Having just returned from an event at the Dolby headquarters in San Francisco, the important developments happening in sound have been put into an entirely new light for me. Surrounded, a two-day conference bringing together a large cross section of the industry, revolved around Dolby’s new 7.1 surround sound system as well as several other technological advancements in film that Dolby is working on.
Visuals in film have been evolving since the day cinema was born, and this evolution has played out right in front of the film goers’ eyes. An aspect of cinema that is arguably just as important has also evolved since the birth of film with hardly anyone taking note. Sound is inarguably one of the most important aspects of cinema, second only to the visuals. And while the progression of visuals are obvious to the average viewer, the subtle and even monumental technological developments in sound go largely unnoticed.
While Dolby has not been the only company working to push sound forward, it is certainly one of the industry leaders in this field. From simply setting standards in sound back in its early days, to surround sound, Dolby has been pushing the envelope in this field. With the recent introduction of 7.1 surround sound, Dolby has introduced a tool to filmmakers that is on par with the developments currently happening on the visual side of filmmaking.
Simply put, 7.1 surround sound adds two more speakers to the now standard 5.1 surround sound. While this may seem inconsequential, the effect is significant. These added speakers allow more creative freedom and control to the sound designer, expanding the designer’s pallet.
While the development of 5.1 surround was a fantastic breakthrough for filmmakers, an important flaw remained that 7.1 addresses. With 5.1 to experience the full effect the audience member must be in a specific place in the theatre. If too far to any extreme, the full effect is lost. 7.1 fixes this problem, with the entire theatre able to experience the intended effect.
Yet as important a development as 7.1 is, it will never become the major talking point that 3D currently is.
This lack of discussion happening over 7.1 is due to several reasons, the main reason being that theaters and studios are unable to market 7.1 like they can 3D. This new Dolby technology provides more subtle controls for filmmakers, not something as obvious as the ability to throw Thor’s hammer out of the screen in a 3D presentation.
Pixar was one of the first companies to push for this added control, and what they were able to bring to films like Cars 2 and Toy Story 3 may not be obvious on screen but it certainly created a level of depth that was previously impossible.
Because advances in sound are less about marketing than technical and creative control, technological progress keeps improving the cinematic experience without ever becoming gimmicky. Pixar’s use of 7.1 is a great example of this. If Toy Story 3 had been released without taking advantage of the new technology it would most likely have made the same profit. Pixar and Dolby’s push to move sound forward was more about creativity rather than a marketing advantage.
It is not only Pixar that is using this new technology to its full potential, many studios are taking advantage of it and not only in Hollywood. Foreign filmmakers as well as Hollywood studios are now using this technology that allows for a more immersive experience.