Beyond 5.1

Sep 8, 2010 6:09 PM, By Blair Jackson



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Mike Hedges and his crew created the soundtrack for Universal’s King Kong attraction at Park Road Post in Wellington, New Zealand

Mike Hedges and his crew created the soundtrack for Universal’s King Kong attraction at Park Road Post in Wellington, New Zealand

New Zealand–based re-recording mixer Mike Hedges has plenty of experience crafting superb multichannel film mixes. He’s earned Oscars for his work on two of director Peter Jackson’s most complex films, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) and King Kong (2005). Each of those films clocked in at more than three hours and required many months of audio post work. Yet one of the most intriguing jobs Hedges has worked on recently is a film that lasts just 90 seconds—but required an entirely new approach to mixing. That’s because that minute-and-a-half is not for a conventional theatrical film, but is the audio component of the new 3-D King Kong portion of the famous “backlot” tram ride at Universal Studios Hollywood theme park. It’s a job that required Hedges to mix 22 discrete channels for twin 120x40-foot curved screens that sit on either side of a tram during the Kong episode, in which our gorilla hero saves the helpless tourists from a T-Rex attack!

This is part of a trend that’s been growing for some time: upping the audio ante—more channels, more speakers—to make sound appear more dimensional. Certainly, the new generation of 3-D films has fueled the urge to fill auditorium spaces with more realistic and enveloping sound. But it’s also affecting the sound design in other spaces—from videogames to thrill rides to museum exhibits. What if, instead of a film soundtrack being delivered in a theater in six channels through 12 to 20 speakers, it came at the audience through 32 discrete channels and more than 60 speakers? What if sound reproduction environments started dealing with the height dimension? All of these things are happening and at an ever-accelerating pace. Mixers have a wild new world awaiting them and cinema loudspeaker manufacturers must be salivating at the prospects for increased business.

Right away, we should acknowledge that where the mainstream movie theater is heading right now is probably toward Dolby Surround 7.1. With the greater penetration of 5.1 in homes, it’s important that commercial exhibitors stay ahead of the curve by providing an experience less accessible to consumers; though a form of 7.1 is also available to consumers through some Blu-ray discs, it is in its infancy as a home format. Dolby’s 7.1 was developed with Disney/Pixar and was debuted in select theaters this summer on a pair of 3-D releases—Toy Story 3 and the live-action dance film Step Up 3-D. The 7.1 format features eight discrete channels: front left, center and right, a sub (low-frequency effects), left surround, right surround, and left and right back surround (the last two marking the difference between 5.1 and 7.1). “It’s another color, another thing in the palette,” Toy Story 3 mixer Tom Myers told Mix shortly before the film opened. “You can localize things more and put them directly by your side and something else behind you. Still, in this film we’re trying to do it so it feels natural and draws the audience into the action. We’re not throwing [sounds] around just because we can do it and it’s cool. Though it is cool.”

Not surprisingly, Tomlinson Holman—sound reproduction innovator and developer of the THX system back in the early ’80s—is also promoting, through his TMH Corporation, a playback format that increases dimensionality: 10.2, which uses 12 speakers, including two “height” channels (actually, upper-front, 45 degrees above the audience); in front there are left wide, left height, left, center, right, right height, right wide; three surround channels (left, back and right); and two LFE/sub channels (hence, the “.2”). So far, 10.2, which was developed by Holman and USC’s Chris Kyriakakis, has been demo’d only and does not exist in any commercial facilities, but the early word-of-mouth has been encouraging, and certainly Holman’s track record speaks for itself.

And we would be remiss not to mention that IMAX, which has become the “premium” format of choice (i.e., people will gladly pay extra to view films on the giant screens), employs dozens of speakers throughout its theaters—especially behind the mammoth screens—though the audio is still a 6-channel surround mix.

But let’s go back to Park Road Post Production in Wellington, New Zealand, and see how the requirements of Universal’s King Kong attraction affected Hedges’ approach to the mix. On the visual side, this was completely new Kong footage created at Weta Digital (New Zealand) to Jackson’s exacting specifications, though the sound team did employ some of the original Kong and T-Rex roars from Jackson’s film, created by David Farmer, Brent Burge and others. “We had to rebuild the ambiences from scratch again,” Hedges offers. “You’ve only got 90 seconds, so you don’t have time to be massively inventive in terms of creating new groundbreaking audio, but it has to work. You have to engage the audience in a scenario and take them on a journey and get them out of there quickly.”

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