Give up on the silly glasses, and the glorified rocking chairs, the latest potential game changer for film-lovers doesn’t need any fancy paraphernalia, beyond maybe a trusty pair of headphones. In a bid to out-3D the 3D film market, and actually deliver something a little more adaptable, Sennheiser have just unveiled their new AMBEO smart headset (the words ‘ambient’ and ‘stereo’ pushed together) said to record “full binaural audio” – a totally 3D soundscape on multiple levels, a touch-above the much flatter surround-sound model. And what better way to show off such a huge step up than with a totally chilling new horror short from acclaimed director Roxanne Benjamin?
Final Stop is a fairly basic, girl-walks-home-alone-at-night style scenario, with a classic Benjamin twist, all shot handheld on an iPhone for what she lovingly refers to as “that trashy downtown 80s look”. It’s a heady piece of work, and one that was reverse-engineered around Sennheiser’s new hardware, with Benjamin planning her shots and mapping out the whole genre-driven experience through the placement of sound. “The sound leads the picture”, she goes on, at the short’s FrightFest premiere, riffing on how much more drawn out this new-feel sound allows the scares to be; “You hear longer than you see.”
It’s a tricky sell in abstract, but the AMBEO essentially wraps the film’s sound around your whole head, rather than just both ears. We might be used to listening to footsteps tracking from one speaker to the next (or in a lot of cases now, from one earphone to the next) so we hear horizontally, from left-to-right or vice-versa. But “full binaural audio” means height too, helping to gage sounds from above, below and pretty much anywhere within that 3D sphere. To experience it feels like the audio equivalent of VR, just without all the faffing around with a headset.
“If your sound’s not working, then your film’s not working,” adds horror director and producer Jenn Wexler, a brutally honest caveat that so many low-budget filmmakers will relate to. With cheaper cameras becoming more and more effective, there’s a huge gap in the industry for just as powerful sound, where in-built iPhone mics and other quick-fix solutions don’t quite add up. And the idea is this new smart headset, that records from carefully mounted mics on a pair of earphones (to mimic the ‘real’ way our ears pick up sound), comes some way to filling that void.
Sennheiser’s man on the ground, director of the whole AMBEO project Uwe Cremering, sees the new headset as a way of bridging the gap into home-viewing too. “More and more people are making movies on iPhones and watching movies on phones and tablets,” he points out, and the way this new 3D soundscape works is best felt through headphones. In fact, at this big-screen premiere of Final Stop, every audience member was given a pair of headphones to listen through; a fairly surreal way to watch a film in a cinema, but one which very much helps lock you in to your own singular viewing space.
The idea everyone involved seems to keep looping back to is immersion. It’s that unmistakable feeling of, as Cremering puts it: “That could be me!”, and when you’re experiencing narrative sound in the same three-dimensional way you experience it in real life, it’s so much easier to imagine yourself living the events you’re seeing on screen. For a horror, like Final Stop, it makes it all the more itchingly terrifying though, that’s for sure.
Final Stop was screened as part of Arrow Video FrightFest 2018 and you can now watch it online here.