Dolby Atmos for Documentaries

Why on earth would you want to make a documentary in 3D audio, and what’s the point?

»Sound is the only truly 3D Element of your film.«
– Steve Audette, ACE, senior documentary editor PBS FRONTLINE

In his seminar at the Television Academy, Steve Audette explained the importance of sound design. Film is a flat screen and according to him it is only one way to engage the audience, the other being sound. But he was speaking from a stereo perspective. And stereo only gives you the impression of three-dimensional sound, but 3D audio is the recreation of it as we’re used to hearing it every day. So 3D audio is much closer to the real world and therefore much more engaging for the audience.

Ok and what is Dolby Atmos?

Dolby Atmos is a 3D audio format. There is a bit of a boom in 3D audio at the moment. Everyone has a different name for it. For example, Apple calls it Spacial Audio, Sony calls it 360 Reality Audio and Dolby basically calls it Atmos.

The benefits of Dolby Atmos for documentaries

As documentary filmmakers, we love to invite our audiences into a real story with real people. Often our aim is to immerse them in the world of our protagonists. Sound is essential to that. Personally, I would say that sound is even more than that. Sound is the space where the emotions of the heroes of our story reach the audience. And with an immersive format like Dolby Atmos, you can engage your audience much more than before. Sound can now immerse you like never before.
When I first listened to the 3D audio recording in a Dolby Atmos studio, I was blown away by how it transported me to the locations and world of the protagonists. I felt like I was there, and for certain stories that is a huge potential! Imagine how much more you can draw your audience into your story – even on a tiny screen like a phone!

The market

For several years now, major players such as Apple, Netflix, Sky and Disney have been using Dolby Atmos for their premium content. With Netflix, for example, you have to pay for the premium subscription to enjoy it. So there is an interest in delivering good stories in an immersive format.

But how do you do Dolby Atmos on a small documentary budget

Yes, with a Dolby Atmos production you will spend more on skilled people and certified post facilities. But you will have a better chance of getting a higher recoop. You can differentiate yourself in the marketplace and deliver a more immersive film to your audience.
For my 90-minute graduate documentary, we developed a workflow that was much more efficient and ultimately cost-effective than current approaches to Dolby Atmos documentary production. One big difference was that we we figured out a way to easily get a very good ambience recording of the locations where the story took place. Normally in post-production you have to artificially recreate the soundscapes of the film because only the dialogue or maybe a stereo or surround recording was made on set. It is time consuming and expensive. So we worked with Cinela and Zeigermann_Audio to develop a small windscreen that could hold an array of four high-end microphones in a triple-MS setup. With this on the boom, we were able to record an immersive soundscape for almost every scene. But we didn’t stop there. For special locations in the story, we recorded the ambience with the Schoeps ORTF-3D. This is an eight-microphone array. It is by far the best solution for this kind of documentary production, and it delivers excellent recordings in a format that is easy to handle in post. We modified it for quick and easy setup on location. All in all, the sound designers have the best material for easy and time-efficient post-production. This makes it much more doable to make a documentary in Dolby Atmos.

A bit of history and why you can now reach even more people in an immersive way

Dolby Laboratories, Inc. is a British-American company known for developing technologies for consumer electronics and cinema. They have developed formats for sound and image that are now more or less the industry standard in the film industry. The Dolby Surround audio format is one of these and can be found in most cinemas today. The advantages over stereo are that you can create a sound world for your film that is more immersive and allows more creative freedom than before. Sound could now surround you. When it first came out, it also became a format for your TV and DVD or BluRay players. But to enjoy it as a consumer, you had to invest in expensive speaker setups that weren’t very intuitive.
Dolby Atmos expands the creative freedom of your film soundtrack by adding hight to the surround setup. But this time, instead of using a fixed number of channels like Dolby Surround, such as 5.1 or 7.1, it uses an object-based approach. This means that you can now design completely freely in a 3D space. And the best thing is, you can enjoy it not only in a cinema with complex speaker arrays or expensive home systems, but you can even listen to it through headphones. And if you look around you on the bus or tram, most people are using headphones.