How immersed are we in cinema sound?

Featured, Surround — By on September 17, 2013 09:28

Yesterday’s IBC Conference session on immersive audio, chaired by Julian Pinn. looked at the urge to create more complex sound designs that draw audiences into stories and alter perspectives, the economic realities of upgrading audio systems in theatres and whether there is harmony between cinema audio technology vendors, or another simmering standards war.

Julian was joined onstage by Glenn Freemantle, Danny Boyle’s sound designer of choice, Bryan Claypool, representing Barco Aura. Dolby’s Stuart Bowling, Phil Clapp of the Cinema Exhibitors’ Association and Kentaro Matsui of NHK.

Danny and Glenn are from the school that believes sound represents 80% of the filmgoing experience.

They used sound as the main devices for showing audiences what it would be like to be trapped in a cave with James Franco in ’127 Hours’, sharing his anxiety and loneliness.

To achieve this, Glenn and his team stripped the sound back to nothing and re-built the detail from the ground up, which is an ideal approach for an immersive mix. For the shoot, they had built a canyon. The production crew’s preparations were so precise, they tried recordings with different types of stones until they got one that sounded right, They also built microphones into the canyon structure to capture every sound made.

It’s all about height (the sound stage) control; of the mix at one end, and, eventually, of us.

How effective is immersive sound at bringing audiences into theatres more often and in greater numbers? Bryan and his company have conducted research tests, including double-blind listening comparisons and exit polls. Their research revealed that some audience members don’t know, or care, if it’s in 5.1, 7.1, 11.1 or whatever. As long sound designs and installed systems are good enough and, ultimately, I suppose, they don’t feel the need to complain to the manager at the end.

It’s hard to imagine, though, that anybody could confuse the sound from, in Aura’s's case, two 5.1 systems stacked one on top of the other, with a central mono ‘Voice Of God’ speaker above, and a 5.1 system.

Stuart set out the Dolby stall in sound placement terms, plugging object based audio, obviously, with lots of speakers. arguing that 11.1 is great for atmos, but that dialogue needs, or benefits from more channels, more speakers..

With a 9.1 bed, and speakers seemingly everywhere around you, Dolby want to use Atmos to push an audience into a story, so audience members can hear sound move through the room. Atmos is actually a hybrid system that uses objects, and that can be flexibly configured to diffuse sounds correctly in rooms of varying shapes.

Phil Clapp reinforced the CEA’s position; that cinema exhibition must be the gold standard. Ddecisions involving technology are entirely commercially driven – “can I charge a premium for a ticket, or will this get more bums on seats?”. The CEA and its US counterpart, The National Association of Cinema Owners have written an open letter, asking for standards, not incompatibilities, to be the main topic when we discuss technology innovation.

Kentaro revealed that NHK is working on binaural reproduction of 22.2 with fewer speakers. They hope to have it ready for the 2016 test launch of 8k broadcasts, and fully out by the time the Olympics reaches Japan, in 2020.

Towards the end of the session, Glenn made a passionate plea for exhibitors and distributors to embrace immersive audio; audiences want it, he believes, and cinema needs this leap to keep it different from other forms of visual entertainment. As the discussion turned back to the reasons audio isn’t uppermost when it comes to improving cinemas for audiences, Stuart asked the question of the session, “Is sound invisible?”.


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