Most people know Dolby Atmos® as the sound platform that puts audiences in the middle of the action in spectacular science fiction movies like Godzilla and Pacific Rim. Now it’s putting people in the middle of a London West End theatre for the production of the year, Henrik Ibsen’s play Ghosts.
Digital Theatre, a production company that records theatre and opera productions in high definition, has teamed up with distributor CinemaLive to broadcast the Almeida Theatre’s award-winning staging of the 19th-century Norwegian masterpiece to cinemas across the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Australia.
Tom Shaw, Executive Producer at Digital Theatre, knows that Dolby Atmos is better known for the booms and crashes of blockbuster movies than the emotional subtleties of Scandinavian dramas. “But with a stage production and particularly this show—it’s very subtle and intense drama—the use of Dolby Atmos was much more a subtle thing.”
In comparison to traditional 5.1 or 7.1 sound, “What’s brilliant about Dolby Atmos is how precise it can be,” Shaw says. “It accentuates the 3D space and the experience that you’re watching a theatrical room with that space. You can point a sound coming from specific speakers rather than just a general direction. It really helps to continue that emotional narrative of the play.”
“Dolby Atmos helps you emotively link to the drama onstage,” said Jonathan Jowitt, Evangelist, Content and E-Media Solutions, Dolby London. “What we think people in the cinema will feel is a more emotional connection with the actors onstage. You’re taking the audience, who are in this slightly artificial circumstance, back to the time when the performance was given live.”
In one scene, two characters quarrel as they walk offstage to one side, slamming a door behind them, and the audience hears the argument continuing. Jowitt says, “With Dolby Atmos, we were able to move the sound offstage, to a speaker just to the right, to match where they’d moved. You couldn’t do that in 5.1, because as soon as you moved the sound off the stage, it would play out down the whole side wall of speakers,” diffusing the effect.
Shaw of Digital Theatre explains that Dolby Atmos reflects the play’s emotions. There’s “a rain effect,” with the sound of the rain in overhead speakers. “The play is set in a cold, wet environment in a big house, and the sense of that rain trickling down the windows around the stage is accentuated with the use of Dolby Atmos.”
At one point, Jowitt said, the Dolby Atmos sound was too lifelike: “There’s an orphanage that catches fire, which was so realistic in Dolby Atmos that we had to tone the sound mix down a bit. It sounded like the cinema was on fire. It’s a real accolade to Dolby Atmos that we had to dilute the experience so people wouldn’t feel like the building was going up in smoke.”
Event cinema, the digital broadcast of cultural and sports events to cinemas is gaining in popularity. Jonathan Owen of the Independent wrote in 2013 that “by the end of this decade, at least one in 20 cinema tickets will be for something other than a movie, according to David Hancock, head of film and cinema at IHS Screen Digest.”
The worldwide cinema premiere of the play took place on June 16 at the Empire Cinemas Leicester Square in London. The general release of the movie is slated for June 26. (If there’s no Dolby Atmos cinema near you, let your nearest cinema owner know that you want Dolby Atmos.)
Shaw says Digital Theatre chose Dolby Atmos for this film to show off the pinnacle of British theatre. “The thing about Ghosts is the caliber of that production: it’s everything at the top of its game. Two of the actors have won Olivier Awards, the play itself won an Olivier Award. It’s a critically acclaimed production; the direction is first class; the design is top-notch.”
With a play like Ghosts, Shaw said, “the magic of that is about the intensity of the experience, being swept up by the actors and the performance.”