that remains to be seen -- and heard.