LOS ANGELES - At the recent premiere of Disney-Pixar's "Brave," an animated tale about a bow-wielding Scottish princess named Merida, the whooshing of arrows seemed to glide even closer to the audience's ears, a bear's roar felt even more dangerous and a storm sounded like it was swirling over the audience.
It's the Dolby Atmos system at work, the latest innovation in movie theater audio that's aiming to make the big-screen 3-D experience sound as three-dimensional as it looks.
"Brave" is the first feature film mixed entirely for the new audio platform from Dolby Laboratories Inc. "It's a new way of thinking," said "Brave" sound designer Gary Rydstrom. "We had to make sure we captured the opportunities that the Dolby Atmos mix gave us, without getting gimmicky."
There were also concerns about not overwhelming the computer-generated film with the new technology. "The choices that we made in the mix were based on what made the movie more dramatic or funny," said Rydstrom.
Because of Dolby Atmos' unique ability to aurally immerse and envelop audiences, the film's audio engineers had to craft the soundscape inside a screening theater at Skywalker Sound in Northern California instead of in a typical sound mixing studio.
Scenes from films such as "The Incredibles," "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol" and "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" have previously been test-mixed in Dolby Atmos, but "Brave" is the first feature film to totally use the new platform from start to finish.
"The audience is way more sophisticated now," said David Gray, Dolby's content services vice president, following a demonstration of the system earlier this month at Dolby's Burbank, Calif., facility. "There's a whole generation who grew up with multichannel sound, so this is the first time a generation has really demanded this kind of evolution."
"Brave" in Dolby Atmos is being test-released beginning Friday in 14 domestic theaters that typically charge a premium for 3-D and other enhancements, including in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Chicago, Toronto and at six AMC Entertainment ETX - Enhanced Theatre Experience - venues in San Francisco; Los Angeles; Burbank, Calif.; Lake Buena Vista, Fla.; Paramus, N.J.; and Kansas City, Mo.
"If there's new technology that we can put into place that enhances an experience, then we're all for it," said AMC operations vice president Neal Katcher. "We're very excited about this test."
Unlike Dolby's previous audio advancements that added digital sound and multiple channels, Dolby Atmos boasts the ability to render and individually direct sounds to certain speakers. For instance, an explosion from a witch's spell in "Brave" can be pinpointed to one spot within a theater instead of just broadcast along the front, back, left or right walls.
The biggest update with Dolby Atmos is two arrays of overhead speakers. Depending on the layout of a venue, the speakers can be installed on the ceiling or on trusses hanging over the audience, as is the case at Hollywood's historic El Capitan Theatre and the massive Dolby Theatre that hosted the "Brave" premiere.
"If there is one single perceptional element customers will notice, I think it will be the addition of the overheard surround sound," said AMC technology vice president Dan Huerta. "From a creative perspective, mixers have never had that channel available to them before. It's something audiences never experienced until now because it's never been up there."
Rydstrom, the veteran Academy Award-winning sound designer of such films as "Jurassic Park" and "Saving Private Ryan," utilized the overhead speakers in "Brave" to broadcast such sound effects as rain drizzling down on Merida and her mother in a dense Scottish forest, while the outdoorsy young royal constructed a shelter to shield the pair from the elements.
Since developing the platform, Dolby has been petitioning filmmakers to mix upcoming movies in Dolby Atmos, but the company is remaining mum on what films might be next.
The cost of upgrading a theater with the technology can range from $30,000 to $100,000, depending on the infrastructure and existing sound system. Dolby said more theaters in North America, Europe and Asia will be installing Dolby Atmos in the coming months.
Dolby Atmos, which can blast 128 separate channels at a time, marks the first overhaul since the company debuted Dolby Surround 7.1 with "Toy Story 3" in 2010. The company's president, Kevin Yeaman, said Dolby experimented with adding even more channels but decided it needed a way to render sounds in space, not just put more speakers into theaters.
"We are really responding to a pull in the market from creatives and exhibitors," said Yeaman. "When 3-D hit screens, we started getting questions from people like, `Now that we're having a more emotional visual experience, what can you do with sound to really bring us into that?' When you combine those two elements, that's a really powerful experience."