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Immersive Sound: From Production to Playback

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LR-CAM00161The Sony Studios lot hosted a series of panels put together by MIX magazine and featuring top audio professionals from both the Cinema Audio Society and Motion Picture Sound Editors on Saturday. Members of the production and post communities were informed of the creative possibilities, new workflows and evolving technologies used to generate a more realistic and immersive total sound experience.

Advanced surround sound formats such as Dolby‘s Atmos and Auro Technologies‘ Auro-3D build on standard 5.1 and 7.1 mixes by using additional speakers in ceilings and all around the room to fully envelope audiences in more natural sound environments. These breakthroughs in the art and technology of film sound production and playback are exciting improvements that attract audiences back into theaters by enhancing the entertainment experience.

After a welcome by Randy Lake, Sony Studios EVP/GM of Sony Pictures Digital Production, iconic sound designer Randy Thom presented a keynote address that featured a history of film scenes that used sound to support the storytelling in groundbreaking ways.

Two panels discussed the creative opportunities of immersive sound. The first, moderated by David Bondelevitch, concentrated on effects editing and mixing. Panelists included sound designer Scott Gershin (Pacific Rim), supervising sound editor Mark Stoeckinger (Iron Man 3), re-recording mixer Greg Russell (Transformers: Age of Extinction), supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer Will Files (Brave), re-recording mixer Chris Jacobson (Oz the Great and Powerful) and re-recording mixer David Giammarco (The Amazing Spider-Man 2).

The second panel, moderated by sound designer and re-recording mixer Skip Lievsay (Gravity), explored how music editors and re-recording mixers discovered that immersive sound formats could bring better clarity in the music and dialog mix. Panelists included re-recording mixer Marti Humphrey (Oz the Great and Powerful), music scoring mixer Dennis Sands (Godzilla), re-recording mixer Andy Nelson (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), re-recording mixer Ron Bartlett (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) and production sound mixer Mark Ulano (Django Unchained).

Panelists discussed their experiences working with immersive sound to place individual sounds precisely in a theater without distracting from the ultimate goal of supporting story by their choices. Ceiling speakers have added to audio professionals toolkits, but also changed workflows, and track preparation and re-recording techniques.

“It’s about the storytelling,” Gershin commented. “You’re not supposed to hear it as much as experience it. Dialog becomes clearer. You don’t fight the effects. The more speakers you have to work with the clearer the sound becomes.”

Jacobsen added that immersive sound “puts you more in the scene with the characters.”

Russell noted that full range surrounds allow the mixer to fly sounds from front to back and changes the character of the sound. The bottom end is more substantial. Overall he believes that “the potential is fabulous,” but audio professionals need to experiment with how to use the tools and make sure not to pull the audience out of the story.

According to Giammarco, on The Amazing Spiderman 2, they had many meetings about what would work best and prepped the tracks according to their plan, but the implementation was fluid. Some things also changed in the mix. “You hear things in a different way,” he said, “But good taste still applies.”

Stoeckinger explained how the mixing techniques for immersive sound build upon the channel-based workflows such as 5.1 and 7.1, adding the ability to pull objects out and place them anywhere that you want within the speaker arrays. According to Files, this ability allows the filmmakers to play with the spatial relationships in a room and connects the surroundings to the screen, creating a “hyper-reality” through the layering of sound.

Nevertheless, it is another format and the delivery of multiple formats is already an issue for re-recording mixers. The new technology has been developed in a way to allow for the additional tracks of an immersive mix to be folded down into the lesser formats. The main concern for the mixers is having enough time to adjust the mix for the different delivery formats.

Lievsay made a point about dialog, “It’s all about the center channel. That’s where all the talking is. The drama that comes out of the actors’ mouths is the drama that people go to see.” In film, the center channel is pretty much reserved for dialog while the surrounds are reserved for effects. They can also be used to wrap the audience in music.

Bartlett noted that immersive sound can “fill-up the theater without pulling the focus from the dialog.” By further spreading the music in the surrounds, more room is created for the dialog and effects, allowing more depth and clarity. However, care has to be taken not to pull the music too far out or the effect can cause a disconnect.

Humphrey shared that one of the benefits of the separation in an immersive mix, is “not mixing as loud, yet still hearing everything.” He had 1,200 tracks on Oz the Great and Powerful.

Sands, who was originally skeptical about using the technology for music mixing, was fast to adapt the new way of working once he heard a demonstration of immersive sound. “I never heard a movie sound like that. I was blown away,” he revealed. Sand reconfigured his studio in Santa Barbara studio so that he could mix scores to take advantage of the additional speaker placements and deliver the music tracks to the final mix already configured for an immersive sound mix. It was trial and error to find out what really worked.

In a similar way to the experimentation with surrounds in post, Ulano explained how he likes collaborating with the post sound crew while he is in production. Because production mixers can now record multiple channels, he tries to capture practical sounds on set and build a surround library for use in post.

Nelson spoke about the need to get more theaters equipped to handle the immersive sound formats, saying, “My hope is that we can produce sound that turns people on.”

“Sound is the invisible art,” Files commented. Immersive sound allows filmmakers “to manipulate audiences in ways they don’t understand.”

In addition to the creative panels, two panels – The Technologies Behind Dolby Atmos, Auro-3D and DTS MDA, moderated by Larry Blake, and Technology and Workflow: Audio Production/Post-Production for Immersive Sound moderated by Frank Wells – discussed the development and revised workflows of the three leading systems. John Kellogg of DTS, Wilfried Van Baelen of Auro Technologies and David Gray of Dolby explained the philosophy behind their layouts and the integration of each system into the workflow of postproduction sound. Engineers Kevin Collier of Warner Brothers and Bill Banyai of Sony Post-Production Studios, who have retrofitted their mixing stages, gave their perspectives on the costs, schedule and physical labor needed to upgrade. Marc Lopez of Yamaha, Tom McCarthy of Sony, Fred Maher of DTS, David Gould of Dolby and Sven Mevissen of Auro Technologies focused on the challenges facing both mix stages and re-recording mixers in adapting their workflows to today’s immersive sound formats. In additional to the panels, vender demonstration sessions provided more in depth information on the various systems over the course of the day.

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