You know the phrase "seeing is believing"? On a recent trip to Dolby Laboratories we got to sample first hand exactly what that means in terms of theatrical installs, having sampled the reference Dolby Cinema on site at the company's headquarters.
To some this will already be a reality in their hometown, or nearby, as there are over 100 Dolby Cinema installs worldwide, with current commitment for over 325 worldwide in the coming years.
That's good news for some - there are over 75 Dolby Cinema theatre installs throughout the United States, China has over 20, while France is set to lead European numbers - but in the UK there are none. Zip. Nada.
That's a real shame because, as we'll cover in this overview feature, Dolby Cinema's combination of Dolby Vision projection and Dolby Atmos surround sound, is a potentially unrivalled proposition for cinema goers. Here's why the UK should be crying out for 'the OLED of theatre'.
What is Dolby Cinema: Picture quality
- Dolby Vision projection - dual HDR RGB laser system
- 1,000,000:1 contrast ratio
- Double the brightness of conventional cinema setup
Over recent years there's been a big behind-the-scenes shift in content production. From standard definition, to Full HD, to Ultra-HD 4K, the resolution stakes have been climbing. But beyond that - and perhaps more importantly - is that dynamic range capture has been widening and, through HDR (high dynamic range) presentation, the depth of black levels and peak white brightness for improved contrast, along with a broader colour palette, has increased considerably. It all makes for a more detailed and vibrant picture.
Which brings us to the first key point about Dolby Cinema: the dual laser system - which uses an array of HDR-capable RGB laser systems - can deliver an image with a contrast ratio greater than 1,000,000:1. That's to say, there are over one million "steps" of discernible levels between the blackest black and the whitest white. A typical cinema might offer a 2,500:1 contrast ratio.
Back in 2013 we spoke to Brian Bonnick, IMAX's chief technical officer, and he pointed out how "IMAX projection film is in and around the 4,000:1 range," continuing that IMAX with Laser is "double that, at around 8,000:1". Now, IMAX with Laser is already impressive - plus it has the unique selling point of an ultra-tall 1.43:1 format (movie/scene dependent). So imagine a system with some 12,500 times more contrast, which is what Dolby Cinema offers.
Which is all well and good, but movie goers won't necessarily care about numbers - it's all about the image and the immersion. Dolby has an excellent demonstration trailer to show-off its point of difference, by presenting with greyer blacks than its system is capable of, then "flicking the switch" at the end to show the true depths its image can go. And we're not talking something only highly trained yes will see - the difference is night and day, much like comparing backlit LCD to OLED.
The second key point about Dolby Cinema is that it's roughly twice as bright as a typical cinema system, with a peak brightness of around 31Lv (foot-lamberts). Interestingly, IMAX with Laser claims to be 50 per cent brighter than a typical cinema, meaning a Dolby Vision laser projection is 50 per cent brighter than that again. If our calculations are correct then this Dolby Cinema 1275 square foot screen would require projectors to deliver around 40,000 ANSI lumens, which is immensely bright for a screen presented in near darkness - and you can really feel that when sat in front of the image.
A third key point is Dolby 3D. Well, if it's your thing. As 3D glasses typically negate around a stop of light, the increased brightness of Dolby Vision projection helps make for a more distinctive picture through those lenses. Dolby also uses a different set of colour wavelengths for the left and right lenses of its glasses, with the laser system's use of six primary light sources being tuned to for the best perception of three-dimensional separation.
Overall, while Dolby Cinema isn't going to display the scale or ratio of IMAX - there is a 105ft-wide IMAX screen, for example - it certainly can be called the king of brightness and contrast. It has to be seen to be comprehended.
What is Dolby Cinema: 3D surround sound
- Dolby Atmos surround sound system includes overhead speakers for 3D sound experience
- Sound 'objects' can move individually through 3D space; up to 128 sound objects
There is one part of the Dolby Cinema package that a number of theatres already have installed: Dolby Atmos, the three-dimensional surround sound system. In isolation it doesn't make up the full Dolby Cinema proposition, but it's still the best sound solution available.
Dolby Atmos works by positioning speakers throughout a hemispherical-like arrangement - including directly overhead - for a fully immersive sound experience. Unlike with a 5.1 or 7.1 surround - which offer five or seven surround speaker points with a single bass point - Atmos has potentially unlimited range, to a maximum of 64 speaker fields (at present).
Sounds aren't channeled together into groups, but instead defined as individual objects which, as they fade speaker-to-speaker, give the impression of moving through space. So a jet flying overhead really does fly over you. Sound designers can manipulate up to 128 objects at once - not that they likely will in any one scene, but the creative potential is huge.
Part of an Atmos install involves intelligently positioning speakers. At the front is a video wall, behind the projection screen, to give a true frontal sound, without being able to see the speakers themselves. Such concealment is key for many of the other speakers as, psychologically, if you can't visually pinpoint a sound's source then it's more convincing and immersive.
At the Dolby Cinema reference theatre in San Francisco the company had also invested heavily in sound-proofing - which is a recommended part of the install. In this instance concrete walls and reflective internal insulation ensure the outside world can't be heard, so when those extra quiet scenes are playing out, you won't miss a single nuance.
What is Dolby Cinema: Looking to the future
So why is Dolby Cinema not currently in UK theatres? Well, with two huge IMAX cinemas already in London, plus other major screens elsewhere in the UK, we suspect it's down to the cost of installation.
Thing is, Dolby won't talk about cash, because the cost fluctuates so much depending on the installation at different venues. Existing theatres would need to shut screens for fitting, plus a portion of revenue at such venues returns to Dolby.
And fitting isn't just a case of lobbing a new projector system in: Dolby Cinema is the full experience, from seat positions and angles, to sound and projection, to interactive pre-screen video walls.
As consumers it's not the initial overheads that concern us though. Sure, ticket prices aren't going down, but it's a step-up system like Dolby Cinema that would make heading to the cinema that much more of a transformative experience. And that is what we should expect from our movie viewing: the very best.
Right now IMAX with Laser is great, but for an industry leader such as the UK to lack a premier Dolby Cinema seems almost criminal. Fingers crossed that will change soon for UK audiences.