Have you ever wanted to take your cinematic viewing experiences to a whole new level? Do you long to once again have that “edge of your seat” feeling and experience something truly thrilling? Maybe you’ve wanted to actually feel the icy breeze of a film’s frigid arctic landscape, or perhaps be overwhelmed by fiery whirlwinds gusting across a volcanic slope.
If you sound like this type of intense thrill seeker, then perhaps 4D cinema is the thing that will satisfy your appetites. 4D cinema is an expanded and enhanced form of 3D cinema which traverses into an additional dimension of sensory stimuli. These stimuli – which can be seen, heard, felt, or even smelled – are presented in conjunction with corresponding moments in each respective film, creating a newly immersive cinematic experience for viewers.
A familiar example of 4D cinema is the London Eye 4D Experience, which the London Eye’s visitors can view for free as a preview of the attraction’s actual experience. The film combines weather effects emulating snow, ice, and wind with a stunning 3D birds-eye-view of London.
How did such an innovative style of cinematic presentation come about? Interestingly enough, the history of 4D stems from a series of failed cinematic experiments which took place as early as the 1930’s. Cinematic scent technology – now an absolute staple of 4D productions – was first introduced during the 1939 New York World’s Fair. At this event, Swiss entrepreneur Hans Laube revealed a new technology called “Smell-O-Vision” which was developed to emit specific aromas into the air during corresponding moments on screen. Although Laube’s invention drew interest and praise from publications such as The New York Times, it was not actually put into use until over two decades later.
Debuting in conjunction with the 1960 drama film Scent of Mystery, Smell-O-Vision was unfortunately very poorly-received by its audiences. Each odor’s release was accompanied by loud and distracting hissing noises, with scents often being far too weak to be detected to an equal extent by every audience member. Thus, Smell-O-Vision failed and fell out of style, but its legacy held an immeasurable influence over the development of 4D film.
After Smell-O-Vision, cinemas continued to experiment with interactive elements in film screenings. Beginning in the mid-1970’s, certain specialised theatres developed sound systems capable of producing low-frequency vibration effects which audiences could physically feel. For example, the 1974 American thriller Earthquake used a system called Sensurround to create interactive rumbling and shaking effects reminiscent of an actual earthquake. However, such sound systems were costly and lacked support from the majority of mainstream blockbuster films, causing them to phased out after several years of intermittent use.
The modern experience of 4D began in the mid-1980’s when theme parks, zoos, and festivals started adopting cinematic attractions combining interactive sensory elements with 3D effects. To further the versatility of the 3D format, which had boomed in popularity in the 1980’s, these specialty cinema installations presented short 3D films shown in conjunction with technologies directly inspired by Smell-O-Vision and Sensurround. Since these films were not offered in traditional cinemas, they had the creative freedom to construct their own unique viewing spaces and formulate unconventional and imaginative cinematic experiences.
The Sensorium, a specialised film installation which premiered in 1984 at a theme park in Baltimore, Maryland, is generally considered to be the first ever 4D film. The production seated audiences in bodysonic seats and subjected them to an effective scent technology similar to an upgraded form of Smell-O-Vision. Two years later, the Disney-operated theme park attraction Captain EO, starring Michael Jackson, helped expose 4D film technology to a much wider audience.
These films ultimately laid the groundwork for the 4D format, and subsequent 4D installations continued to bring incremental developments and expansions to the table. Devices used for weather simulation, motion effects, and even leg tickling came into frequent use by subsequent 4D films.
However, the format remained predominantly theme-park oriented for several decades and was exclusively used for short, 20 minute-long features. In fact, it is only within the last decade that full-length feature films have implemented the 4D format. Certain exclusive screenings of the mainstream films Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008) and Avatar (2009) utilised 4D technology, but these viewings were only available in a very small handful of locations around the world.
Today in London, all of us are incredibly lucky to have easy access to 4D film. Last year, we were gifted with the opening of a specialty 4DX cinema at Cineworld Leicester Square. 4DX, a South Korean-developed form of 4D designed for use with mainstream features, has gradually made its way into cinemas across the globe and has drastically transformed the viewing experiences of mainstream films. The Leicester Square cinema offers a culmination of versatile moving seats, state of the art scent technology, and simulated sensory effects representing wind, snow, fog, lightning, bubbles, and water. Numerous blockbuster films of 2018, such as Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Black Panther, have already embraced the 4DX screenings to create exclusive, one-of-a-kind viewing experiences.
Currently, the highlight of the cinema is Hans Petter Moland’s crime drama Cold Pursuit, starring Liam Neeson and Laura Dern. Following a Colorado snow plough driver’s quest to kill the drug dealers who murdered his son, the film’s temperature and weather effects will absorb its viewers into its tense and hair-raising environment. In these screenings, audiences are exposed to the chilling Colorado breeze and the sudden motions of action sequences to keep the thrill levels high for each and every cinemagoer.
In 2018 alone, 48 individual films were shown in 4DX in different locations across the world. Although 4D cinema continues to expand and become more popular each year, the format is only now beginning to gain prominence in mainstream cinemas. Films such as Cold Pursuit have brought the format to impressive new heights, but ultimately cinemas have hardly scratched the surface of 4D technology’s numerous applications. We can only hope that in the future 4DX cinemas will become even more immersive, expand in number, and support a much wider variety of films. The most exciting creative possibilities of 4D still await us.
You can purchase tickets for Cineworld Leicester Square’s 4DX cinema here.