4D Cinema: Movies that smell, blow air and shake you are just the start

[From The Sydney Morning Herald]

Cinema with a new dimension

Movies that smell, blow air and shake you are just the start. Here comes the 4th dimension.

Garry Maddox
October 7, 2011

Sydney’s newest tourist attraction is a small cinema that appeals to more than just the usual two senses of sight and hearing. The Sydney Tower Eye has a floor that vibrates as waves crash against rocks on screen, a spray of mist as a skiff crosses the harbour and rushing wind as a father and son fly kites during a short 3D film that shows off the city’s sights.

”It’s a 4D experience, then you experience the views for real on the top of the observation deck,” says Rob Smith from Merlin Entertainments (Australia), whose parent company also runs 4D cinemas at the London Eye and Blackpool Tower in England.

Similar cinemas have been running at theme parks around the world for more than two decades. When watching Shrek 4D at Movie World on the Gold Coast, for example, viewers are shaken by moveable seats, sprayed with mist and given a tickle around the legs when a snake appears on screen.

While immersive 3D has been a staple of mainstream cinemas since Avatar, the latest Spy Kids movie is screening in ”4D” these school holidays. Harking back to experiments projecting smells into cinemas as long ago as the 1920s, Aroma-Scope involves a scratch-and-sniff card. American director John Waters famously had viewers doing the same thing for the smells of flowers, pizza, glue, gas, grass and even – yikes – faeces for Polyester in the early ’80s.

Are these just gimmicks? Novelties best suited to tourist attractions and children’s movies? Or, while still going through a 3D revival, are we moving into a 4D era?

Around the world, cinemas have been carrying out some fascinating experiments. In New Zealand, Hoyts has a D-BOX cinema with seats that move and vibrate during mainstream Hollywood movies.

In South Korea, cinemas went one better by showing Avatar in 4D. Viewers who paid about twice the normal ticket price had moving seats, the smell of explosives, sprinkling water, laser lights and wind. The success of these cinemas is prompting expansion to other countries, though nothing has been announced for Australia so far.

An Indian company installs even more extreme cinemas for trade fairs and shopping malls, with seats that move in all directions – including free-falling, vibrating and flight simulation – and have a ”back poker”, ”butt poker”, ”leg tickler” and ”neck blasts”. The effects include rain, snow, bubbles, a storm, lightning, wind, strobing and fog as well as water and air jets.

David Seargeant, the head of Amalgamated Holdings, which runs the Event Cinemas chain, believes 4D has potential in mainstream cinemas. ”The [Hollywood] studios have made a commitment – I’m aware that three, if not four, have – that they are supportive of embedding the digital print with the coding to enable those effects to take place,” he says. ”How popular it becomes, only the trial of that sort of technology will tell.”

Seargeant believes with the shift to digital projection – Event Cinemas will have all its venues converted by next year – 4D could be especially popular with younger viewers watching action or other genre films. ”We’ll definitely see it and it depends how broad it becomes and how many films are in that form,” he says.

Despite concerns in the US about the willingness of audiences to pay extra for 3D movies, Seargeant believes the movie industry will remain committed to the format and is more aware it has to deliver ”high-quality 3D” rather than just a hasty add-on to a film shot in 2D. But in the longer term, cinema might be moving in entirely different directions.

The head of the iCinema Centre for Interactive Cinema Research at the University of NSW, Professor Dennis del Favero, believes 4D cinemas are simply revisiting the virtual reality experience of flight and defence simulators that immerse trainees using flat screens. He believes in 10 to 15 years the ”new cinema” or ”future cinema” will have a 360-degree screen, completely immersing the viewer.

”You wouldn’t be sitting down,” he says. ”You’d be physically moving around in the space and it would then be interacting with you based on your movements in the space … Your physical behaviour in this case will actually change what you see and hear.”

Another evolution, del Favero thinks, will involve the development of refined artificial intelligence.

”Instead of you just watching characters in a screen environment, the characters will have artificial intelligence and they’ll be responding to your physical behaviour,” he says. ”So you’ll create the story with those artificially intelligent characters.”

A further development will have viewers in one cinema watching and interacting with people in other cinemas, ”a bit like what you do on Facebook but in a 3D, immersive, intelligent environment”.

At the Sydney Film Festival this year, del Favero screened an example of 360-degree interactive cinema in a dark fairytale written by playwright Stephen Sewell and referring to the horrific Austrian case in which Josef Fritzl imprisoned his daughter in a basement.

In a small 3D cinema that could take five people at a time, the screen responded to the viewers’ movements as they searched for parts of a baby humanoid in a kind of lunar landscape to ”make her whole again”.

While that was closer to an art film, he was pleased with the audience’s enthusiasm for being inside a scene in 3D and creating a story with the characters rather than just passively viewing. ”It will be a whole different type of storytelling,” he says.

When technology allows viewing without special glasses, del Favero believes 3D will eventually become the norm and allow even home cinemas to screen across three walls, rather than just one.

”We’re really only seeing the first baby steps, if you like, of immersion in a flat screen,” he says.

”We have to be open to the fact that technology and the way people communicate with each other is always looking for innovative forms and innovative solutions.”


TICKETS Adult $25 ($22.50 online, $12.50 after 7pm), child (15 and under) $15/ $13.50/$7.50, sydneytowereye.com.au, 9333 9222.

TRAVEL 100 Market Street, Level 5. Close to Elizabeth, Pitt and George streets bus stops and Market St taxi rank.

OPEN 9am-10.30pm, seven days.

Target senses – a history of 4D

1984 The Sensorium, screening at an indoor theme park in Baltimore, is reputedly the world’s first 4D film.

1986 The Michael Jackson short film Captain EO screens with lasers, smoke effects and starfields.

1991 Muppet*Vision 3D at Disney theme parks features such 4D effects as robotic Muppets in the cinema and soap bubbles from the ceiling.

1999 The 3D short film Honey, I Shrunk the Audience has viewers on a moving platform.

2002 PandaDream, a Dutch theme park attraction based on the activities of the World Wide Fund for Nature, features moving seats, splashing water, blowing wind and a tree branch that falls into the audience.

2003 Shrek 4D brings extra dimensions to theme parks, including Movie World on the Gold Coast.

2006 The short Pirates 4D has such effects as bursts of air, vibrations and wires pushing against the viewer’s feet. At the end, water cannons soak viewers in the front row.

2009 Avatar gets 4D screenings in South Korea and Hong Kong.

2011 Merlin Entertainments, which has a ”pre-flight 4D Experience” at the London Eye, opens a similar cinema at Sydney Tower.

2011 Spy Kids: All the Time in the World in 4D revives the scratch-and-sniff card.


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