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Tim Partridge, EVP Dolby Laboratories, Interviewed on MTBS!

By October 31, 2007March 24th, 2020Interviews

Hello everyone!

Special treat for you today. Tim Partridge is the Executive Vice President of Products and Technology for Dolby Laboratories. For those unfamiliar, Dolby is famous for their groundbreaking movie and home theater surround sound systems, and are now entering the visual space with an exciting new stereoscopic 3D solution that you will find in a theater near you!

An extra bonus is it looks like Dolby appreciates the importance of S-3D gaming too!

1. I understand you’ve been with Dolby Laboratories for over twenty years, and until recently, had a strong focus on introducing Dolby surround sound technologies to Europe and Asia. Can you elaborate on what your biggest challenges were in bringing these technologies to these foreign markets? Technologically, where did they begin, and where are they now because of your hard work?

First you have to understand that our most successful technology introductions were that way because they had such a dramatic impact on the entertainment content, whether it was noise reduction for music or surround sound and later digital audio for movies. This meant that these technologies fundamentally changed the way the content was created; noise reduction enabled multitrack recordings which changed the music industry.

My involvement was primarily with introducing the technologies that changed the way movies were made and that was the challenge; everything from the creative thought process of the director and sound crew through to the equipment in the studios, the laboratories and finally the cinemas all had to change to enable and make the most use of these new tools. Providing the ability to create more realistic sound through improved frequency response and dynamic range, and also the added dimension of surround sound was like giving an artist new colors to paint with that he had never used nor even seen before.

We also used the analogy of “enlarging the window” and of course the larger the window, the problems can also be seen; the increased fidelity revealed noisy sound recordings and distortion that previously had been inaudible due to the limitations of the reproduction system. Of course surround sound had been available on 70mm, but when we started very few people outside of Hollywood had experience dealing with such things.

So location recordings had to improve since everything could now be heard, music recordings had to be mixed in stereo instead of mono, and we had to install center channel speakers and surrounds in music studios when mixing for film. Background effects had previously all been mono so whole libraries of stereo effects had to be built, and distorted recordings had to be re recorded.

Once we got into the mixing room where all these recordings come together, the differences were even more apparent. Mixers who spent their whole careers learning how to create soundtracks for a single speaker suddenly had four to deal with! In some ways, it was easier for them since all the music and effects no longer had to come out of the same speaker as the dialog, and fight against it. On the other hand, creating a believable sound-space with all the added dimensions was quite a challenge.

By way of example, when I went through this process in Hong Kong, a typical film had around ten tracks to mix together (one music, three dialogs, and six effects), and they mixed the whole film in a (long) day. Our first Dolby Stereo film there had over fifty tracks and took three weeks! Today most Dolby films have literally hundreds of tracks that get reduced down to the 5.1 master over several weeks.

In the early days, the directors went crazy with the surround channel putting far too much there, which may have sounded great in the studio, but was very distracting for the people in the back row of the local cinema who were much closer to the surround speakers – added to which the cinema owner had probably turned the surrounds up to maximum since he had just bought them! Over time, they learned to compromise and theaters became better aligned.

It was the same when we introduced digital audio to the industry with Dolby Digital. The first films were all far too loud, because now they could be! But experience led to much better use of the new tools and film soundtracks today sound infinitely better than they did 20 years ago.

2. Clearly, Dolby’s roots are in sound systems. Why the sudden interest in stereoscopic 3D?

While certainly we were focused on sound, the reality was that we were always trying to improve the overall cinema going experience. When we were working in theaters preparing for a world premiere or other important screening, our engineers were just as interested in getting the best print out of the lab, and getting the best and most even light from the projector onto the screen as they were in getting the best out of the sound system.

However, from where the industry was in the 70’s, it was clear the biggest improvement that could be made was in the sound, and it took thirty years of hard work to get to where we are now which is that around 80% of the worlds cinemas have high fidelity surround sound, and 50% have digital audio. Over 90% of the world’s major films use our technologies. Plus there just wasn’t much that could be done to dramatically improve the picture on 35mm, until that is, digital cinema came along. As the industry finally embraced digital technology for the picture as well as the sound, then everything changed. Suddenly the picture has the same quality at every screening as it did on opening night. There is no deterioration, it is clear, sharp and stable on the screen. Furthermore, it opened up the possibilities for new innovation since digital signal processing techniques are well advanced.

3D is the first of those innovations that has captured the imagination of Hollywood as well as the movies going public. It is a dramatic enhancement to the movie experience and that is what Dolby is all about. So it seemed natural to us that we should go to work on developing a 3D system that would exceed the requirements of studios and exhibitors alike.

3. What is Dolby’s working relationship with Infitec? What roles did each of your companies have in the development of this Dolby 3D solution?

Our basic requirements for the system, based on feedback from theater owners around the world, were that it should work with the regular white screens that are currently installed, and that the glasses should not require batteries. We discovered at Infitec some core technology that we thought would enable us to meet these requirements. So we licensed the Infitec IP (Intellectual Property) for use in cinemas, and using this idea, developed at Dolby the necessary components of software and hardware for the theater, and of course, the glasses.

4. What were the biggest technical challenges you wanted to overcome in the development of your stereoscopic 3D (S-3D) solution?

One big challenge with any 3D system is the amount of light that is lost as you go through the filters at the projector and then through the glasses. This then limits the size of the screen you can use in the theater so we are always looking for ways to get more light.

One way we do this is by putting the filter inside the projector in between the lamp and the sensitive picture forming parts of the digital projector. The filter reduces the heat from the lamp that gets to those parts and therefore allows for a bigger lamp giving more light. We also wanted to avoid putting a moving filter in the path of the image since that inevitably has a negative impact on the final picture quality, another reason why we put the filter inside the projector.

The biggest challenge for cinemas though was the need to replace their screen with a silver screen for the other 3D systems. Not so much a technical challenge, but a very practical one since the silver screen is expensive and the picture quality provided by a silver screen is not as good as that with a white one. So we are very pleased we have been able to provide them with a 3D system that allows them to keep their white screen.

The biggest technical challenge for us in developing the system was being able to make glasses with the exact filters we needed for each eye, and manufacture them in high volumes. But we did it working with several specialist vendors and the results are stunning.

5. I’m thinking of your experience in Europe and Asia. Do you think you are going to face similar challenges when introducing Dolby 3D to traditional 2D theaters, the same way you a faced challenges introducing digital surround sound to mono and analog movie theaters?

I think so, and at two levels. The simplest one is the old chicken and egg problem. Unless there are lots of movies, theaters are reluctant to invest in the equipment, yet without the theaters, the filmmakers won’t make the movies. We absolutely had the same issue with our previous technology launches, but because the impact of Dolby Stereo or Dolby Digital was so great, there was always a good number of forward thinking exhibitors and movie makers who got the ball rolling.

The other issue which I described earlier is that when you introduce things like we do that have such a dramatic impact on the experience, it changes the way movies get made. We are already seeing that in Hollywood as the film community is discussing the impact of 3D on the movie making process, and everyone wants to learn how to make the best use of this new creative tool.

6. In your experience, what are the leading objections by exhibitors or movie theaters to adopt S-3D movie hardware/projectors? How are you acknowledging and circumventing those objections?

So far we have had an overwhelmingly positive reaction from exhibitors to our system. Compared with the other offerings out there, they of course like not having to change their screen, they love our quality on the screen, they appreciate the flexibility of being able to move the 3D movie from one screen to another easily, and also being able to switch quite easily from 3D to 2D on the same screen.

They also like our business model since it is the same way we have done business with them for over 30 years.

I would say the only questions we get are around the glasses – which is where the real technology lies. Since these are not $1 glasses, the exhibitor will be reusing them many times and cleaning them between each use. Once we explain how easily this can be done, and also that by reusing them many times they have a much less expensive per use model, plus they are also being kinder to the environment by not throwing all that plastic away after each screening, they see all the benefits of the Dolby 3D system.

7. Tell us about the technology. A colleague told me that your solution is “anaglyph on steroids”. Can you explain how the technology works?

It is true that we use color to separate the left image from the right one, but that is where the similarity with anaglyph techniques ends. With anaglyph you had one color per eye, with Dolby 3D you have every color in each eye – and this leads to superb color fidelity, something that everyone who sees it instantly comments on.

How it works is that we choose a red, a green, and a blue for the left eye, and a slightly different red, green, and blue for the right eye. Once you have RG and B you can create all the colors of the spectrum in each eye.

8. If a viewer watches a movie in 3D and blinks one eye at a time, will there be any ghosting, and will the colors be identical between the eyes?

One advantage of our system is that the crosstalk, or ghosting, from one eye to the other is particularly low which is why we have such sharp and beautiful images on the screen. The difference in color from one eye to the other is so small (that is why the filters in the glasses have to be so precise) that it would be hard to notice, and when both eyes are open (as is usually the case!) the brain compensates for that difference.

9. I understand that the glasses used for your solution are $50 a piece. Can you explain what makes these glasses special and why they cost a lot more than traditional polarized or anaglyph lenses?

It comes down to the filters. They are extremely precise which gives us superior crosstalk cancellation (i.e. the right eye image doesn’t get through the left eye filters). To do this, we have to lay down fifty layers of filters on each lens. Plus we also wanted a curved lens design to improve the viewing experience even further, and laying down fifty layers with extreme accuracy onto curved lenses is no small feat!

We also make the lenses scratch resistant and very tough so they can withstand hundreds of uses, so the cost per use comes down to just a few cents.

10. I wear glasses, and I can tell you first hand that they get dirty pretty quick. In a room filled with buttery popcorn, even more so. How do you clean these glasses and how often?

The glasses will be cleaned after each and every screening so they will always look perfectly clear.

11. What is the DCI (Digital Cinema Initiatives) standard, and how does it relate to Dolby Laboratories?

The DCI standard is a set of technical specifications written to help multiple manufacturers design and build digital cinema equipment to a common standard so that movie files packaged in Hollywood, or anywhere else, can be guaranteed to play on all these pieces of equipment in any theater.

Not only does it specify file formats and interconnects to enable this interoperability, but it also specifies high degrees of security both in hardware and software to protect the digital content files from piracy. Dolby has designed a Digital Cinema server to accept, manage, decode and play out these files, and as such, it has been designed to the DCI specification to ensure we fully meet the requirements of the studios and the exhibitors. Some of these specifications have not been quite finalized yet though, which is one of the issues we are still working through.

12. How much money should an exhibitor expect to spend to upgrade their equipment to Dolby 3D?

The hardware is around $20k, and each screen will need 2 pairs of glasses per seat to make sure there is always a clean pair available.

13. How is Dolby Laboratories positioning their offering to help justify the expense to exhibitors? What ideas have been brought to the table?

Exhibitors told us they would just like to buy the equipment up front and outright without any ongoing commitments. This is how we have always done business with them so we were happy to oblige. We are open to other models, but this is what they seem to prefer right now.

In terms of justifying the expense, exhibitors trust that Dolby equipment lasts a long time, and with the proven ability to charge a premium on each ticket for 3D, and the number of 3D films in the line-up for the next few years, I don’t think they have a problem justifying the investment.

14. I understand the movies have an invisible imprint that shows up on bootlegged movie copies, and this can trace a movie right down to the theater and the time it was shown at. There is a lot of pressure on exhibitors to cut down on movie piracy because of this. How does S-3D help ease the burden on movie theaters?

There are many security features built into digital cinema to combat piracy but preventing the camcorder from capturing the image on the screen is an issue that technology has yet to solve. 3D, however, is inherently protected against the camcorder copy since the image on the screen is a double image (one for the left eye and one for the right eye), and would be unbearable to watch on a pirated copy.

15. I think invention and action are usually a reaction to something. I created MTBS because I wanted my games to work in S-3D and I thought (still do) that the industry needed a catalyst to move the industry forward. The movie industry is already a multi-billion dollar industry. What spark made someone wake up one morning and say “We need S-3D today, and not tomorrow”? When do you think the light bulb turned on, and by who?

I don’t think it was any one event or any one point in time, but a number of factors. Attendance at theaters has not been growing in recent years and it is not surprising when you think of all the entertainment options available today from big screen home theaters to multiple game platforms, and of course everything that is available on the internet. Consequently the whole industry was just in a mode of looking for something that would excite movie audiences and give them a reason to go to the theater.

Then came digital cinema which as I said earlier was the enabling technology for better 3D presentations than those of yesteryear, and then you need one or two progressive film makers eager to employ new technologies that give them more creative freedom, and we had the likes of Zemekis, Lucas, Cameron, and Katzenburg, all strongly advocating the benefits of 3D. Finally you need technology companies prepared to do some research and develop the tools that enable these creative visions to become reality on a worldwide basis, and I’m glad to say Dolby is one of those companies.

16. Beowulf is coming out in S-3D in November, Dreamworks Animation promises that by 2009, all their releases will be in S-3D, and there is general excitement all around. I think these are events that will help drive the industry forward. Do you have concerns about elements that can hold the industry back? What are they and what needs to be done?

I think the train is about to leave the station and there is very little that can hold it back, the enhancement to the experience is so compelling that I think it will just continue to grow in terms of numbers of movies and theaters worldwide. Of course there will come a point when the novelty value will not be there just because most films and most theaters will be 3D enabled. At the end of the day the fortunes of the industry are much more closely related to well made movies with good stories than they are to technology…..though technology can certainly help in terms of sucking the audience into the story.

17. S-3D in movie theaters is a proven driver and advantage for ticket sales on the big screen. There is a consumer side too with S-3D PC monitors by iZ3D, 3D HDTV via Samsung and Mitusbishi, and high resolution Head Mounted Displays by TD Vision Corp. Everyone is in an introductory mode right now, but in ten years, let’s work on the premise that everyone is on equal footing. Do you see consumer S-3D products as friend or foe? Why?

Anything that enhances the entertainment experience is a friend as far as we are concerned since that is what we set out to do. If people are going to invest their spare time watching some entertainment, then they deserve it to be as compelling and exciting as possible no matter whether it is in a theater, at home, in the car, or on a cell phone. While the theater will always be the best place to see a movie the way the director made it, that doesn’t mean these other venues shouldn’t be just as good as they can be.

18. I know you work in the movie industry, but I think you will agree that there is a strong link between the movie industry and the video game industry. Do you see a customer demand pressure building from the growth of S-3D in the movie theaters spilling over to the home markets in video games and consumer entertainment?

There is already substantial activity in 3D for the consumer and certainly gamers are leading the way. The problem currently for most of the consumer 3D technologies is that they don’t hold up well for multiple viewers, but with gaming there is typically only one viewer and they are always in the sweet spot, so it lends itself to being the early mover.

Also there is more of a desire in the games industry to make the player really feel part of the game so immersive technologies like 3D and surround sound are obvious enhancements. Eventually I do believe all entertainment will be 3D no matter where it is viewed, just like it is all now in color and mostly all in stereo or surround sound.

Content creators are trying to make us feel involved in their stories and the more “real” it appears, the more likely we are to become involved. However, from what I have seen we are a long way from having realistic 3D in the consumer space, whereas in the cinema we are just getting there.

19. I ask this question of all my interviewees. If a genie appeared and gave you any three things to help your industry, with the exception of thousands of theaters using Dolby systems, what would they be?

The first thing would be a technology that provides for great 3D on a large cinema screen without the need for any glasses, now that would be something!

The second would be a boatload of great new screenplays that we could give to directors since nothing helps our industry more than great movies.

And third would be a few extra weeks before the release of Paramount’s Beowulf since that would allow us to install more 3D theaters.

20. If there was a single message our readers could walk away with from this interview, what would it be?

If you tried 3D before, or heard about it, and you thought it was a gimmick or it gave you a headache, then go try it again. Dolby 3D Digital Cinema, as will be seen on Beowulf and many films to come, is nothing like you have seen before, and is a sign of the future of entertainment. Oh and after you have seen it, don’t forget to hand your glasses back.

Thanks Tim! MTBS members, post comments HERE!

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