It’s no surprise that Gravity took home an Oscar for sound mixing. The thriller, which puts the viewer in the open void of space, used immersive audio to great nerve-jangling effect. Gravity‘s sound effects may have put you on edge, but chances are you didn’t experience the full impact of the film’s audio.
Only those who saw Gravity in one of 300 theaters designed with a new Dolby technology heard the movie exactly as its makers intended. Announced in 2012, Dolby Atmos is “object based” sound mixing. In traditional stereo sound, a number of speakers are placed around the walls of the theater, many of them playing the same audio track. Atmos theaters have speakers all over the walls and ceiling. And when the movie’s sound is mixed, engineers work with a 3D computer simulation of the theater space, placing individual bits of audio in specific locations. So in a horror movie, the sound of a ghoul sprinting down the upstairs hall can actually be heard from above, and a more insidious scratching in the walls can come from a single speaker in the far corner of the room.
Other movies have been released in Atmos, but Dolby seems to be counting on Gravity to do for Atmos what Avatar did for RealD 3D technology—showcase the technology with a lovingly crafted use of it, enticing other directors to get on board.
Why is the sound in Gravity Oscar-worthy? Because most of the movie takes place in the vacuum of space, where sound doesn’t travel. Instead of the minute noises that usually color a film’s soundtrack, Gravity features an original score tailored to contrast with the total silence of space, both breaking it up and amplifying it.
And to experience that score as director Alfonso Cuarón intended, Atmos is a must. “Honestly, if you listened to the original mix that Alfonson and [sound designer] Glenn Freemantle put together for this movie and then compared it to our Atmos remix,” said the sound editor for the film, Skip Lievsay, in an interview with the Huffington Post, “it’s like going mono to stereo.” He further compared the “jump in quality” to going from a VHS to a DVD, or from DVD format to Blu-ray.
Check out this behind-the-scenes look at Gravity’s sound mixing:
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Correction: A previous version of this post mistakenly referred to RealD as Dolby technology.