The last few years’ 3-D films have graduated from being perceived as a fad to a fully established part of the movie industry. The addition of 3-D seemed gimmicky at first as films had been able to adequately convey depth and stories in the traditional 2-D format. We have begun to see directors not only plan their films for the 3-D technology, however, but find new and artistically intriguing ways to utilize it, a major example being this year’s Gravity. As the novelty for 3-D films has died down, rumblings for the next step in the evolutionary process have gradually begun to get louder. Welcome to the world of 4-D films. It’s a brave new world, albeit a very murky one.
There has been an established 4-D theater in South Korea for a few years now, and a new 4-D theater made its debut in Japan this year with a screening of Iron Man 3. It has not, however, made much headway in the American market apart from amusement park attractions. When it comes to theatrical films, it is a largely untapped market in this day and age. There have been rumors of a 4-D theater to be built in New York as an experiment, but nothing much has come of it.
4-D has so far been reserved for special occasions involving children’s movies. One such occasion marks the presentation of Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas in 4-D at Hollywood’s El Capitan Theater through Nov. 3. Celebrating the film’s 20th anniversary, the theater is presenting a show with “lights, scent, wind, snow, fog & more” to enhance the film. If anything, it is worth a watch for the sheer novelty factor, and the slight possibility that this is a preview of future developments in the industry.
Of course, the concept of enhancing theatrical films beyond the visual has been tried before. The infamous Smell-O-Vision experiment in 1960 resulted in financial failure and has only been attempted a couple of times since. Both those times were admitted tributes to the idea as opposed to attempts at commercialization. The real paradise for 4-D film experiences has long been in amusement parks, where supplementing a film with moving chairs, smells and puffs of air suits the fabricated ambiance very well — not to mention the target demographic of young children. The whole 4-D experience is perfect for a child, and it is no wonder that the few inroads that have been made in this country so far have been done through children’s movies.
It is troubling to look across the Pacific and see the attempts at breaking this technology from the track of children’s attractions. Though at surface value it seems similar to the rise of 3-D films in terms of gimmickry, it is an entirely different animal. 3-D is another technology that failed to gain much financial traction when studios first tried it out several decades ago and its implementation then was very controversial, but it remained an essentially visual enhancement. As films are a visual art, this can be integrated with little issue, and this is why directors have been able to innovate so creatively with its use. On the other hand, it is very difficult to imagine Alfonso Cuarón finding a way to seamlessly use 4-D technology in his filmmaking. It is just so removed from the rest of the filmmaking process. 4-D will add non-visual aspects to a film, and because of this it will always be an add-on where 3-D can be integrated. This probably condemns the idea of using 4-D to boost profits to disappointment. A gimmick will work here or there but it is usually by no means a sustainable business strategy. Nevertheless, it has been reasonably successful overseas — successful enough to start those rumors of implementation stateside. It is difficult to say why it has found such success in Korea, although tastes naturally vary from country to country. But it is hard to see the experience being successful here in the states.
Say, however, that it does. Say the experiment works and it is commercially successful. Barring a miracle from some genius director, it still won’t actually be a part of the film. It will be a corruption of what it means to go to the movies. The inherent audiovisuality of the medium would be subverted for cheap thrills. Fortunately, it probably won’t happen. There will certainly be plenty of future innovations in the presentation of films accepted by audiences, and we have no way of knowing for sure now what those will be. The safe bet is that these will be visual innovations, new ways of presenting things and the way they are seen. So, El Capitan’s showings are probably not a portent of what’s to come in the film industry, but they sure seem like they could be fun to check out.
Daniel Grzywacz is a senior majoring in neuroscience. His column “The Reel Deal” runs Fridays.