Sometimes, even the people who make movies think of them primarily as a series of images—they may overlook the importance of sound to the overall experience. That’s why we started the Dolby® Institute to help artists use technology to create the most powerful partnership of sound and visuals possible.
The Dolby Institute, explains director Glenn Kiser, “exists to engage artists directly, to start them on the process of thinking critically about sound and visuals at the very beginning of the creative process—whatever medium they’re working in.”
Kiser, the former vice president and general manager of Skywalker Sound, joined Dolby in late 2012 and has been working at film festivals, universities and film schools—wherever filmmakers gather.
The institute launched at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2013, where Kiser hosted a panel discussion that included sound designers whose films had earned 24 Academy Award® nominations for sound and won six Academy Awards. Among the panelists were Ben Burtt (Lincoln, Star Wars, Wall•E), Randy Thom (The Incredibles, Apocalypse Now), Erik Aadahl (Argo, Tree of Life), and Will Files (Cloverfield, Star Trek into Darkness).
At the Los Angeles Film Festival in June, a Dolby Institute panel discussion focused on the use of sound in the film Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. Writer-director David Lowery, sound designer Kent Sparling, producer Toby Halbrooks, and members of the music team spoke about how their use of sound brought to life the film’s story of a Texas outlaw, his wife, and the local sheriff.
Dolby already has deep roots in established film festivals, such as Telluride, Toronto, Berlin, and Cannes, as well as contacts at film schools and universities. The location and format of Dolby Institute sessions vary by audience and opportunity, but much of the outreach takes place wherever the artists work and meet.
Bringing together skilled audio veterans and young filmmakers is part of the Dolby Institute’s mission. Because they know what has worked before, the masters of their craft can suggest to the less-experienced filmmakers ways to make a story more vibrant.
And the experts learn something as well: “When I’m working with young content creators who are plying the craft and learning, using, and pushing the boundaries of what our technology has to offer, I come away fiercely inspired and filled with new ideas,” Kiser says.
In Dolby’s DNA
Establishing an institution to educate creative artists may seem like a departure for Dolby. In fact, though, “making the experience of consuming media better is in Dolby’s DNA,” Kiser says.
“We do that every day, in countless ways, across numerous platforms and technologies. The Dolby Institute exists to reach out to the people creating that content in a variety of settings to educate and inspire them to use our technology more creatively as a storytelling tool, to make the story visually and aurally more engaging for the person in the cinema or for the end user.”
As an example of that intentional use of sound to make their content more “stimulating and engaging” in the cinema, Kiser likes to tell this story.
Benh Zeitlin, the director of Beasts of the Southern Wild, a movie developed with the help of the independent-film incubator Sundance Institute, wanted to convey the power of Hurricane Katrina as it tears apart the lives of some Louisiana bayou residents.
But on his very limited budget, he could not afford to recreate the storm with visual effects.
Zeitlin and the film’s sound artists “lit on a very elegant solution,” says Kiser. “The storm sirens go off. His characters hunker down in their tin-roofed sheds. [The director] plays the entire scene in close-ups on the characters. He uses the sound to tell the story of the power of the storm. And when they come out into the stillness after the storm, you see the devastation… The power of that moment was communicated through sound.”
The approach was clearly successful: The 2012 movie earned four Academy Award nominations.