The Dolby Atmos(phere)

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I watched my first Dolby Atmos movie, tonight, and had to come home and write about it. This isn’t a long post, as I don’t have a ton to say and I don’t want to get into the super technical details.

Paired with the AMC Prime experience, I’ll start by saying this: it was awesome.

My first movie in this format was Hardcore Henry, a first-of-its-kind First Person action film. The movie isn’t anything worth winning awards unless those awards are for over-the-top violence-and-lack-of-plot-while-still-being-raunchy-and-fun. What I’m focusing on right now is the Atmos aspect of this experience.

For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, Dolby Atmos is a theater sound experience that involves the position of movie sounds in two dimensions, not just one. A typical movie theater (and home entertainment setup, as well) features sources of sound on a single plane. The speakers are positioned around you, but are generally just across the X axis in your space. With Atmos, the vertical Y axis is considered, as the theater (and your home entertainment setup if you’re brave enough and have the cash) contains an array of downward firing speakers on the ceiling.

This creates a sound field that allows the audio engineers to pick a point in 3D space where the sound is supposed to travel through, as it would in the real space represented in the movie, and the hardware does the rest of the work.

An easy example would be a plane. You see it flying toward you and above. This plane will pass over your head dead center. In a regular theater, the sound would be played through the left and right surround channels (along the side walls) and probably be adjusted to fake being above you. In an Atmos theater, the sound would pass through those same channels for effect, but the primary source would be the ceiling. Given the array of speakers above you, the sound would be more precise and its source more accurate.

I promised I wouldn’t get too technical and I think I failed, there, so if you want to read more about how it works, hit up the Dolby Atmos site. Moving on.

This sound experience is subtle. The fact that the sound came out of the ceiling wasn’t immediately apparent until a scene in the movie that involved a sudden audio position change from around the field of view to abruptly above. I don’t want to describe the scene because it would be a spoiler, and I hate spoiling movies for people on the Internet. You don’t know what you were missing until it’s given to you. But then you can’t not have it… kind of like heroin. Atmos = heroin.

The majority of the movie the effect was subtle but reflecting on it, I feel the sound was more naturally placed because of this technology. Dolby Atmos isn’t something that can just be had in any movie. During the mixing of the audio tracks in post-production, the engineers have to mix it for Atmos.

I mentioned earlier that this can be had in home theaters, as well. The effect is slimmed down a bit as most won’t have the budget or the space for some 30 speakers in an array in their ceiling. The premise is the same, though. That blu-ray movie you purchased has to come with an Atmos audio track. Some newer movies will have this, but the effect will be lost unless you have an Atmos-compatible receiver and blu-ray player.

Back to the experience, again. I paid about 30% more for my ticket, but I’m pretty sure that some of this price was due to the fact that this was also an AMC Prime theater which features leather reclining seats and assigned seating (my favorite).

Given my maiden voyage into Atmosland, I would spend the extra, again, to experience a movie in this format. Note how I said “experience.” I feel this is how traditional movie theaters are going to have to stay relevant. Offering unique and super-standard exeperiences making it worth the time and effort versus grabbing your TV remote and ordering a rental from there for a few dollars or buying the disc from a retailer six months after the movie came out.

I don’t see many movies in the theater for this exact reason. Most are average experiences so I’ve limited myself to IMAX and Prime/Atmos showings. Sure it’s $16-20 a piece, but when I only see one a month at most, it’s not a huge deal.

I’m glad I don’t have kids. A family of four to an AMC Prime showing would be $100 easy counting food. Rough.