(First published on Blogcritics.org)
Eighty-nine years ago, Al Jolson said to the audience watching his film The Jazz Singer, the first film with synchronized dialog, “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet”. After viewing the demo of High Dynamic Range (HDR) video and Dolby ATMOS sound at the Future of Cinema Conference during the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) Show in Las Vegas, I can confidently say, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”
Presented by the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), the Future of Cinema Conference kicked off with a demonstration of the newest technology in movie sound and visuals. The demonstration included clips from several current and recent films and a complete screening of Batman v Superman. More about that film later.
The demonstration was held at theater number one in the AMC Theater at Las Vegas Town Square. Not quite completed yet, this theater is one of 21 that AMC will build worldwide that will be optimized for HDR and Dolby ATMOS.
What is this new technology and why will you enjoy experiencing it?
Our eyes have the ability to see a tremendous range of light and shadow. I can glance up from my laptop and simultaneously see my computer screen and a cat sitting at the top of a darkened staircase. Traditional movie film has never been able to accomplish this, though filmmakers have been able to simulate it with various filters and special effects. With advances in digital photography, filmmakers can now capture extremes of light and dark – High Dynamic Range — as never before. Audiences can, for instance, see the sun shining in the sky and the details of a creature hiding in the shadows below.
Dolby ATMOS is a new sound system which, according to Dolby, makes the sound seem to move around you and greatly enhances the reality of the sound. In this particular AMC, it also made my reclining lounge seat vibrate.
Animation and Live Action
At the AMC demonstration, filmmakers shared “A/B clips” from several films. First the audience was shown the clip with standard range, then in HDR. Animation and live action from Zootopia, Inside Out, The Jungle Book and Tomorrowland were used.
The most impressive animated clips were from Inside Out. The opening sequence shows a baby opening her eyes for the first time. From the babies perspective we first see blinding white light, then her mom and dad come into focus. According to filmmakers in attendance, that level of white light on screen would not have been doable with older technologies.
Another scene from Inside Out takes place inside the young person’s subconscious “where all the greatest fears are hidden.” The directors wanted this scene to look like a painting on velvet under black light. The intensity of some of the colors, like the green broccoli (one of my greatest fears, too), were some of the most dramatic I’ve ever seen in an animated film.
The Jungle Book combines a live character, Mowgli, played by Neel Sethi, with a range of incredibly real looking animal animations with voices you’ll love, provided by Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Scarlett Johansson, Christopher Walken, and Garry Shandling. Tomorrowland is live action and the clarity and sharpness of the HDR images was stunning.
The demonstration cuts were followed by a video message from Batman v Superman director Zach Snyder (300, Sucker Punch, Man of Steel) and the screening of the superhero showdown.
Batman v. Superman
As a technology tour de force demonstration of HDR and ATMOS, this film rocks, explodes, and goes nuclear. It was visually overpowering and my seat shook through most of the screening. As a movie you’d want to see, it’s a flop.
The following paragraphs contain spoilers. I don’t usually do this, but I really do not want you to waste your money or time on this film.
For a movie to be exciting, we have to feel the characters have something at risk. But we know that Superman, Batman, Lois Lane and Ma Kent will all survive. There is no tension. The plot revolves around the discovery of a meteorite full of Kryptonite, which is maneuvered into Batman’s possession so he can take on the Man of Steel. We all know how damaging Kryptonite is to Superman, yet in this film, even after several doses delivered by various means, it seems to do little more damage than pepper spray would to you or me.
There are numerous plot holes and non-surprises such as Lex Luther being behind the Kryptonite delivery. Superman keeps recovering from Batman’s and the US military’s attacks because somewhere along the way, unexplained, he has developed the power of regeneration. Couldn’t the writers come up with something better than that?
The film seems like it is about to end several times. But it just keeps going and going. I really wanted it to end. It has some really lame lines that ruin the mood and, to top it off, we are presented with the least attractive Wonder Woman in cinema history.
There are even more problems with this film, but you get the idea.
I have some friends who are comic-book nerds, like Sheldon from Big Bang Theory. They said they enjoyed the movie and began citing by number particular comic book issues, artists and themes which the film referenced. If you’re this deep into DC comics, you might, inexplicably to me, enjoy this film. Otherwise, save yourself from cinematically induced pain and boredom.
On to the Future
High Dynamic Range cinema will without a doubt make films more enjoyable. Any technology that makes the experience seem more real to our senses can do that. I look forward to seeing more films that use it.
Remember though, it takes customized theaters with specialized dual-laser projectors to create the effect. The titles cited above will not necessarily be in HDR at your local cinema, when you buy them on Blu-ray or stream them. Like all new technologies, it will spread with time. If you want to experience this now, however, you will have to seek it out. AMC is on the forefront of this and you can check this page to see if a theatre near you is being upgraded.