When Indian director Shoojit Sircar set about making Madras Café, a movie about the bloody decades-long Sri Lankan civil war, he ran into one serious challenge early on: he wouldn’t be able to film in Sri Lanka.

Instead, Sircar had to settle for shooting in Southern India. To heighten the realism of the movie, he turned to sound and Dolby® Atmos™.

“You have to transport the audience to [the film’s] ambience,” Sircar says. “Unless they feel the terror of that situation or the gravity of that situation, it will not touch [their hearts]. For Madras Café, I had to create a civil war in Jaffna [the capital of the Northern Province of Sri Lanka].”

Sircar did that by creating a realistic soundscape in which to ground his actors, one that gives the sense of a world of strife outside even the most enclosed spaces. To attain that level of realism, the director started with authentic audio.

“First is procuring those sounds. That was a task for us. Those location sounds were very important for us—for example, the kind of choppers our air force and army use, the kind of gunshots,” Sircar said. “I went to Southeast Asia and I took some real guns. I went to Bangkok and to Malaysia, and then we shot those shots.”

Once Sircar and his team, including sound designer Bishwadeep Chatterjee and sound mixer Nihar Ranjan, captured realistic sound, it was time to use the Dolby Atmos virtual reality sound system to move and place those individual sounds around the theatre.

Dolby Atmos allows the audience to experience a full 360 degrees of sound, Sircar says. When characters are at a military checkpoint, for instance, the audience can hear sounds from the jungle on one side, the city on another, and the sea behind them.

The advent of 3D films has raised moviegoers’ expectations for the level of depth and realism at the cinema, even for movies like Madras Café, which aren’t in 3D, Sircar says. Dolby Atmos helps meet those expectations for sound: it’s not just a helpful storytelling device—it’s a necessary one.

“[With] the introduction of the 3D films,… I think sound is becoming very, very important with the audiences experiencing that three-dimensional effect of the visual and the sound also,” Sircar said. “The sound has to be that layered, you know?”