By James DeRuvo (doddleNEWS)
So I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens for the third time last night. After seeing it in IMAX 3D and a showing in conventional 4K projection, I was eager to see just what Dolby Vision brought to the party with their HDR (High Dynamic Range) technology. With just a handful of theaters nationwide being able to present the next chapter of the Star Wars epic in Dolby Vision, it wasn’t going to be an ordinary screening.
So I packed up the family and headed to Hollywood, where we bought some popcorn and saddled up for the film at the El Capitan. Since this theater is the flagship of the Disney Cinematic Empire, I knew it would be a treat. How much of a treat? Well, do you remember that feeling you had when you saw HD for the first time after getting rid of your old TV? It was like night and day, right? Well, Dolby Vision is kinda like that, only exponential. It’s not in 3D, of course — and doesn’t need to be.
First off, just what is Dolby Vision? Well, I could refer to you Dolby’s White Paper on the subject, but essentially, is boils down to projecting a feature with dual Christie 4K laser projectors that are pumping out over 21 stops of dynamic range to provide incredible details in both bright ambient light and darker shadows.
Dolby’s hype is that this new process delivers “striking highlights, brilliant colors, and deep darks never before seen.” And it was; the blacks are so black, you think that the projector is off, while the details in bright daylight aren’t washed out.
Couple that with the El Capitan outfitted with Dolby’s latest Atmos multi channel audio format, which provides 3D sound from over 100 speakers wrapped around and above you, which immerses you into the audio experience. Even though I had seen the film twice before, it was like watching it again for the very first time. I know that sounds like hype, but it really wasn’t.
The presentation started off with the typical Dolby Vision commercial that brags about how good the presentation was going to be. We’ve heard this before. It’s so great, the details are amazing, the colors are bold… yada yada yada. Then it compared what Dolby says were blacks in the old days, with blacks under Dolby vision and it’s like gray and black. An obvious comparison, to be sure.
It’s what happened at the end that caught my attention… It faded to black and you think that the pitch is over and the projector is off, and then a title card appears and says “yes, the projector is still on.” That is how deep the blacks were. When you’re about to see a sci-fi space opera with scenes in deep space, especially with the opening title crawl moving off into the distance in the galaxy, it’s really going to be something.
Before that, we saw a preview of the live action version of Disney’s The Jungle Book. The film, directed by Jon Favreau, has a ton of CGI elements in it, including most of the animals that little Maque has to grow up with. They looked downright real.
The jungle shadows and streamling light from the sun peering into the canopy looked way to real. Like I was there. And when Baloo is whistling The Bare Necessities at the end, you can hear it coming from the far corner of the theater and echoing all around you.
Then we came to the main event (SPOILER ALERT! if you haven’t seen The Force Awakens yet)… After the iconic blast of the Star Wars theme and the credit roll setting up the story, the First Order Star Destroyer comes into view, or more the shadow of it, and you can still see some detail of the ship itself, while the desert planet shines below.
Then we get down to the planet Jakku, after the First Order strikes and takes Poe Dameron prisoner, that we get to see how well Dolby Vision handles the bright desert. We see Rae crawling around the Star Destroyer and with all the detail you can see in the shadows and in the bright desert sun, you realize just how mammoth that set piece is. You pick up specks of dust, and details hiding in the shadows that you never noticed before.
When she’s flying by on her speeder, passing another Star Destroyer, you see how much sand has piled up on the body of the ship, and it goes about 3/4s of the way up. You can see the line quite clearly. And you can also see the details of the ship itself. It’s truly remarkable. It’s like this throughout the entire movie. A visual feast for the eyes.
From there get to the scenes where Han Solo takes Rae and Finn to see Maz Kanada. The lush greens of the planet really strike home as Rae sits gobsmacked in the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon and says, “I never knew where was so much green in the entire galaxy.”
By the time Rae hears a voice, leading her to the lightsaber of Anakin Skywalker … well, this is where the 128 tracks of the Dolby Atmos 3D sound really shines. You could hear that luring voice all around you as it bounced from track to track and speaker to speaker, the lightning and the rain falling in her vision, and then, when the TIE fighters attack, you can hear them streak by and head behind you. You can also see the electricity flying around the batton of the riot control Stormtrooper.
This is something I didn’t notice, even with the IMAX presentation, and there it is, electric current dancing around the head of that iconic Z6 Batton as it spins around the handle – humming loudly. When Finn gets pummeled by it, you can feel the pain of it. It hurt.
Then we get to the caverns of Starkiller Base — it’s unbelievably large, because you see details off in the distance. You bask in the glow of the base’s deadly beam as it heads out into space to destroy the seat of the New Republic. You feel the echoes, as Han screams “Ben!” to get his son’s attention, and then when the base begins to implode, you can feel the rumble in your chest.
At the end, when the credits roll, the soundtrack gets to shine. Frankly, I wasn’t a fan of this John Williams score; I had thought it was largely forgettable. But as the credits leap off the scree,n thanks to the negative space of the deep black star field behind them, that Dolby Atmos 128 tracks of audio sound makes the playing of associated cuts from the soundtrack feel like a live performance you’re sitting right in the middle of.
Here’s a simulation of Dolby Vision:
This is what Virtual Reality wants to promise you, but simply cannot deliver on yet. My favorite format is 70mm, because of the amazing detail and color gamut you can get from large format film. I even prefer it over IMAX. And the high dynamic range of HDR almost, and I do meant almost supplanted it as my new favorite.
Toss in Atmos, and I guess you can say there’s a new sheriff in town. So if you can go see Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and you live near one of the eight Dolby Vision theaters (click here), DO IT. It’s well worth the money, even if you’ve seen it once, twice, or three times before. It’ll be like you saw it again for the first time.
Check out this link for more information on Dolby Vision.