How Dolby Atmos Is Opening Up Opportunities for Adland
The ‘eyes’ may have it when it comes to the sexy and hyped up tech of virtual and augmented reality, the past six months or so have seen some equally exciting developments in the realm of sound. Dolby has been rolling out Atmos, the technological follow up to ‘5.1’ surround sound, to cinemas, sound studios and, now, homes around the world. So what’s all the hype about? Atmos allows sound designers to make use of stack loads of speakers which cover an entire room, which as a result leads to a super immersive experience that can genuinely ‘place’ sounds at certain points around a room. LBB’s Addison Capper caught up with Anthony Moore, founding partner and creative director at London-based sound studio Factory, to find out the possibilities that Atmos lends to adland.
LBB> Sum up Dolby Atmos for us… What is it? How is it different from 5.1?
AM> As a sound designer and mixer, Dolby Atmos is a technology that I had been eagerly anticipating for some time. It’s the latest surround sound mixing technology from Dolby, designed to radically move sound design and mixing on from the previous standard of 5.1.
I remember when I originally started to work in 5.1, the freedom to give a mix space and impact was great, but I always felt that 5.1 didn't quite translate with the ideas I had in my head; it was good, but it didn't 'wow' me. I always found myself wanting more from it.
When I first heard Dolby Atmos, it blew my away. Immediately, I could hear this was a technology that would allow me to fully realise my ideas in a surround sound format. It gave me the platform to be amazingly creative, super immersive and totally accurate with panning and mixing. At this point I got ridiculously excited, like a kid at Christmas. I wanted Dolby Atmos! Get me Dolby Atmos! So, nearly three years on from those early demos, 2015 saw my team at Factory proudly open the UK’s first Dolby Atmos suite licensed for commercials and trailers.
LBB> The Dolby website says that Atmos “creates powerful, moving audio by introducing two important concepts to cinema sound: audio objects and overhead speakers”. Can you elaborate on those two concepts, just to explain it a bit more?
AM> The inherent problem with 5.1 mixing was that the speakers were in five fixed positions: left, centre, right and two rear surrounds. All good, but it didn't allow for complete accuracy when, for example, you wanted to pan a sound 360 degrees around the theatre. It could feel ‘blocky’, it wasn’t smooth, and it wasn't totally believable. The other drawback of 5.1 was a lack of bass in the rear speakers, which could often result in a lack of impact from effects placed at the back of the theatre.
So, where we previously had five main speaker positions in our 5.1 room, our Dolby Atmos suite is equipped with 35 speakers which not only completely surround us, they also include an array directly above us. Two subs at the back of the room ensure that if you put a massive explosion at the back of the theatre, it sounds like a massive explosion behind you and you really feel it. The object based technology of Dolby Atmos means that we can now take any sound effect and place it accurately within our room; hence the object can move seamlessly around us, past us and even over us. You can see why I got excited right?
LBB>I think the opportunities for film and cinema are quite obvious, but in your opinion, what implications could it have on the ad industry?
AM> With the right creative thinking behind it, Dolby Atmos could have huge potential across a variety of platforms. Dolby is already making Atmos available to the home user, which is a crucial element to the technology's success. But for me, areas that seem particularly exciting are music, experiential projects, virtual reality and theatre. Music mixed in Atmos can sound spectacular; it can give space, definition and dynamic movement. You can feel totally immersed within a track, as though you are in the room with the musicians.
Continuing along this theme of immersive experiences, Atmos could play a bigger part in virtual reality, theatre and experiential projects, such as AMV BBDO’s Smart Energy campaign that we were involved in. If we can take the technology out of the cinema and into other spaces where we immerse people into fantastic sound worlds, the experience becomes infinitely more believable and enjoyable.
LBB> Tell us about that project for Smart Energy… What did it involve? What were you thinking when the job came in?
AM> When we received the Smart Energy script, the line 'Gaz gets fired out of the screen and over our heads using the latest audio technology' leapt off the page! The creative team at AMV were aware of our Atmos suite and came over to talk through the job and hear Atmos in action. Instantly, they were blown away by the possibilities that it brought to the Smart Energy idea as a whole.
Sound design was always key to this script, especially when we brought the Gaz & Lecky characters off screen and into the cinema. The experiential sound in the theatre was integral to the success of the stunt; you needed to believe that these characters were real and moving around the cinema, as you wouldn't physically see them. Sound design became the core element for pulling this aspect of the stunt off; you needed to hear the chaos and personality of our characters. To fully achieve this, we had to supplement the standard Dolby Atmos setup of the cinema with a further 16 speakers. These were placed underneath seats and allowed us to run additional SFX of our characters moving within the theatre. The combination of sound design, 3D animation, theatrical actors, pyrotechnics and lighting made this use of Dolby Atmos in a cinema, a world first.
LBB> It’s interesting because the whole thing was tailored to Atmos - it wouldn’t have worked anywhere near as well without it. Do you think we will be seeing more things like that in the future? What other kinds of opportunities do you see for the future?
AM> I hope we see more uses of Atmos in this way. Personally, I think that this technology shouldn't be confined to the cinema because, as I mentioned earlier, it has massive potential for experiential projects, VR, theatre and music. The Ministry of Sound club in London has already installed an Atmos system in their main room and people are definitely beginning to see the potential and wider appeal.
In some ways, Atmos has now moved sound ahead of the visual image on screen. You can hear things around you and above you, but you can only see these things on the locked screen in front of you. Like Smart Energy, what if the visual stimulus wasn't confined to the screen... what if it surrounded you too? Food for thought…
LBB> How was it to work in that way? To use audio to really give that sense of being in the room…
AM> The Smart Energy project was unique in the fact that we were collaborating with a great team of people, each bringing an area of expertise to enable the live stunt to succeed. AMV led the project and the creative idea, Picasso created the 3D animation, Les Enfants Terribles added the theatrical elements, HeLo produced the event and we created the sound design. Each element relied on the others for the event to come together, live on the night. There was a lot of trust and sharing of ideas across the group, all with the intention of making every detail as good as it could be.
LBB> How does working with Atmos differ from 5.1?
AM> Working in Atmos is very intuitive for any sound designer or mixer who is already well versed in surround sound. It's as simple as selecting the objects (sounds) from your surround sound bed that you wish to pan in Atmos, then take each object and move it around the space using the Dolby Atmos panner.
The panner and the Atmos software allow you to see a visual representation of your sound within the room; hence you can see where you are positioning it, as well as hearing it. The great thing about Atmos right now is that it's new. This lends itself perfectly to experimentation as sound designers see how far they can creatively push the technology. It's these creative options and their exploration which means you are likely to spend more time on an Atmos mix than a 5.1 mix, as there are more possibilities to play with.
LBB> How have you enjoyed getting to grips with it?
AM> The opening of our Dolby Atmos suite coincided with a number of our clients all set and ready to go with projects that required us to work and deliver in Atmos. There's often no better way to learn than jumping in at the deep end, so that’s exactly what we did!
Our first Atmos undertaking was for Project Everyone with BBH London and Aardman. The job was creatively led by Richard Curtis and Sir John Hegarty, voiced by Liam Neeson and Michelle Rodriguez, with music from Peter Gabriel. To top it all off, the project would be the first cinema ad to be delivered globally as part of the UN's Global Goals Campaign - no pressure then!
AM> The Atmos technology allowed us to create a suitably immersive mix that placed the listener in the film's featured auditorium. By using the overhead array, and with clever use of reverbs, we were able to bring that room alive. Add to that the ability to place objects accurately within the 360-degree space, and we had a mix that involved the viewer in the film much more than a usual surround mix.
LBB> What other projects have you been involved in so far using Atmos?
Genre: Music & Sound Design