The emergence of Immersive Sound formats in the past few years represents an enormous leap in motion picture playback, one not seen since the early 1990s and the advent of discrete surrounds and 5.1 digital sound. In many ways it’s an even bigger leap, demanding a whole new way of thinking about audio files and placement of individual sounds in a space. Dolby Atmos, Auro-3D and now the interoperable DTS MDA file format, offer the promise of tremendous creative opportunities to sound designers and mixers, at the same time placing new demands and challenges on facilities and workflow. While the competing companies may release monthly updates on the number of re-recording stages and exhibitor screens adopting their particular format, it is important to remember that this is a technology still in its infancy.
Sony Pictures Post Production was by no means the first facility to change over or build a studio for the new formats; in fact, they freely admit that they jumped late. Nor does the company have the greatest number of immersive stages. But when they renovated the famed William Holden Theatre on the Culver City lot beginning in late 2013, they opted for a rather unique hybrid approach, one incorporating both Dolby Atmos and Auro Technologies. The room, which was reworked over a three-month period, came online on January 2, 2014, in time for the mix of The Amazing Spiderman 2. It is pictured on this month’s cover.
“From a creative standpoint, there was such an excitement when these formats came out—any sound professional is looking for any way to make their work another step better,” says Tom McCarthy, executive vice president, post production facilities, Sony Pictures Studios. “So from a creative standpoint, it was easy to make this decision. From a corporate side, when you’re looking at making a decision like this, you have to look at the cost. You want to look at any technologies that come out and evaluate and consider them and trust that it’s a wise investment, that this investment has legs, that there will be a payback to it. Will there be growth within the technologies that will enhance other markets? When we looked at this, we knew we had Spiderman coming down the pipe. We had been talking to both Barco Auro and Dolby Atmos about their formats, and we felt we were ready to make that leap. Other studios had invested in it, and we wanted to as well.
“So we decided at that time to put Atmos and Auro in the same room,” he continues. “Some of our talent wants to mix native Atmos, others Auro. Some want to hit the most theaters in 5.1, attacking the object tracks later. The thought was, let’s put it all in one theater so we have the ability to mix 5.1, 7.1 and enhance to an Atmos or Auro format. Or the reverse. Either way, we’re staying in the same environment, the same room, and we don’t have to shift and we don’t have scheduling conflicts. From that standpoint, it made the most sense to put them both in the Holden.”
McCarthy has had quite a colorful career in sound. An industry legacy, with a father as a picture editor (and later EVP Worldwide Post-Production, Columbia Pictures) and uncles in cinematography and sound, he started in 1975, at age 21, in a sound effects library, followed by a brief stint in picture editing, then Foley walking, then Foley editing and dialog editing, falling for sound as a storytelling device. He left MGM to work on Heaven’s Gate, and went independent as a sound supervisor in 1981, opening The Sound Choice in Burbank.
Michael Kohut, then a mixer and in charge of motion picture sound at Sony, approached him a decade later about running motion picture sound editorial. McCarthy accepted, continuing to supervise while running the department. In 1993 he won an Oscar for Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula. A year after that he accepted a vice president job and gave up his creative day to day. It was hard to do, he says.
His companion on this month’s cover, Bill Baggelaar, senior vice president for Colorworks and Sony Post Production, joined the company in 2011 after years at Warner Bros. in both production and post-production technology. With a degree in computer science, he had been involved primarily on the picture side, logging years in animation systems, then feature post-production, followed by years of digital intermediate, among various other responsibilities. He came to Sony to help push 4k integration and advanced workflows, and now also manages the sound engineering department.
“My first experience with immersive sound began about five or six years ago, with demonstrations, both within the industry and our own company,” Baggelaar recalls. “It was certainly ear-opening. It was a revolution in sound that felt different, that you could sense had great potential.
“So when we started talking about putting immersive sound into the studios here, deciding eventually on the Holden, we talked about how we could satisfy all the needs we have, given the scope of the studio, our distribution, and looking at things more broadly,” he continues. “It was really a rethink about what we wanted to do in the environment, rather than just put up some speakers. We tried to make sure that we engineered it in such a way to give the mixers the best tools, ones that they could quickly learn and get into.
“At the same time, we also put in 4k projection, and we put in new screens, so you could have the fully immersive experience. We wanted to be able to provide any configuration that might be needed creatively, and we wanted to focus on the Dolby and Auro formats first and fold down to the 5.1 mix. Thinking about object-based audio from the get-go was a new way of doing it, and I think everyone rose to the challenge.”
While McCarthy and Baggelaar sit on the Mix cover, they are both adamant in pointing out that it was a facility-wide effort to update the Holden—from Brian Vessa in digital audio mastering, and his exhaustive research into the competing formats and decade-long work with the Digital Cinema Initiative and various SMPTE working groups, to Bill Banyai and the sound engineering team with their tireless work in the three-month installation, along with countless others. They worked with Harrison on the updates to the tools and software of the 320-channel MPC3D console, and with JBL on additions to the custom cinema monitoring system.
“There are different pannings and plug-ins between the formats, and we have some crossover in the speaker configurations, but the mixes can all be accomplished in the same room,” Baggelaar says. “The desire was to offer filmmakers and sound creatives the maximum amount of flexibility.”
“Today, with rapid advances in technology and the way we function, if we’re going to be successful and sustain our businesses, staying within budgets, we have to be flexible in the way we operate,” concludes McCarthy. “There have to be multiple types of workflows that individual filmmakers can embrace and be comfortable with. Today, these immersive sound formats are beyond belief. They’re that good. We can’t determine what will happen in the future, but based on the advancements of the last 20 years and how rapidly they are changing, I can’t imagine what we will have 20 years from now.”