A lone, disoriented astronaut tumbles through space, her space suit still attached to a crane that has been shorn off the International Space Station by flying satellite debris. Can she unlatch before she is sucked into the darkness for good?
Whew! And that’s just the first few minutes of the Oscar® nominated film Gravity.
But the white-knuckle tension of director Alfonso Cuarón’s movie doesn’t come just from the plot. He seized the audience’s senses in a way that’s never been done before, thanks to his embrace and facility with sophisticated filmmaking technology. Not only did Cuarón use 3D images in subtle and unique ways, he used the latest cinema sound technology, Dolby® Atmos™, to thoroughly immerse viewers in the disorientation of space.
Debuted in 2012 with the animated feature Brave, Dolby Atmos allows filmmakers to place individual sounds anywhere in a theatre, including overhead. They can precisely move those individual sounds to replicate the flight of a helicopter from the screen into the back of the theatre or to recreate the sound of a fast-moving thunderstorm rolling above you.
Cuarón’s Gravity is nominated for the awards for best sound editing and best sound mixing, along with a nomination for best picture. Among the competition for both sound awards is another Dolby Atmos film, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. (Two other Dolby Atmos films, The Croods and Frozen, are nominated for best animated picture.)
In Gravity, Cuarón very successfully uses Dolby Atmos to move sound and even music around the characters—and the audience—to recreate the disorientation of tumbling through space.
“I could really play the subtlety of the sounds,” Cuarón says. “When you are able to have sound coming from every single place around you, it’s just like life. … The sound that comes out of the [Dolby] Atmos system is so complex that it can be used in an emotional way.”
The sound team on The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug says that Dolby Atmos allowed them to enhance the visceral experience.
That goes for lighthearted moments and scary ones. For one scene, when a shute dumps fish onto the dwarves as they float downriver, rerecording mixer Christopher Boyes describes using the capability to place sounds overhead to make it sound like it’s raining fish. Dolby Atmos “provides more sonic options for us to do cool things and tell our stories,” Boyes says.
Smaug rerecording mixer Michael Semanick describes how a cave filled with spiders got better (read: even creepier) when the filmmakers made sound smaller. “[Director] Peter [Jackson] kept saying, ‘Let’s make it quieter and a more of an under-your-skin kind of thing,’” Semanick says. Soon, thanks to those pinpoint sounds surrounding the audience, the room is filled with the clacking of spider claws. “The hairs on the back of your neck go, ‘Oh, I don’t like it.’“
More than 100 films have been or are scheduled to be released in Dolby Atmos. Boyes and Cuarón are eager to see more.
“Along with us sound designers and mixers learning how to use this new medium better and better, I’m hoping that filmmakers will start to think about it when they’re making films,” Boyes says.
Cuarón says he’s ready for the next experience with the format—whether it takes him to outer space or not. “Even if I do a film in which I create a conventional stereo mix, I want to use [Dolby] Atmos again,” he explains.
High praise from a front-runner—and he knows it. “I like it so much that I’m going to have to charge commission for selling it,” the director jokes.