Cinema sound technology is bringing movies closer and closer to a true replication of reality, according to Dolby Senior Vice President Ioan Allen. But through decades of innovation, the ultimate goal of that sound technology has remained the same: to serve the film’s story.
Allen, who was in large part responsible for the origination and development of all the major audio advancements emanating from the Dolby® film program, was interviewed for the Home Theater Geeks podcast, part of the popular podcast network TWiT. Allen has received several Academy Awards®, including an Oscar® for scientific and engineering achievement, and holds several patents. He is also an adjunct professor at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts.
Movie sound has come a long way in a little more than four decades, Allen said. “Back in 1969, almost every movie was only available in mono in most theatres.… It was little better than a phone line, and that was what people were used to.”
“Things have got a lot better and it’s been a long steady path of progression,” he said. “[We’re] getting closer to the point where, both in terms of picture and sound, you almost feel that you could reach out and touch the actors.”
But while he’s been an integral force in improving the sound of films, Allen knows that sophisticated surround sound effects are just a means to an end. “The film director doesn’t want the audience running out of the theatre saying, ‘The sound! Oh my God, the sound!’” he said. “He wants you coming out of that movie theatre saying, ‘What a great movie!’”
“I want people to feel that integrated experience,” Allen said. “I just want people to say, ‘What a great movie!’”
Dawn of Dolby Stereo
When Dolby Stereo technology was developed for movies in 1977, it immediately went into two huge blockbusters, Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But just as significant for Allen was its use in a much smaller, quieter film, Days of Heaven, set on a wheat farm in Texas. Instead of using surround technology to portray the roar of spaceships, Days of Heaven director Terrence Malick used it for the sound of wind through stalks of wheat or the tinkling of a stream.
“I was frightened that we would get tainted with the brush about Dolby encoding [being] something you’d only use on a loud, science fiction-type movie,” Allen said. “The excitement of Days of Heaven was that for the first time ever people were using the surrounds in a subtle way to help make the audience participants in the story.”
Allen and Home Theater Geeks host Scott Wilkinson discussed many other topics in the hour-long podcast, including the development of audio codecs, the future of laser projection of movies, and the question of whether modern movies are too loud.
But inevitably, the discussion turned to Dolby Atmos, the technology that allows filmmakers to position sounds throughout the theatre to create dynamic effects.
Wilkinson, the online editor of HomeTheaterHiFi.com, offered this opinion: “Whenever there’s a movie released that has been mixed in Dolby Atmos, I go to see it,” Wilkinson said. “Because I do find great value in the directionality, in the sense of envelopment, in the sense of immersion in the story, which, as you said, is really the bottom line. It’s ‘Can you lose yourself in the story?’ and certainly having the sound in a hemisphere around you helps greatly with that.”
“You said it exactly right,” Allen replied.
Want to hear more about sound in cinema? Check out Allen’s talk at the University of San Francisco earlier this year and his interview with Jan Harlan, an executive producer who worked extensively with Stanley Kubrick.