Dolby Atmos Tag

Mortal Engines

On paper, Mortal Engines seems like a can’t-miss film. It’s an adaptation of the well-received Young Adult novel of the same name by Philip Reeve, comes from a screenplay by the writing team behind the epic The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogies, including Peter Jackson, and included a trailer with striking visuals. But with mostly weak reviews, scoring a meager 26% on Rotten Tomatoes (audiences were slightly more kind with a 56% rating), and a paltry $16 million box office take in the US and Canada, this Engine was perhaps a little too Mortal.

 

But I’m not one to let a bad review dictate what I’ll watch, and my faith in Peter Jackson was enough to have me eager to give this a view at home. As is often the case recently, ME was released on digital download a full three weeks before the disc version, so I downloaded the film from the Kaleidescape store in 4K HDR.

 

There are, of course, three ways to approach a movie based on a popular book: Read it before, read it after, or don’t read it at all. With The Hunger Games trilogy, I devoured the books prior to watching the movies, and this built a lot of anticipation for the films, which didn’t disappoint, IMO. With Ready Player One, I was inspired to read the book after watching, and felt that while the two works were markedly different in many respects, they both worked for their medium. My wife started reading ME but the story didn’t grab her, so I went into the film knowing very little.

 

The 128-minute movie starts off with just a bit of exposition to explain how mankind arrived at its current state. Some untold number of years ago—enough for people in our time period to be referred to as “the ancients”—a 60-minute war involving a Quantum energy weapon known as MEDUSA effectively destroyed most of the world, bringing humanity to the edge of extinction. Out of the toxic remnants, a new age arose—the age of the great predator cities of the west. Of these cities, one of the largest is London, which roams around the Great Hunting Grounds of continental Europe practicing a philosophy known as “Municipal Darwinism,” where large cities on immense treads hunt down, ingest, and dismantle smaller cities for food, fuel, and any salvaged technology that can be repurposed.

 

Within the first 10 minutes you’re introduced to the main players which include Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), who is out to avenge her mother’s killer; Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan of recent The Umbrella Academy fame), a historian who gets (literally) kicked off the London and is forced to bond with Hester to survive; and Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving from The Matrix and the Hobbit and Rings trilogies), London’s power-hungry head science engineer who is searching for old-tech in order to secure a new power source for London’s future and oppose the anti-traction league, a group of static cities that sit protected behind a giant shield wall.

Mortal Engines

The film’s opening scene is action packed, as the enormous London chases, captures, and ingests a smaller city. The film has massive scope, scale, and world building, with convincing CGI that shows how something on the scale of London-on-tracks would function from a technical level, and makes it appear these giant tracked cities are actually driving around. I’m not sure to what extent the sets were of practical design versus created inside a computer with CGI, but the visuals are impressive, presenting these immense mobile locations that drive around carving out huge ruts in the land with their enormous tracks. Some of my favorite parts of the film were just admiring the inner-working and design of London.

 

The film was shot in Redcode RAW at 8K and the home release is taken from a 4K Digital Intermediate and looks terrific.The film is a feast for the eyes, and items have terrific texture and detail. Whether it is the fabric in actors’ clothing, the various states of disrepair on walls and items around the very Steampunk-inspired London, or the multiple bits of machinery, ME offers tons of detail in every frame. There are several closeups where you can see the individual strands of hair on an actor’s head.

 

The film spends almost equal parts in dark and light environments, and HDR is used to good effect throughout to produce images that pop with detail. London at night, various searchlights piercing the darkness, and various lights and gauges inside cockpits all retain deep, rich black with appropriately bright highlights. The fires inside London’s engine room also particularly benefit from the HDR color grading.

 

Sonically, ME is the stuff home theater owners live for. The bass is big and weighty, carrying the proper amount of heft for something the size of London driving around and smashing into things. There are also a lot of textural sounds—engines thrumming, gears turning, cables moving—giving life to scenes. Sound effects have tons of directionality, putting the full soundstage to use to create an immersive experience. Dialogue also remains clear and intelligible throughout, even in the big action pieces, something some recent films have been missing.

 

My only complaint with the audio is that the Kaleidescape digital download didn’t include the Dolby Atmos soundtrack, instead having a 5.1-channel DTS-HD mix. For a movie with such a dynamic and textured soundtrack, I’d love to hear how this sounded in a full Atmos mix. Of course, the blame here lies with NBC Universal, which for some reason refuses to provide Kaleidescape with the immersive audio mix for any of its films in 4K HDR. Here’s hoping that gets resolved at some point in the near future, at which point anyone who has already purchased the film would be able to re-download it with the new audio track at no charge.

 

While not perfect, and a bit light on plot, I found Mortal Engines engaging and entertaining, and it definitely looks and sounds fantastic on a proper system. 

John Sciacca

Mortal Engines

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Are Home Theaters Making Movie Theaters Better?

Are Home Theaters Pushing Movie Theaters to Improve?

For years, home theater technology has been chasing after the commercial cinema, trying to keep up with this supposed Holy Grail of the cinematic experience. And over the years, every development that has come to the home —large screen, surround sound, 3D, and Dolby Atmos to name a few—began its life in a commercial cinema.

 

But lately the tides seem to be turning. Due to a variety of factors including the drastic improvement of home technologies, systems becoming far more affordable, and the wealth of original content provided by streaming services like Netflix and Amazon, more and more people are opting out of the commercial cinema experience and deciding to stay home.

 

One way in which commercial cinemas are trying to lure people back is through an experience called Premium Large Format (PLF). With massive screens, improved projection systems, and superior audio design, these PLF auditoriums offer a cinematic experience akin to what you could experience should you get an invitation to the screening room at Dolby Laboratories or The Stag at Lucasfilm. In short, the ultimate manner in which to experience a film in the way that matches the artists’ intent.

 

The PLF with the greatest name recognition by far is IMAX, which has been around for years and has over 1,300 systems installed around the world. Cinemagoers equate IMAX with a massive screen and impressive 11-channel digital surround system (but there are many online complaints that the brand has been diluted since the introduction of Digital IMAX—often derogatorily called LIE-MAX—in 2008, which uses significantly smaller screens and far lower resolution prints).

Are Home Theaters Making Movie Theaters Better?

Two other names in the PLF space include Dolby Cinema and ScreenX. (Barco had a short-lived venture in this category with its innovative Barco Escape technology, but it was shuttered in February of 2018.)

 

This past week, Sony announced it will be throwing its hat into the PLF space with Sony Digital Cinema, with the first screen set to open in Las Vegas this spring. Like Dolby Cinemas, the Sony Digital Cinemas will feature dual-laser 4K projection systems for an incredibly bright and contrasty image, as well as an immersive audio system, and luxury reclining seats.

 

One unique aspect of the Sony endeavor is that the company controls the cinematic process from end to end, from manufacturing the digital cameras used in filming, through the audio and video post-production at Sony Pictures Studios, to creating the cinematic 4K projectors. (While Sony did have its own version of theatrical surround sound—Sony Dynamic Digital Sound [SDDS]—this has long been discontinued, and the Sony cinemas will reportedly use Dolby Atmos immersive audio.)

 

One area where commercial cinemas have struggled to keep up with the home experience is through delivering high dynamic range (HDR) video. Whereas even relatively inexpensive direct-view 4K displays can produce a pretty dynamic HDR image, most commercial projectors fail to produce the deep blacks and bright whites needed to rival a direct-view home display. Couple that with the fact that many commercial cinemas run their projector lamps until they are on their last hours, making for a far dimmer experience that likely wouldn’t come anywhere near the minimum SMPTE (Society Motion Picture and Television Engineers) standard of 16 foot-lamberts.

Are Home Theaters Making Movie Theaters Better?

By using customized, dual-laser projectors (like those shown at left) à la Dolby Cinema, the Sony Digital Cinema should be able to deliver fantastic image quality on a massive screen, with HDR rivaling virtually any display. The Dolby Cinema system can deliver a staggering 31 foot-lamberts on screenalmost twice the brightness of the SMPTE recommended standard—while producing 500 times the dynamic range of a typical cinema projector,

delivering the deepest black levels of any commercial projector, and producing an unbelievable 1,000,000:1 contrast ratio. All that on a screen 68 feet wide!

 

Possibly of greater interest is the announcement from Bob Raposo, head of Sony’s theater business, that while these cinemas will launch with Sony’s laser projection system, the company has been developing a massive LED screen that could replace projection.

 

“Sony is going to once again revolutionize how people see movies, with our 4K laser projector and with our new technologies led by Crystal LED,” Raposo said. “Our goal is to deliver the ultimate brightness with mind-blowing contrast, allowing movies to be shown the way the movie-maker intended, without compromise and in the highest quality possible. Sony Crystal LED will create that new type of immersive experience for the marketplace, as Sony 4K did in digital cinema’s first phase. This is no doubt the future of cinema and our big opportunity to help exhibitors significantly differentiate themselves from the competition.”

 

Other benefits of these luxury PLF cinemas will include premium food and beverage offerings, stadium seating, and oversized reclining seating that can be reserved ahead of time.

 

The question remains, is it all enough? Will a premium experience be enough to lure you back to the cineplex, or are you content enjoying a luxury experience in the privacy of your own home?

—John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Ralph Breaks the Internet

Ralph Breaks the Internet

Ralph Breaks the Internet, the followup to 2012’s Wreck-It Ralph, is one of those rare sequels that, if not better than the original, stands equal to it. Like many modern Disney (and Pixar) films, even though it’s animated, Breaks’s story and themes are designed to appeal across a wide range of ages, and offers plenty of laughs and emotion for everyone in the family.

 

Around six years have passed since the end of the first movie, and life remains mostly unchanged in the arcade for Ralph (John C. Reilly) and Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), who spend their days playing as characters in their video games, and their nights hanging out together, traveling to different games and throwing back root beer at Tapper’s.

 

When the steering wheel in Vanellope’s racing game, Sugar Rush, breaks, the machine is unplugged, leaving all of the characters “gameless” (i.e., homeless). Ralph and Vanellope turn to the Internet to find the part needed to repair the game, starting our heroes on their quest. But the film is really about friendship enduring as people grow and change. And the insecurity that one person feels when they are totally happy with the status quo and want nothing to change, and the other wonders what more the world has to offer and feels like they need to move on. Ultimately, your friends don’t need to be exactly like you to be your friends, and we need to let the ones we love be free to pursue their dreams, even if that means potentially losing them. Heady themes for a “kid’s” movie.

 

Ralph checked all the boxes for me; video games, nostalgia, technology, Disney, and Easter eggs aplenty, rivaling Ready Player One for things hidden in the background. (Google the license plate in the shark’s mouth for one great one!)

 

The film does a great job of visualizing how technology works—from the concept of packetizing data and sending it through a router and off to the Internet, how searches, viral videos, and pop-ups work—what causes the Internet to drop, and imagining what the Internet might look like if it were a physical place that data actually visited.

Ralph Breaks the Internet

Without a doubt, the scenes at OhMyDisney.com were my favorite parts of Breaks, and quite possibly some of my favorite scenes from any movie in recent years. This area of the ‘net brings together virtually every Disney property—classic Disney, princesses, Pixar, Star Wars, Marvel, hidden Mickeys —into a lengthy segment featuring some fantastic Easter eggs throughout that had me smiling until my cheeks hurt. Instead of just being a cheap franchise tie-in, this scene brings multiple franchises together in a fantastically organic and entertaining manner. And kudos to Disney for getting all of the original actors back to reprise their voice roles here. Great stuff!

 

Similar to how the first film used different animation styles to differentiate between the worlds of Fix-It Felix (Ralph’s game), Sugar Rush (Vanellope’s game), and Hero’s Duty (Calhoun’s game), Breaks has different visual looks and styles

depending on where we are in Ralph’s world: the arcade, inside different games, the Internet, or the Dark Web.

 

One of the marquee locales is Slaughter Race, a gritty, smoggy, bathed-in eternal dusty-golden-light, crime-ridden world a la Grand Theft Audio. Here we meet ultra-racer/gang leader, Shank (Gal Gadot), who ends 

Ralph Breaks the Internet

up becoming an unlikely mentor and pivotal in Vanellope’s journey as well as contributing to a big-time song-and-dance number that’s an homage to classic Hollywood pieces of old.

 

Animation generally looks fantastic in 4K HDR, and Breaks definitely doesn’t disappoint. Colors are incredibly bright and punchy, almost neon when called for, especially in the Internet. Blacks are also deep, with a lot of detail.

 

Breaks sounds as good as it looks, with an aggressive Dolby Atmos soundtrack that’s used effectively throughout, both to create environment and to add impact to the onscreen action. The overhead, ceiling speakers are smartly used to create a wonderfully immersive experience, such as the echoing, swirling sounds when Ralph and Vanellope travel into the Internet or the multiple announcements that occur throughout. The carjacking scene in Slaughter Race also sounds great, with a lot of dimensionality and solid bass accompanying the crashes.

 

While mostly family friendly, there were a couple of scenes in the film’s final act —notably Ralphzilla and Double-Dan (you’ll know him when you see him) —that were a little too intense and frightening for my almost-3-yo.

 

Definitely continue watching through the end credits for one last great Ralph meme—probably the most perfect end credits scene a movie about breaking the Internet could possibly have.

 

The 4K HDR digital download is available from the Kaleidescape store now, a full two weeks before the physical disc is released, and contains numerous making-of docs, a handful of deleted scenes, and two music videos.

 

John Sciacca

Ralph Breaks the Interner

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan

Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan

I’ll admit, I’m a bit late to the party with this review of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, the Amazon Prime original show that debuted to much acclaim last August. As I watched friend after friend declare its greatness through social media last summer, I was intrigued. But I was also skeptical. As a big fan of The Office, I was having trouble buying into the idea of John Krasinski (aka Jim Halpert) as Jack Ryan. I wasn’t sure I could get past that, but I did recently decide to give the show a shot.

 

Although I’ve never read one of Tom Clancy’s novels, there’s a fondness in my heart for Jack Ryan, at least as he’s portrayed by Alec Baldwin in 1990’s The Hunt for Red October. That’s one of those films, like The Matrix or A Few Good Men, that I must sit down and watch anytime I come across it on TV. Later portrayals of Jack Ryan by Harrison Ford and Ben Affleck have a bit more of an action-hero vibe to them, but Red October is just a good old-fashioned spy thriller at heart, and Baldwin does a great job portraying Ryan as the fish-out-of-water CIA analyst who finds himself in the middle of a Cold War submarine standoff.

 

Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan reboots the character in today’s climate of terrorist threats, and young Ryan is a Washington DC-based analyst whose job is to sit at a desk and follow the money. He discovers that a whole lotta money seems to be leading to a mysterious figure named Suleiman, and he’s quickly pulled into the effort to catch this target. The problem is, Ryan is an idealist who sees a black-and-white world where there’s a right and wrong way to catch the bad guys, but as he’s pulled deeper into the pursuit of Suleiman, his worldview is challenged by counterterrorism and its messy grey areas.

 

My skepticism of Krasinski proved unfounded. He’s wonderful in the role, absolutely believable as a former marine who can handle himself just fine when it comes to hand-to-hand combat but is still very much a fish out of water in those grey places. The rest of the cast is also fantastic—particularly Ali Suliman, who lends heart and complexity to a Suleiman character who could easily have devolved into a one-dimensional caricature.

 

Amazon presents the show in 4K HDR, with a Dolby Atmos soundtrack. Not surprisingly, the look of the show is natural and realistic, so the HDR is quite subdued, but the overall picture quality is good. I streamed the series through an Apple TV and saw excellent detail in facial closeups and the many colorful landscapes, from DC to Paris to Syria to Vegas. I find Amazon to be somewhat more aggressive in its compression than Netflix, so I did see some banding and compression artifacts in the opening credits and solid-colored backgrounds.

 

The Atmos soundtrack is dialogue-driven, with the surround stage used primarily for music and ambient sounds. A lively firefight in Episode One does flesh out the soundfield and provide good demo material.

 

Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan is a tense, smart thriller that grabs a firm hold in Episode One and doesn’t ease its grip until the conclusion in Episode Eight. It’s best to set aside a chunk of time for this one—even if you don’t plan to binge-watch it, you probably won’t be able to help yourself.

—Adrienne Maxwell

Adrienne Maxwell has been writing about the home theater industry for longer than she’s
willing to admit. She is currently the 
AV editor at Wirecutter (but her opinions here do not
represent those of Wirecutter or its parent company, The New York Times). Adrienne lives in
Colorado, where she spends far too much time looking at the Rockies and not nearly enough
time being in them.

Online Movies Audio Face-off, Pt. 2

Online Movies Audio Face-off, Pt. 2

In Part 1, I wondered if you could hear any differences in Dolby Atmos surround sound on the various movie streaming services and movies downloaded from Kaleidescape, and decided to do a comparison between Vudu, Apple TV, and Kaleidescape to find out.

 

After an afternoon of listening tests, here are my results.

 

I have a pretty high-end audio system, consisting of the new Marantz AV8805 flagship preamp/processor, two Marantz seven-channel amplifiers, and a 7.2.6-channel speaker configuration that includes Definitive Technology Mythos ST-L tower

speakers, a Definitive Trinity Signature Reference sub, and an SVS SB-16Ultra sub. I watched all of the movies at the same volume setting: -15 dB.

 

For source material, I used my Kaleidescape Strato to handle the Dolby TrueHD audio on movies downloaded from the movie store, a Microsoft Xbox One S to stream content from Vudu, and an Apple TV 4K to play movies from the Apple Store.

 

I mined my movie collection to find multiple titles I owned across all three services that featured Dolby Atmos soundtracks. This allowed me to cue up the scenes on all three devices and fairly quickly listen to each scene in the different formats.

I watched a number of scenes from six films I’m familiar with: Ready Player One, Baby Driver, Blade Runner 2049, Gravity, Venom, and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. After A-B-C’ing each scene multiple times, I can definitively say two things: 1) the TrueHD audio mix always sounded better, and 2) audio from the Apple TV 4K sounded substantially quieter and more compressed.

 

By far the most readily noticeable audio differences were in the low frequency range. Consistently, film after film, scenes with low-frequency activity were far more dynamic and impressive in TrueHD. The low end had more physical impact, producing frequencies I could feel, as well as pressure waves that rattled doors and windows.

 

The opening “Bell Bottoms” scene from Baby Driver is a perfect example, where the bass notes in the song were thin and indistinct with the Dolby Digital Plus (DD+) on Apple TV and Vudu, and the shotgun blasts had little weight. With TrueHD, the bass was articulated, and the shotgun plumbed far lower and louder.

 

The bass-heavy Blade Runner 2049 also offered multiple scenes that showcased the superiority of the TrueHD soundtrack. The pistol Deckard uses in his fight with K in old Vegas had far more impact, as did the rushing water, thunder, and air vehicles flying at the pump station. The fantastic Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer soundtrack also sounded richer, producing notes that were more musical and real, with better tone and decay.

 

Textural sounds also had far more dimension and realism with TrueHD. The first challenge race from Ready Player One was a perfect example, featuring a lot of different vehicles with unique-sounding engines. The multi-layered sounds of the engines, crashes, crunches, and explosions had more detail and separation, being less distinct in the DD+ version. The motorcycle chase in Venom exhibited this same sonic loss in DD+, as with the sounds of the drones flying, or the details of bullets striking. It was similar with the crunching and thrashing from the hippo attack in Jumanji.

 

As mentioned above, the audio levels on Apple TV were significantly lower across every film—often 10 dB or more. This was obvious on everything, but especially noticeable on Gravity, where the opening dialogue chatter between Stone and Houston was virtually inaudible, making it completely unintelligible when played at the same levels as the Vudu and Kaleidescape versions.

 

Even with volume levels raised to compensate, the Apple versions of the films just seemed far more compressed, lacking dynamic range. This was similar to what I experienced on the Taylor Swift Reputation Stadium Tour streamed from Netflix, making me wonder if there is some issue with the way the Apple TV 4K handles Atmos audio. 

 

Now, while the TrueHD mix was definitely better, that doesn’t mean the streamed mix was bad. Just not as good. This was especially noticeable when played back to back, where the TrueHD audio had a wider, airier, more natural presentation. Outdoor scenes like in the jungles of Jumanji just felt more open and like you were in the actual environment, while the DD+ audio felt more centered on the screen.

 

For luxury cinema owners who’ve invested in getting the best experience possible, there are definite, noticeable audio improvements to be had by purchasing content in the lossless format.

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Online Movies Audio Face-off, Pt. 1

Online Movies Audio Face-off, Pt. 1

For years, audiophiles have bemoaned the lackluster quality of MP3 audio files, saying they compress the life out of the music. Yet people still buy, stream, and enjoy MP3 (or similarly compressed) music files by the billions, so are they really that bad?

 

The music analogy of lossy, compressed MP3 files versus lossless, high-resolution .WAV (or similar) files is a great starting point for discussing the audio quality of streaming movie services. Without getting too deep into the weeds, streaming sites like Vudu, Netflix, and Apple deliver an audio bitstream using Dolby Digital Plus (DD+) while Blu-ray and UltraHD discs and titles downloaded from the Kaleidescape movie store use Dolby TrueHD. (We could also have a discussion of DTS versus DTS-HD Master or DTS:X, but since no streaming services yet provide or supports these, we’ll table that for later.)

 

A lossy codec like DD+ compresses the original full-resolution file, discarding information the encoder deems the listener won’t miss or wouldn’t have heard to begin with. This significantly reduces the original file size, making it easier to stream. But a lossless format like TrueHD retains all of the original information, resulting in a much larger file, which creates a problem for streaming services but isn’t a factor for a disc or for content downloaded from Kaleidescape.

According to Dolby, “Digital Plus provides up to twice the efficiency of Dolby Digital while adding new features like 7.1-ch audio, support for descriptive video services, and support for Dolby Atmos. Dolby Digital Plus is widely used by streaming and broadcast services to deliver surround sound audio at lower bitrates. 5.1-ch audio in Dolby Digital Plus is typically encoded at bitrates between 192–256 kbps.” (My emphasis.)

 

Dolby also says, “TrueHD is a lossless audio codec used widely on HD and UHD Blu-ray Discs. Dolby TrueHD supports up to 24-bit audio and sampling rates from 44.1 kHz to 192 kHz. Dolby TrueHD supports up to 7.1 audio channels as well as Dolby Atmos immersive audio. As Dolby TrueHD is a lossless audio codec, the data rate is variable. For example, Dolby TrueHD bitrates average around 6,000 kbps for Dolby Atmos at 48 kHz with peak data rates up to a maximum of 18,000 kbps for high sampling rate content.” (Again, emphasis is mine.)

 

So, what does this mean?

Online Movies Audio Face-off, Pt. 1

Well, if you take the highest DD+ encode rate—256 kbps—and compare it to the average for Dolby TrueHD—6,000 kbps—you’ll see that the TrueHD audio stream has more than 23 times more data allocated to it.

 

Fine. But can you actually hear and appreciate the difference? In Part 2, I’ll give you the results of my comparison of the same movies streamed on Vudu and Apple TV and downloaded from Kaleidescape.

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Ep. 3: Dolby Atmos–Yay or Nay?

Episode 3 begins with hosts Michael Gaughn & Dennis Burger and Cineluxe contributor John Sciacca talking about CES highlights before launching into a debate on the pros & cons of Dolby Atmos surround sound. At 10:46, legendary writer/editor Brent Butterworth joins the discussion to stake out his own position on Atmos and to describe some favorite demo scenes. At 27:01, Brent talks about his experiences with luxury home entertainment. And at 33:23 the episode ends with a quick round of thoughts on recent movies that might stand the test of time.

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Hunter Killer

Hunter Killer

Don’t feel bad if you have never heard of Hunter Killer. It went in and out of theaters nearly as quickly as the first explosions occur in the film. HK belongs to that increasing group of films that have a huge divide between critics and moviegoers, with the film generally panned by critics with a 37% approval rating and average score of 4.7/10, but with CinemaScore audiences giving it a far more generous average grade of A-.

 

I originally stumbled across HK while scrolling through the trailers of upcoming films on my Apple TV, and I was sold. I’m a nut for submarine movies—Das Boot, Hunt for Red October, U-571, Crimson Tide . . . I’ve seen ‘em all. It’s been far too long since we’ve had a good sub film, and none showcasing the latest technologies of the newest real-world boats, and the trailer for HK was action packed. So, when HK arrived on the Kaleidescape Movie Store in 4K HDR with a Dolby Atmos soundtrack a full two weeks before being available on disc, it was a no-brainer for me.

 

There are essentially two types of submarines in the modern Navy, often referred to as Boomers and Hunter Killers. Boomers—technically Ohio-class ballistic- and guided-missile submarines—lurk around the world’s oceans as silently as possible, lying in wait and ready to unleash a maelstrom of ballistic missiles on an unsuspecting enemy should the launch order come. (That was the USS Alabama in Crimson Tide.) Hunter Killers—Virginia-class fast-attack submarines, of which there are currently 16 in active service—spend their time looking for and then tracking enemy subs and other ships, constantly prepared to destroy them before they can launch their payload should war break out.

Hunter Killer

Hunter Killer follows the USS Arkansas, a Virginia-class attack submarine, and its crew captained by the very non-traditional and unorthodox (“He didn’t go to Annapolis”) newly appointed captain, Joe Glass (Gerard Butler), as they sail off to investigate the disappearance of a US submarine feared lost in the Arctic. Concurrently, a four-man team of Navy SEALs infiltrates a Russian naval base and discovers a coup underway. After witnessing the Russian President taken prisoner and seeing the defense minister’s moves to goad the US into war, the SEALs are tasked with the mission of “rescuing” the Russian President and whisking him away to safety. These two plotlines ultimately converge in the film’s climax. In between is lots of gunfire, rocket launches, and sub-on-sub torpedo action.

 

The picture quality is pretty terrific, with loads of detail, especially in the brightly lit outdoor scenes. HDR is used to good effect in the dimly lit submarine, with its myriad of screens and displays. My one nit is that the 4K transfer is so good that some of the underwater sub-chase scenes ended up looking fake.

Hunter Killer

The interior sets of the USS Arkansas, however, look amazingly real and authentic. Apparently, the US Navy was involved with the film’s production and design team in developing the look of the sub, and it really shows. Every scene inside the sub looks and feels real, which goes a long way towards giving a sub movie credibility. Butler also spent several days aboard an actual Virginia-class sub while underway to get a feel for daily submarine life and operations.

Sonically, the Atmos mix does exactly what it should, and sounds mostly fantastic in a home theater. From the opening scenes, you are plunged underwater with sounds of the ocean rolling and bubbling overhead. The Arkansas is also filled with tons of little ambient sounds that place you right in the midst of the boat. There is plenty of low-frequency info to give your subwoofer a workout, specifically the deep, steady thrum of the sub’s turbine. Dialogue is mostly intelligible, but there were several scenes where it was buried in the midst of background sounds, making it difficult to understand.

 

Is HK a good movie? Meh. Let’s just say I doubt “cerebral” would be anyone’s adjective of choice to describe it. It also has its share of head-scratching moments, as well as scenes that stretch your suspension of disbelief (submarines don’t follow other boats just feet off the stern, or race around the ocean floor, zig-zagging through impossibly narrow channels with the agility of a Ferrari navigating Nurburgring). And Butler seems hellbent on being angry, defying all established protocol, and arguing with his XO in nearly every scene.

 

A far better question is, “Is HK an entertaining movie?” and if you’re a fan of the action or military genre, the answer is a definite yes. A good metric might be whether or not you enjoyed Gerard Butler in Olympus Has Fallen or its sequel, London Has Fallen, as Hunter Killer is similar in pacing and style but (obviously) set on a sub. The movie’s two-plus-hour run time zips by, and there is constantly something happening to keep you engaged and entertained. If you’re looking for a movie where you can sit back and just enjoy the action unfolding onscreen and the dynamic Atmos audio mix, HK is the perfect Friday-night popcorn flick.

John Sciacca

Hunter Killer

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Demo Scenes: Deepwater Horizon

This is the third in our series featuring great demo scenes for putting a showroom system through its paces, making sure your new entertainment space makes the grade, or showing friends what your system can do. Deepwater Horizon joins Baby Driver and Ready Player One as a go-to title for showcasing a luxury Atmos system (see “Why You Have to Have Dolby Atmos”). It’s available on Ultra HD Blu-ray, for download from the Kaleidescape Movie Storeand from streaming services like iTunes.

—ed.

 

Deepwater Horizon is part of a trilogy of films (including Lone Survivor and Patriots Day) that pair director Peter Berg and actor Mark Wahlberg recreating actual events for the big screen. (The duo also combined on a fourth film, Mile 22, that is decidedly not based on actual events.) The movie focuses on the events leading up to the uncontrollable blowout of the BP deep-sea oil exploration platform in 2010, which created the largest manmade disaster in US history.

 

The film is packed with action, and features vibrant colors that leap off the screen in 4K HDR. But the real standout star is the reference-grade Dolby Atmos soundtrack. This audio mix delivers from every square inch of your listening space, including wall-flexing bass and a massive amount of overhead information that will make viewers reach for their hardhats to avoid the falling debris. As the pull quote on the 4K Blu-ray box art says, Deepwater Horizon is “Shock-and-awe spectacle!”

 

Here are three scenes that tell a great story while showing off the film’s audio highlights.

Demos to Die For: "Deepwater Horizon"
Scene 1: “That was a bird strike!”
(12:30-15:00)

 

This scene leads you into the film easily—you don’t want to just jump straight to fire and explosions and mayhem, and this follows the crew as they head out to the DH. It begins in a lobby at the airfield, filling your listening space with background office noises, but as soon as they step out to walk toward the helicopter, the room sonically transforms into a helipad. Note the shift of helicopter blades from overhead to the upper left corner of the room as the onscreen PoV changes. While the crew is flying, the dialogue has a very “headphone” quality to it, but the room is filled with the steady whine of the engines and whump-whump of the blades. At about 14:50, the helicopter hits a bird that slams into the room high up on the wall, left of center, and then wings back through the room. It’s sudden and jarring, and a great use of audio to capture the intense moment. And I bet you’ll get more than one person to jump if you play it near reference volume.

Demos to Die For: "Deepwater Horizon"
Scene 2: “Biggest damn kick I ever seen!”
(51:00–58:10)

 

This scene just builds and builds in intensity and destruction, setting the stage for the final scene. The crew starts pulling back the drill and pumping out the mud when everything goes sideways. There’s deep rumbling as the mud starts flowing back up the drill line and explodes in a geyser that sprays mud, rock, and water all over the room. The water rushes and splashes around, a steady geyser jetting up the front wall and splashing down overhead.

 

In between the mayhem, notice the vibrant reds of the worker’s uniforms, especially contrasted with the mud-covered employees out on the deck. At 53:50, you pan outside and up the rig and travel to the ocean’s floor, the rumblings and waves swirling and rocking around the room. Bass explosions are powerful and deep, and a well-calibrated system should have you feeling the effects in your seat. At 56:30, glass starts shattering all around the control room, letting you clearly pinpoint each window’s location. After the mud-covered seagulls fly around in the confined space, the film cuts back into the pumping room, and you can hear sounds surrounding every inch of the 360-degree space around your listening position.

Demos to Die For: "Deepwater Horizon"
Scene 3: “We’ve got to get to the boats!”
(1:18:42–1:27:40)

 

This scene runs a bit long, but it has plenty of excitement to hold your attention. With the DH engulfed in flames, the crew is looking for last-ditch ways to save the rig while racing to abandon. As they rush around the rig, fireballs and jets of flames burst into the room, and explosions send shrapnel ripping into the space, fully immersing you in the conflagration. When power is lost, note how clean and noise-free the blacks are, with no banding or other distracting artifacts. The fire looks especially intense in HDR, delivering ultra-realistic shades of orange-red. Note all the subtle sounds of straining and groaning metal as the rig breaks apart. When Wahlberg enters the water at the scene’s finale, you get some great “submerged audio,” as water bubbles up and laps up and over the ceiling, and falling debris pelts the water around him.

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

My Love/Hate Relationship with Dolby Atmos

My Love/Hate Relationship with Dolby Atmos

I have a friend who turns his nose up at surround sound. Press him on the matter and he’ll demur and hedge his argument, but it’s pretty clear he thinks stereo is where it’s at for movies and music alike.

 

And I think he’s absolutely bonkers.

 

I mention that not to pick on my friend but rather to empathize, because I imagine the face I make at him is the same face our own John Sciacca makes at me when I admit that I just don’t like Dolby Atmos—at least not for movies.

That may seem strange given that I’m on record as lauding the format—with its overhead speakers and innovative use of audio objects instead of channels—when applied to video games. You haven’t really played Overwatch until you’ve heard Pharah scream, “Justice rains from above!” from above your actual head.

The weird thing is, I love Atmos with gaming and generally hate it with movies for pretty much exactly the same reasons. And to understand why, you’re going to have to do a little homework.

 

Take a lawn chair out onto your front yard and sit in it with your back to the street. Your neighbors may give you strange looks, but this is for science. Just run with it.

 

Now pull out a book and start to read. At some point, a car might drive by behind you. If the book is decent enough, chances are you won’t even notice, unless you live on a street so remote that passing traffic is an oddity.

 

Keep on reading until a plane or helicopter passes overhead. Your concentration immediately broke, didn’t it? OK, maybe not if you live near an airport or airbase, and planes flying overhead are a regular occurrence. But for most of you, I’m sure, if something flies over your head, you’re gonna drop your book and look upward.

For me, Atmos is a lot like that. It triggers something in my primate brain. A fight-or-flight mechanism, if you will. I’m reminded of vervet monkeys, who have different words in their rather complex vocabulary for “python” and “eagle.” If a monkey shouts “python,” nearby members of its tribe scan their surroundings. If the cry is “eagle,” on the other hand, the other monkeys drop what they’re doing and run for the nearest hidey hole.

And Atmos generally does that to me. There’s just no denying that sound coming from overhead is hardwired into our brains as something we must focus on. And in a video game, that can be critically important. These virtual worlds often contain threats coming from every direction. Hearing that a baddy is attacking you from overhead can be the difference between virtual life and death.

 

But unlike video games, movies aren’t sandboxes. Our focus is on a rectangle of space right in front of us. Someone else gets to decide where our eyes turn. It’s an inherently horizontal experience. Surround sound coming from the sides and behind doesn’t violate that experience. Sounds coming from overhead do. As with our daily lives, anything that happens outside of that horizontal plane is somehow distinct, different, disconnected.

 

And that can actually be kinda cool with movies like Ready Player One or others that live or die purely on audiovisual spectacle. Heck, it’s even great with movies like The Last Jedi, where the overhead sound effects generally work to add ambiance and a sense of space, not vertical sensationalism.

 

But such mixes are few and far between. For the most part, Atmos serves only to distract from the narrative experience for me. And just to be clear, I’m not saying John or anyone else is wrong for liking that effect. I’m merely rebelling here against the increasingly pervasive notion that if you don’t have an Atmos-capable sound system by now, you’re somehow doing home cinema wrong. Try to seek out an Atmos demo before you decide if this “immersive” audio technology is right for you. And if it’s not—if tried-and-true surround sound does the trick—don’t feel like you’re selling your movie-watching experience short. I mean, as long as you’re not just watching movies in stereo . . .

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.