Sound in Motion

Nandagopal Rajan        Print Edition: March 31, 2013

Nandagopal Rajan
Nandagopal Rajan
The third dimension is slowly becoming an inevitable part of the movie-going experience. More and more movies are being made in 3D. Sound reproduction, however, had in many ways, failed to keep up with the new kind of images. But that is changing too.

Lately, a number of multiplexes in India have equipped their halls with Dolby Atmos, a cutting edge sound technology that adds a new dimension to movies. Sathyam in Chennai has two such movie halls; in Mumbai, Fame and PVR have one each. Sathyam will add one more soon. How is Dolby Atmos different?

It enables filmmakers to match the sound much more closely with the action on the screen. It gives sound designers a never-before level of creative control, while ensuring the audience gets the full impact of the audio effects. Significantly, sound is no longer limited to one plane or channels - each speaker is as capable as the front panel, which was the dominant sound source until now.

In simpler terms, with Atmos, directors can even have sound pinpointed at one speaker in the theatre. Imagine how much difference it will make when you can do that with any of the 64 speakers or 128 sound streams. Sound can now move from one speaker to another, creating effects never heard before in a theatre.

So, if a train is coming towards you on the screen, you can hear the sound move from the front row to the back. This is the first time too that speakers have been moved to the ceiling.

The thunder that follows the lightning will now come from the top and not the sides of the theatre. Like 3D, sound can now be used as a tool to enhance the quality of screen storytelling. The recent award winning Life of Pi was among the first movies in India to be screened with this technology. The first Indian movie to come out with Dolby Atmos sound is the new 3D version of the 2007 blockbuster Sivaji, starring Rajinikanth.

Senthil Kumar, Co-founder of Chennai-based Real Image Media Technologies, the company which remastered Sivaji, makes another interesting point. He says while Hollywood uses Dolby Atmos and other new techniques sparingly, Indian filmmakers are tempted to use them wherever possible. A movie like Life of Pi might, at the most, have half a dozen scenes which sweep the sound emerging through the vast array of speakers. A three-minute promo of the new Sivaji version would have more.

Though Dolby is aiming for 50 Atmos screens in India by the end of 2013, it will be some time before this becomes a standard feature in theatres.

Pankaj Kedia, Country Manager with Dolby Laboratories India, says the company is working with everyone concerned to ensure that Atmos sounds the way it is supposed to. "This new technology adapts itself to all kinds of cinemas, so producers will not have to create different masters for various theatre configurations," he says.

It will, however, be expensive for existing theatres to retrofit themselves with this new technology. New theatres will have no trouble in factoring this in while installing their speakers.

There could also be more than better sound coming to cinemas. Studios continue to experiment with 4D, which blends rain, wind and other physical sensations for the viewer into 3D movies. Since 1984, there have been over a dozen movies which have been exhibited in 4D. But this technology continues to be restricted by the prohibitive cost of installing custom built theatres.

Already, there are malls in India which give you a snack version of what this is like, but none of these experiments are large-scale. The way technology is progressing, though, it may not be very long before you see reel life compete with real life.

The writer is Associate Editor, Gadgets & Gizmos

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