Though 2013 was not a revolutionary year in the film world, two recent technologies began to make their mark: 4K video and Dolby Atmos audio.
The self-proclaimed standard of the future, the 4K format -- often known less intimidatingly as Ultra HD or UHD -- is headed to movie theatres and living rooms worldwide. Initially created by Sony, the technology "is equivalent to a resolution four times higher than what we currently know as high definition," explains Pierre-Franck Neveu, Director of Sales in France at Sony Digital Cinema. "We go from 1,920 by 1,080 pixels to 4,096 by 2,180 pixels."
In development since the early 2000s, 4K resolution technology began to make its way into movie theatres in 2013. Sony estimates that around 15,000 of its own 4K machines are present in theatres worldwide. What motivates theatres to upgrade to this new technology? "4K provides a better image quality, better detail, better depth of field. In short, it's a range of factors that result in the viewer being truly immersed in the image," concludes Neveu.
In terms of audio, 2013 was a breakthrough year for Atmos, the sound platform developed by Dolby. "It's a new way to mix a film and to replay it. A versatile process based on the notion of dynamic audio objects. The sound files include data that specifies the way the sound should be played back," notes Dominique Schmit, Dolby Sales Manager for Southern Europe.
And as with 4K resolution, immersion is the key word. These "intelligent" sounds are played through a configuration of speakers placed around the theatre. "We cover all the walls of the theatre as well as the ceiling. Each speaker then becomes a separate point from which sound can be played. You can make sounds rise above you or make them turn around you; any combination is possible," Schmit explains.
The animated feature Brave was the first film to use Atmos, and more recent examples include The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Gravity and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. In total, over 85 features mixed with Dolby Atmos have been released or announced for release in 2014. As for the number of cinemas capable of rendering Atmos sound, there were 300 as of last October.
Convincing content creators
Neveu and Schmit agree that the success of any technological innovation depends first and foremost on directors and other creative talents working in film.
"Essentially, it's a question of what the director wants. There are filmmakers who have discovered 4K and are thrilled with it, are aware that it brings better image quality to viewers. Like Christopher Nolan, just to name one. The 'Dark Knight' trilogy was filmed in 4K, for example. It's more of a question of the director's desire than of the studio's choice," according to Pierre-Franck Neveu.
"When we had the idea for the Atmos technology, the first thing we did was to meet with sound designers and sound engineers. Practically all of them responded by saying: 'Great, this is something that will give us a lot of latitude from a creative perspective,'" Dominique Schmit says. "Because that is what's most important. The goal is not to reserve Atmos only for the big blockbusters but on the contrary to bring it to all films, including the more subtle and sensitive ones. The goal is to give another dimension to the soundtrack," says Schmit.