Fans of horror and science fiction movies know that sound is key to a good scare: it creates a sense of foreboding and builds tension in the story. Universal Pictures is seizing on that fact with Mama, the first psychological thriller to be mixed in Dolby® Atmos™.

Mama, produced by Guillermo del Toro of Pan’s Labyrinth fame, opens at select theatres on Friday, Jan. 18. It’s a haunting story of two young sisters who lose their parents in a fatal car crash and somehow survive on their own in the woods for years. When their uncle finds and rescues them, their return to society suggests that they might not have been alone in the woods after all—and someone or something is trying to ruin their new life.

We asked Gabriel Gutiérrez, sound designer and editor, and Marc Orts, re-recording mixer, a few questions about the role of sound in Mama.

Lab Notes: Describe one scene where sound had the most impact on storytelling.

Marc Orts (MO): There are several scenes in Mama where immersive sound is used as a critical component to the storytelling, but it’s the horror scenes where Dolby Atmos had the most impact. The sequence where the character Annabel is rehearsing in the kitchen is treated exclusively with a particular sound for which sound designer Gabriel Gutiérrez and I used the overhead surrounds, which Dolby Atmos makes it possible to do. The sound justifies the character looking up, and you feel like you are in the house with Annabel.

Gabriel Gutiérrez (GG): Dolby Atmos also brings the scene with Dr. Dreyfuss and Mama inside the cabin at night to a whole new level. Mama is moaning in the dark, and the sound starts from the top of the theatre and increases intensity as it approaches the front, getting closer to Dreyfuss. It is terrifying!

Lab Notes: What was it like to use a new audio platform? We’ve posted some of your diagrams of the work involved.

MO: The start-up of the mix was very interesting. We spent one day experimenting with the Dolby Atmos platform to design the best configuration for the best way to work. Once we figured that out, we began mixing all the music and background sound—and in the process, the film’s drama grew a lot.

GG: The first two days we did a lot of planning and drafts to help us all understand the system and decide what we wanted to do in the film. It was very funny because every time somebody wanted to explain something, they would draw weird, incomprehensible figures. Out of context, I don’t think they make sense! But these drawings helped us all to explain what our point was.

Lab Notes: How was using the new platform different from mixing in 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound?

GG: In my opinion, 7.1 surround gave us capacity for greater definition. It gave us the possibility of wider separation of [sound] elements, especially in action scenes. It also improved the depth for ambient, background, and atmospheric sounds. Most important of all, 7.1 gave us the option of panning a sound from front center to rear center. For 3D films, it made a lot of sense.

But so many times we need to place a sound element in the overhead area—from rain, to thunder, helicopters, airplanes, the neighbor walking upstairs, flickering lights…. In the 5.1 or 7.1 surround format, we would use a weird combination of [side and rear zones] and subwoofer to try to create this overhead effect.

The Dolby Atmos system let us treat sounds as objects and simply pan them overhead. Activation of sounds offscreen has always been one of the key aspects of sound for film. Dolby Atmos expands the offscreen possibilities and gives us more space to position elements for a better description of the environment and the action.[Editor’s note: Sound and Vision explains the difference between surround sound and object-oriented sound.]

See Guillermo del Toro’s Mama in Dolby Atmos at a theatre near you.

You’ve read what these experts had to say. Now it’s your turn: What sounds most memorable in your favorite horror or sci-fi flick?