So it turns out going to watch a horror movie in Dolby Atmos is a little bit frightening, and that’s exactly how I spent the latter end of my Halloween weekend! Dolby Atmos is an enhanced surround sound experience, in this case featuring 64 speakers, to give you the most immersive, emotive and, in my case, verbally explosive (full of screaming) experience possible.
The film I went to see was The Conjuring 2. Originally released in June 2016, The Conjuring 2 is based on one of the most fascinating and well-documented paranormal stories to date, about an 11-year-old girl named Janet Hodgson who suffered an apparent possession from a poltergeist later identified as Bill Wilkins, a previous tenant of their home who had died from a haemorrhage in the living room chair. Having seen the dramatic mini-series of the story, The Enfield Haunting, I was curious to see how director James Wan would adapt the famous story to a horror movie setting. This was the first time that Dolby had debuted a horror film in Dolby Atmos and it was an exciting opportunity to measure just how much the sound influences your emotion, and particularly your fear.
Horror movies are always an interesting study for composition because the art of success is often in the absence as opposed to the presence of music. Having worked on The Conjuring, composer Joseph Bishara was naturally commandeered to score the movie’s sequel. Having also scored numerous horrors over the past decade, including the Insidious series, Dark Skies, Annabelle and much more, I was eager to hear how this horror veteran would tackle The Conjuring 2 and how his work would be conveyed over the Dolby Atmos setup.
Joseph’s use of epic choirs and thick string textures provided a very foreboding sound, but he also incorporated low pulses, violin slurs and trills to tie an essential sense of motion in the music’s dynamic. There were a couple of minor points where I felt slightly disengaged by the music, but they were more at moments where Joseph had been required to write melodic transition pieces as opposed to the minimalistic underscore where I feel he excels magnificently. That aside, the work he has produced for The Conjuring 2 absolutely supersedes expectations in terms of manipulating emotion, supporting the narrative and adding another dimension to the on-screen tension that really helped to gel the film’s events together.
Alongside music, with audio being such a key focus in the Atmos experience, I found myself fixated on how sound effects were placed within the audio space and how the inclusion of additional speakers helped to enhance that. There are several moments in the film where unique camera angles and seamless tracking shots take place, and I felt every step of the way sound travelled throughout those scenes thanks to the Atmos setup.
*MILD SPOILER ALERT*One of my favourite scenes in the film is towards the beginning when Janet’s younger brother Billy awakes in the middle of the night. After fetching a glass of water, he trips over his fire trucks which sets off the truck’s alarm. He then switches it off and puts it in his tent, only for the siren to come back on as the truck slowly wheels its way back in to his room. The scene as a whole is incredibly quiet, but the isolation of this one sound and the resulting anxiety it creates was a great moment for the audio to prove its worth.
The way the sound has been treated for the film is also conveyed beautifully, with subtleties like low bass rumbles and combinations of music and sound effects to add a textural depth to the audio that reinforces the tension dramatically. The film is littered with jump scares and, admittedly, well-placed jump scares too. The dynamic was nicely executed to ensure that just as you are starting to relax, you have a reason to feel tense again without ever feeling a sense of over-kill, or anti-climax.
One of the most eye-opening aspects of the original Enfield haunting case, was the way Janet Hodgson’s voice changed when she was allegedly under possession. Her voice developed a low harsh growl theorised to be impossible for such a young female voice to replicate, and spoke of things that would not have been possible for Janet to know. Prior to seeing the film, I was informed that the film’s audio team used Dehumaniser; a real time vocal-processor for monstrous sounding voice effects. In the TV mini-series I had watched before, Janet sounded more as if she was straining her voice or another actor was recorded over her, but the Dehumaniser software used in the film had a magnificent way of morphing actress Madison Wolfe’s voice to raise the hairs on the back of your neck. Other poignant moments that I can only theorise Dehumaniser was used for were the sound of ‘The Crooked Man’ and the demon’s roar. It is such a fine line between eerie and cheesy with horror movies and I think the audio team achieved the perfect balance to make sure that the dialogue and vocal effects in the movie created fear rather than scepticism.
Overall, whilst emotionally I would never subject myself to a scary movie in the cinema again, it was definitely an experience I won’t forget. From an educational standpoint, whilst I’ve always appreciated the effect of audio, it was an incredible moment for me to realise just how much enhanced audio can revolutionise a mediated experience. I can easily say that the vast majority of the fear and tension I felt watching The Conjuring 2 was down to the admirable work of the audio team. Despite my nerves being frazzled with anxiety, the Dolby Atmos setup undeniably added a new dimension to the experience and, that coupled with the free sweets and luxurious cinema chairs, I have to say it was definitely worth it.
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The Sound Architect