I Origins in Dolby Atmos: A Whole New World You May Not Care About

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The Dolby Atmos theater system delivers audio from speakers located on all four wall of the theater and the ceiling, so when you hear rainfall it’s almost like feeling it. When the dragon Smaug galumphs across screen you hear his tail wrap itself around you. When gunfire blazes off a 3D screen past your head, you might just duck. But there’s a gulf of experience between a holographic threat and emotion, and that’s a gulf sound designer Steve Boeddeker tried to cross with Mike Cahill for the metaphysical drama, I Origins. Can you conjure emotions with a sound? The answer’s in the ear of the beholder.

When the Dolby Laboratories began their Dolby Institute program, they sought a test case. The Institute had a mandate to help filmmakers of all walks create new relationships between sound and image. This is no small feat but one that’s almost philanthropically necessary given the fact Dolby’s legacy of invention regularly pushes the bounds of theatrical audio to heights that filmmakers may struggle to reach. Dolby is a smart company who knows what they’re doing warrants some outreach and education—if they’re really elevating the medium, they can’t just hang their innovations on a rack, they have to dress some models on a runway or the stuff will never sell. Naturally their first takers were big pictures like The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug and Star Trek Into Darkness. The cost/benefit analysis for theaters outfitted with the Atmos system demands the fare be a blockbuster (with a budget to accommodate Atmos) and popular (because audiences need motivation to pay the ticket price to behold a new technology). This proves what a big risk Dolby Institute’s Glenn Kiser took when he partnered with the Sundance Institute and backed I Origins. The film’s writer/director Mike Cahill earned credibility with his last venture, Another Earth (also distributed by Fox Searchlight). Despite this I Origins still had a budget too low to anticipate much technological pizzazz, and the sound designer, Boeddeker, who’d earned an Oscar nomination for his sound designing the magnum-Redford-opus All Is Lost, admired Cahill’s risk taking aplomb and signed on without the promise of high pay. So when Glenn Kiser offered them post funds and posh accommodations to mix the film in Atmos, it must have seemed like an experiment as mind blowing as the work done by the film’s scientists. They ask “is the eye the window to the soul?” while the soundtrack begs the question, “if it is, what’s the ear?”

The film is an intimate love story about a scientist in graduate school trying to use the biometric uniqueness of the eye to disprove the existence of a spiritual world. Ian (Michael Pitt) equates the crude function of a camera to the sophisticated function of the eye at a young age. In his late 20s he falls fast for a mysteriously accented model Sofi (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) but loses her. Years later, married and enjoying professional success and fatherhood at once, he’s presented with a match to his ex-lover’s eyes, possibly proving his research was in vain and opening him to a world of unseen beauty.

Like Another Earth, I Origins is a film fascinated with the shape of worldly things and determined to prove all worldviews can coexist. When walking about after he’s met and lost his grad school lover, Ian sees 11s everywhere, beginning with clocks and ending with the semi-concrete 1 shapes separating windows on the façade of an apartment building. After subjecting his baby to what he’s told is a test to diagnose autism, Ian and his wife Karen (Brit Marling) describe the images in the test as “alike but different” and I feel much of this “pattern” describes Cahill’s aesthetic. Indeed many moments in I Origins seem to diagnose the origin of Cahill’s own fascinations with the mysterious veneers of living things, and if perhaps, 11s don’t sound like “living things” I should mention they lead Ian to his destiny. Take that science.

Boeddeker said he and the director toyed with the idea of designing a mono audio track (sound coming only from the two front speakers) until the story arrived in India, at which point they would employ the Atmos all around sound. In I Origins, the land that invented reincarnation also houses Sofi’s potential soul sister—they have the same iris pattern—as well as the possibility of intellectual rebirth. “We thought about it” Boeddeker said, “but decided it’s be too overwhelming,” and taking a cue from the Dolby Institute, they instead created a soundscape that guides you through the world of the film, auditory inch by inch. In place of a love theme, Sofi is always accompanied by the sound of wind. “Even when she’s in the hall in her apartment building, where there’s no reason to hear wind, it’s there.” This repetition becomes important again when the film goes to India to seek the child Salomina (newcomer Kashish) who has Sofi’s iris pattern. “The production designer told me that the production design in that hotel” where Ian takes, Salomina, “is the same production design as in Sofi’s apartment building.” Wisely, the sound mimics the film’s visual puzzles with evocative audio puzzles; during the 11 sequence a train echoes overhead (literally) and the trains echo again in every love nest Ian shares with Sofi. Boeddeker said “the film invites you to figure it out” and so does the sound design. If you like it, repeat viewing could offer many rewards.

But, as I said, there’s a world of difference between crying and ducking to avoid falling hobbits. Sound design is a brand of rocket science I won’t pretend to know, but emotionally effecting soundscapes are hard to build, even with a technology that can articulately locate objects around you. Boeddeker even described the philosophy of design differently, he said it “wasn’t about speakers, it was about places in the room.” In a manner that made me flash back to Jackson Pollack, the audio gave me the feeling of entering a room I didn’t know was there. Sadly, I also felt the hyper articulation of the sound stole every human emotion from the story—the noises seemed to be having my feelings for me. I asked the designer if it was a delicate dance citing that Spielberg had been called “manipulative” because he used an extra schmaltzy scores for—I wasn’t sure which film so I said “maybe Color Purple?” But I could see such a story wasn’t cautionary to either Boeddeker or Kaiser. Sound isn’t equivalent to feeling anymore than image is, but perhaps someone out there can prove me wrong.

I Origins, in or out of Atmos, has some remarkable storytelling in it, just like Another Earth did, but the lesson of this experiment must be that sound cannot conjure emotions the way they can provoke a flinch. Feelings are not reflexes and, while Ian liked to think so, a camera is not as sophisticated as an eye.

All this said, I Origins could be among the most talked about film of the summer because the multi-dimensions Dolby Atmos gives you the tangible, even otherworldly experience of hearing spirits and elements around you. Instead of implying a new world hidden inside all things, it puts you in a theater space lifey with the surprising hum of mundane and beautiful things. If you can feel it, it must be great.

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