Posted on Tuesday, November 8th, 2011 by Germain Lussier
The moral of this story is two fold. First, sound totally makes a movie. And second, always do your best, you never know where it might take you. That second point applies because, a few weeks ago, I wrote a story about how Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides was the first film ever released to a streaming site encoded with Dolby 7.1 Surround Sound. At the time, I didn’t know what that entailed specifically, just that it was a cool technological advancement. Fast forward a few days later and I’m in San Francisco at Dolby’s World Headquarters, sitting in their beyond state of the art screening room, about to watch an action sports snowboarding movie called The Art of Flight that will demonstrate exactly what Dolby 7.1 can do. Along the way, I also learned a bit more about Dolby as a brand and the overall theatrical experience as a whole. Read more about it after the jump.
The centerpiece of this evening at Dolby was the film The Art of Flight. Directed by Curt Morgan it features about 90 minutes of jaw-droppingly insane snowboard tricks captured on a trip that spanned the globe from Canada to Chile and Padagonia. It’s currently available on iTunes and Blu-ray and if you like action sports, it’s worth checking out. As a film on it’s own, The Art of Flight doesn’t really have much of a story or point. But it doesn’t need to. When a bunch of the world’s best snowboarders travel the world and risk their lives to show an audience what is possible when you strap a board to your feet above a mountain of snow, that works for me. They race away from avalanches, jump off helicopters, rail slide on trees, it’s almost unbelievable.
And while the visuals are beautiful, the Dolby 7.1 sound mix is equally impressive. Here’s exactly what that entails in the most layman of terms. (Translation: it’s much more complicated but here’s the gist). 5.1 surround sound is what most people have in their homes. It’s a speaker in each of the four corners of a room, a front center speaker for dialogue and a subwoofer. 6.1 added another speaker directly behind the audience to give a bit more of a sweeping feeling. Yet in of those set ups, the rear speakers were less distinct than the front ones. With 7.1 there are now six distinct and equal surround channels (front left and right, back left and right, center left and right) to go along with the center speaker and sub engulfing the audience like never before. Most of Hollywood’s major blockbusters are currently using this and international features are also embracing it. In the next few months, films like Immortals, Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol and War Horse will all have Dolby 7.1 soundtracks.
But does that mean your local theater has it? If it’s a theater that keeps up with the times, yes. Dolby employees said the conversion to 7.1 was relatively minor unlike, say, going from film to digital. And the difference in sound is as if you were standing in front of a waterfall versus actually being inside one.
That’s all well and good but Dolby is also aware the theatrical experience is fading. To that end, while they continue to improve that ideal experience, they’re doing other things with their technology too. They’ve begun to see how increased frame rate on films like The Hobbit and Avatar 2 will affect sound and many smaller technological devices – laptops, tablets and smart phones – are now being released with Dolby software to give the user a good experience no matter where they are.
As a theatrical fan, visiting Dolby was humbling, educational experience. The Art of Flight was good showpiece and it was encouraging to see a company one expects to be niche is so well-versed on the movie business and where it’s going in the future.