7.1 From Day 1

Home theater enthusiasts have had seven speakers in their systems for a decade now, but only now is Hollywood finally catching up. Last Saturday, Dolby Laboratories feted the release of the Megamind Blu-ray Disc, which it says is the first movie released in 7.1-channel sound in theaters and on Blu-ray. A screening of the Blu-ray Disc in the company's technically unassailable theater was preceded by a discussion with Erik Aadahl, one of the movie's two supervising sound editors.

Until Dolby 7.1 debuted last year, there was no way to deliver 7.1 in theaters, so almost all movies were mixed in 5.1 or in the Dolby Surround EX 6.1 format. Soundtracks had to be remixed for 7.1-channel Blu-ray releases, which is part of the reason that 7.1 soundtracks on Blu-ray Discs remain relatively rare. According to Dolby's Craig Eggers, there are now more than 1,300 theaters worldwide equipped with Dolby 7.1, so there's an ample market for 7.1-channel theatrical releases.

"A lot of movies have been released in 7.1 on Blu-ray, but they've been adjusted from 5.1 mixes," Aadahl commented. "This is the first one to be 7.1 all the way through."

Aadahl, who has also worked on such blockbusters as the Transformers and Kung Fu Panda movies, treated the audience to a demonstration of some of the sound effects he created specifically for Megamind. Instead of synthesizing the sounds or using canned effects, he uses mechanical and electrical contraptions of his own design wherever possible. "I think of myself like a chef who uses all organic ingredients," he said. "I took a few months to build the sound effects before we even started mixing the soundtrack."

One effect Aadahl demonstrated was a tiny electric arc device that he built to produce sounds of the electricity zapping through the heads of the Brain Bots, the little mechanical creatures that serve as the title character's pets. The device uses two motorcycle batteries and a capacitor/diode ladder to produce high voltage. "I had two, but one of them blew up," said Aadahl, who admitted that he'd accidentally shocked himself with the device during production of the Megamind soundtrack.

Another cool sound in Megamind was inspired by the blaster effects that sound designer Ben Burtt created for the Star Wars movies using high-tension cables. Aadahl's version looked like a cross between a moonshiner's still and one of those string-and-cups things found in grade-school science classes [Pictured at the top of the page]. When Aadahl struck the device's long copper coil, the unmistakable sound of a sci-fi movie laser beam emerged.

"I also have a kitchen cabinet that desperately needs a shot of WD-40, but I've never put WD-40 on it," he added. "It's like a musical instrument. I've used that creaking sound for effects in lots of movies."

Aadahl pointed out that Megamind is one of the few home video releases to feature the exact same soundtrack as the theatrical release. "It's common for the DVD or Blu-ray to get what we call a 'nearfield mix' on a small monitor system," he explained. "They may use a limiter so it's less dynamic, and they may raise the level of the dialogue and the atmospheric sound. But this Blu-ray actually uses the theatrical mix. The person who has a good 7.1 home theater will get really great sound with this."

Asked if the availability of the Dolby 7.1 format for theatrical releases will make 7.1 commonplace instead of the rare treat it is now, Aadahl responded, "The last several movies I've worked on were in 7.1, and I don't know of a 5.1 mix on my roster [of upcoming projects]. I think it's going to become a lot more common."