Dolby Cinema Prototype Theater

As anyone who reads my articles on AVS Forum knows, I’m a big fan of Dolby Cinema, which combines Dolby Vision HDR projection, Dolby Atmos immersive sound, and several design elements in commercial theaters. When a movie graded in Dolby Vision and mixed in Dolby Atmos is presented in a Dolby Cinema, it’s the finest movie-going experience available anywhere. (For a list of Dolby Cinema locations around the world, click here; for a list of Dolby Vision-graded movies that have been or will be shown in Dolby Cinemas, click here.)

The company’s vision of a Dolby Cinema theater is very specific in terms of equipment and design. Along with dual Dolby Vision laser-illuminated projectors, an Atmos sound system, stadium seating, and a curved video-wall entrance, the design calls for a blue color scheme with the surround and overhead speakers completely hidden behind acoustically transparent cloth that forms large, flat facets reminiscent of a cut gemstone.

In this rendering, you can see Dolby’s design vision for a Dolby Cinema auditorium.

However, AMC—the exclusive host of Dolby Cinemas in the US—went a slightly different way. Of course, they have Dolby Vision projectors, Atmos sound, stadium seating, and a curved video-wall entrance, but the surround and overhead speakers are fully visible—in fact, they are backlit with bright red lighting until the movie starts.

AMC uses a red color scheme with highlighted surround and overhead speakers in its Dolby Cinema at Prime auditoriums.

Dolby’s original design can be found in the European Dolby Cinemas, but not in the US—with one exception. Located near the famous corner of Hollywood and Vine in Hollywood, CA, Dolby calls it the Dolby Cinema Prototype Theater. Its purpose is to demonstrate the concept to producers, directors, exhibitors, and other Hollywood big shots as well as provide a place where movies can be graded in Dolby Vision, which means it’s not open to the public.

Dolby purchased the old Vine Theater on Hollywood Blvd. and began renovations in October, 2014. The entire space was gutted, removing the concession stand and projection booth in the process. The building is 150 feet long, and the original auditorium was 120 feet long, but the new room is only 54.5 feet long, with 40 feet behind the screen/baffle wall and a new projection booth.

There are 70 seats in a curved, stadium configuration, which makes the sightlines completely unobstructed from all seats. They’re plenty comfortable but not reclining as the AMC Dolby Cinema seats are. Also unlike the AMC locations, these seats do not have tactile transducers; instead, the risers are made of wood that transmits the LFE vibrations to the seats (which I much prefer over buttshakers).

With only 70 seats, the Dolby Cinema Prototype Theater is more intimate than most commercial cinemas.

The curved screen is a 35-foot-wide, 1.85:1 aspect-ratio, matte-white, unity-gain, perfed material from Harkness, which supports the Dolby-specified peak-luminance level of 31 foot-lamberts in 2D and 14 fL in 3D from the dual Dolby Vision projectors. Dolby claims a contrast ratio of 1,000,000:1 from the projectors, compared with 5000:1 to 8000:1 from other laser-illuminated projectors and 2000:1 from xenon lamp-based digital-cinema projectors. (As a point of reference, Dolby says that Vision Premier film stock exhibits a contrast ratio of 8000:1.)

The sound system was provided by Christie, which also makes the Dolby Vision projectors. (AMC uses JBL sound systems.) Called Vive, the system includes both speakers and amplification—in this case, a total of 35 speakers with six subwoofers. Five speakers are located behind the screen along with four subs that reproduce the LFE only. There are 20 side and rear surrounds, with one sub on each side for bass-managed low frequencies, and 10 speakers on the ceiling.

The surround and overhead speakers in the Dolby Cinema Prototype Theater are hidden behind acoustically transparent black cloth that forms large facets on the upper walls and ceiling.

When I was invited to visit the Dolby Cinema Prototype Theater a couple of weeks ago, I jumped at the chance. Two movies were played on consecutive evenings: The Revenant in 2D from a 4K DCP (digital cinema package) and The Martian in 3D from a 2K DCP. I was especially interested in seeing The Martian in 3D Dolby Vision, since AMC has decided to show all movies in its Dolby Cinema auditoriums in 2D—a decision I applaud, BTW. Still, this was a rare opportunity to see Dolby Vision HDR in 3D.

As expected, The Revenant was quite brutal—so much so that I left less than halfway through the movie. Apparently, it was shot with only natural light, and the image was stunningly beautiful, with many shots that take full advantage of HDR. For example, I could see lots of dark detail in the deep twilight surrounding bright campfires, which weren’t blown out at all. There were also shots with the sun directly behind one or another character, and that person’s face was clearly visible with lots of detail while the sun was not a big blown-out blob. And as I’ve seen many times now, the black interstitials completely vanished with no hint of projector light on the screen.

In fact, the HDR image and Atmos immersive sound greatly heightened the sense of realism—which made the brutality of the bear attack and all the battles between the natives and trappers all the more intense. I can’t stomach scenes with a lot of blood and gore, so I had to leave, even though—or perhaps because—it was such a gorgeous presentation.

I had already seen The Martian in 2D at the Dolby Cinema at the AMC Burbank 16; see my writeup here. But I was curious about the 3D presentation in Dolby Vision, something I had never seen before. As you may know, Dolby Vision uses spectrum-separation glasses for 3D—each projector uses slightly different wavelengths of red, green, and blue, and the glasses filter out one or the other set of wavelengths for each eye. Also, by using two laser-illuminated projectors, Dolby Vision 3D can achieve a peak brightness at the eyes of 14 fL; by contrast, most theatrical 3D presentations have a peak brightness of around 3-4 fL at the eyes, which is why conventional 3D looks so dim.

Theoretically, this should work very well, and the 3D image of The Martian was much brighter than other commercial 3D. But there’s a big problem—the inner surfaces of the 3D lenses are highly reflective, and light bounces back and forth between those surfaces and the outer surfaces of prescription glasses, which I wear. The result is annoying ghost images floating around the field of view. I tried taking my prescription glasses off and using just the 3D glasses, which helped a lot, though of course the image was out of focus without my own glasses.

This confirmed that I much prefer Dolby Vision HDR in 2D, which is why I’m so happy that AMC decided not to use 3D in its Dolby Cinema theaters. Not only does it avoid the internal-reflection problem, but HDR 2D is much more dimensional than standard dynamic-range 2D, so 3D doesn’t add as much to the experience.

Regarding the Atmos sound in the Dolby Cinema Prototype theater, it was fully immersive with lots of sound objects throughout the hemispherical soundfield. However, as I’ve heard and written about before, the Christie Vive system sounded very bright—too bright to my ears, bordering on harsh (but not as bad as some Christie demos I’ve heard). I’m glad that AMC uses JBL equipment in its Dolby Cinema rooms; I’ve never been bothered by overly bright sound there.

The level measurements of The Martian were pretty much as I’d expect—Leq (RMS average over the whole movie) was 91.4 dBZ (flat), 90.2 dBC, and 81 dBA; Lmax (highest 1-second RMS level) was 118.6 dBZ; L10 (the level exceeded 10% of the time) was 92 dBZ; L50 (the level exceeded 50% of the time) was 83.1 dBZ. I didn’t have my measurement kit with me for The Revenant.

I was delighted to have the rare opportunity to visit the Dolby Cinema Prototype Theater and actually see a couple of movies there—well, one and a half movies, anyway. It confirmed my conviction that Dolby Cinema offers the best moviegoing experience available today.