There are many pundits out there that claim the age of cinema will soon be coming to a close. With the digital revolution giving viewers instant access to pretty much any audio-visual material they could want, and sites like Netflix offering a huge selection of movies at the touch of a button, it looks like the traditional theater industry is having a hard time competing.
IMAX, the return of 3D and now the first UK 4D Cinema Experience are all reactionary methods the film industry is using to combat streaming services and digital movie purchases, by offering larger, more ‘theatrical’ viewing experiences. But the industry has been under threat before and survived. When television a permanent part of the home for the Western world, promoters looked desperately for a way to keep theaters in the hearts and minds of the public. Sound and color amazed audiences at the time of their release, but eventually that fizzled, with audiences wanting another advancement to dazzle them. Over the years film has tried other innovations, like wider screens, better sound and other standard advancements in technology to increase ticket sales, but throughout the steady evolution of the cinematic show, some other, much more unusual methods were also employed.
Grizzly Bomb has compiled a short run-down of some of the bizarre attempts the film industry made to lure audiences from their homes and into movie seats. This isn’t a comprehensive list, nor will we try to explain how all these gimmicks work; it’s simply our favorite wacky ideas that ever found their way into the cinema.
There are landmarks in cinematic history, such as the infamous moment when patrons ran from the cinema after seeing a train come straight at the camera for the very first time, or when The Jazz Singer (1927) introduced sound to the moving picture. But for each landmark there is a lesser known innovation such as The Stranglers of Bombay‘s (1959) aptly named Strangloscope format. Cinerama (1952) is something that may not be as fondly remembered as some of the examples mentioned above, but it certainly does have its own place in cinematic history.
Cinerama is similar to IMAX in that both theaters make use of a rounded screen. Cinerama used reflective materials (hundreds of strips in fact), and three cameras running at the exact same time and speed, to create a picture spread out over these reflective surfaces. The sheer cost of running a film in this manner was so high, however, that it quickly brought the process to an end.
3D cinema has had a very varied life span indeed. Starting in 1952, it’s been in use in some form or another right through to its current format today. To look at its entire history would take far too long, so here is a overview of how 3D’s implementation over the years.
A 3D or 3-D (three-dimensional) film or S3D (stereoscopic 3D) film is a motion picture that enhances the illusion of depth perception. Derived from stereoscopic photography, a regular motion picture camera system is used to record the images as seen from two perspectives (or computer-generated imagery generates the two perspectives in post-production), and special projection hardware and/or eyewear are used to provide the illusion of depth when viewing the film.
In Golden era of 3D, the effect required two projectors to play the same movie. An intermission was added to the films to give the projectionists time to change the short reels over and try to keep the viewing of the movie as smooth as possible. Bwana Devil (1952) was one of the first films to utilize the 3D technique.
Up until the modern era, 3D movies used the iconic green and red-tinted glasses. When 3D came back into popularity in the 1960s the projection system had changed slightly. Instead of using the two reel approach, the reel had one image printed on top of the other, meaning only one reel was required. The ’70s and ’80s used this technique to give us some truly fantastic exploitation style films, adding extra effect to the genre’s defining shock moments. Jaws 3D (1983) is a prime example, but films like sexploitation comedy The Stewardesses (1969), hack and slash movie Friday the 13th part 3 (1982) and Andy Warhol gore flick Flesh for Frankenstein (1973) all used the 3D effect as well. The films may have varied in quality, but man did they have beautiful poster art:
The use of 3D in the horror and sci-fi markets today remains more or less unchanged, but recent 3D technology provides a much wider scope. Gone are the retro-style glasses, replaced by the bulky black sunglasses we’re all familiar with now. The use of the 3D IMAX camera means that entire movies can be shot in 3D format and then sent through a digital projector straight to the audience. This ease of use for directors gave us an influx of films in the mid 2000s. Avatar (2009) is the most famous of the bunch of course, mostly because it didn’t resort to the typical shock scenes of old. James Cameron’s use of the 3D tech was, and still is, much more immersive for the viewer, bringing them into the film’s alien world to bring the aspects of the movie to life in front of the audience’s eyes. Avatar proves that, when done right, 3D can have a mesmerizing effect on audiences.
Following on from the varied life of 3D cinema we come face to face with a cinematic experiment that lasted for only one film. The film was Scent of Mystery (1960) and its inventive promotional tool was Smell-O-Vision.
The creation of Hans Laube, Smell-O-Vision featured a belt full of different perfumed bottles, which were lined up in order at the beginning of each screening. The tops of the bottles would be pierced on cue, with fans blowing the smells all over the auditorium. The film used these smells as major plot devices in the movie. Thirty different smells were used in total. The only downside to the whole thing was that the smells were catching audiences’ noses a little to late, meaning the relevant moment in the movie had passed. Still it’s a fascinating piece of movie history, and one that inspired John Waters. For his film Polyester (1982) viewers were provided numbered scratch and sniff cards. When the number flashed up on the screen, the audience would scratch the appropriate card, releasing the scent. Even one of the Spy Kids movies used a version of this called Aroma-Scope.
A lot of the more gimmicky advertising tools we see in this article can be attributed to the creativity of one man, Mr. William Castle. At a young age he was recruited by Columbia Pictures and went on to make a great many films for them. Nearly all of his movies featured their own unique brand of marketing. Castle had a knack for coming up with innovative ways to hook his audiences. It started slowly with his movie Macabre (1958), where he offered life insurance policies for the off-chance that anyone ‘died of fright’. From there, Castle only found more elaborate ways to draw people into theaters:
– House on the Haunted Hill (1959): ‘Emergo’. Castle had a skeleton hung from the cinema ceiling and it would swing down on ropes to frighten the audiences mid-movie.
– The Tingler (1959): ‘Percepto’. Electric buzzes under different seats shocked viewers whenever The Tingler appeared on screen.
– 13 Ghosts (1960): ‘Illusion-O’. This gimmick made it easier for timid audiences members to enjoy the movie. The glasses given at the start of the movie had two different lenses. Looking through one lens made the ghosts visible on screen, while looking through the others would hide them.
– Mr. Sadonicus (1961): Multiple endings. Mr. Sadonicus gave audiences the chance to see the ending of their choice. By using a ‘punishment poll card’ you could give a thumbs up or down to decide the villain’s fate. The kicker is, Castle only ever filmed one ending, knowing everyone would pick the thumbs down option!
Now not all of these are amazing, but they caught the public’s attention. He certainly left behind a legacy which resonated with fans far and wide, some of which became filmmakers of their own. The film Matinee (1993) by Joe Dante has John Goodman playing Lawrence Woolsey, a very William Castle-like promoter. The horror movie Popcorn (1991) used quite a few variations of Castle’s gimmicks as well. Below are a few examples of Castle’s promotional work so you can see for yourself just how talented a showman he really was:
From one great filmmaker we move to another, working in a different field, but nevertheless a master of his craft. Ray Harryhausen started his cinematic career working on legendary stop motion films like the original Mighty Joe Young (1949), before getting to show off his own skills in movies such like Clash of the Titans (1981). His most famous work is the iconic and classic Jason and the Argonauts (1963). It’s Harryhausen that came up with the term Dynamation in 1958.
This is how Dynamation worked:
The process was simple but very effective. He projected a live action image onto a rear screen in front of which was placed the animation table with the model. He would then place a glass sheet in front of both. When the live action plate had been shot Ray would establish where he wanted to make his matte line and so by looking through the camera viewfinder he would re-establish that line and with a wax pencil on the end of a stick, follow that line by drawing it on the glass. When he was satisfied that the line was accurate he would then paint out, with black matt paint, the lower section, below the line. He would then photograph the animation of the model reacting to the live action on the plate. Afterwards he would then create a second pass in the camera to reinstate the lower previously matted out section so creating a combined image of the creature seemingly as part of the live action.
What this gave the viewer was an incredibly realistic-looking scene (for the time) where live actors could be pitted against skeletons, giant cyclopes and sea beasts. Looking at it today the effects still stand up. Dynamation became the marketing staple of Harryhausen’s movies, and gave moviegoers an exciting new reason to see movies on the big screen.
Around the time Dynamation was becoming popular, cinema patrons were also presented with Hypnovista and then later on Duo-Vision, two new ways to view movies.
Hypnovista was seen in the 1959 movie Horrors of the Black Museum and was eventful for no reason other than it fooled its audiences. From the poster, Hypnovista seems to create a whole new viewing experience for the movie, but in actual fact it was just a thirteen minute added extra with a psychiatrist hypnotizing the audience in the hopes that they would feel the events occurring on screen. It was only used once but we assume the process did not work very well.
Duo-Vision was an interesting premise that didn’t catch on either. Released in 1973, Wicked used split-screen to show two different sides of the story at the same time, as the events unfolded. Sometimes this would enhance a scene, while at other times it would give away to much information. Unfortunately it ended up showing too much, ruining the murder mystery it was trying to tease.
“ATTENTION! This motion picture will be shown in the startling new multi-dimension of Sensurround. Please be aware that you will feel as well as see and hear realistic effects such as might be experienced in an actual earthquake. The management assumes no responsibility for the physical or emotional reactions of the individual viewer.”
This is how audiences were introduced to the 1974 movie Earthquake, and even more importantly, to the new cinema sensation Sensurround.
Sensurround involved using speakers to add extra bass to a movie. Much like the effect you have when listening to a bass-heavy song at home, this bass was actually felt by the audiences. It added an extra element to the movie experience and according to reports from people who attended these showings, it was actually quite effective. What was not so effective was the price. It cost around $500 a month to add Sensurround to theaters and only four movies were ever adapted for the format anyway. With the add requirement that some theater seats be removed to fit the speakers, many theaters decided the cost was too high to sustain.
We jump ahead by quite some time now to 2009, when a concept is introduced that blew cinema audiences away. IMAX, like many of these experiences, started life in its early stages as an attraction in theme parks. There were films made before this in the format, but it really took off as an experience with these short film attractions. A lot of early IMAX films were projected in a dome, where, on a huge, rounded surface, viewers could sit, stand or lie down and take in an unprecedented field of view. The dome experience, in a way, is actually more immersive than the IMAX films we get now, but with the size of the image the movie can be pretty disorienting.
By this year, IMAX technology is fairly widespread, with most large cinemas featuring an IMAX theater. In very basic terms IMAX takes the standard cinema screen and, much like wide screen before it, expands the movie onto a screen that can be anything up to 30 meters in height. Director Christopher Nolan fell in love with shooting films in IMAX, and has made leaps and bounds in facilitating the use of the bulky, loud camera equipment. Most recently, Interstellar featured over an hour of IMAX footage, an unprecedented amount in a mainstream blockbuster.
D Box followed in 2011, integrating technology directly into theater seats.
D Box can be found in numerous theaters around the world:
Each D-Box chair contains a set of actuators (motors that control the vibrations, pitch, roll and heave of the seat) which are connected to a motion controlling device. This is synchronised with the action of the film, like a motion script.
In fact, D-Box Motion Code actually creates a new dimension of script alongside the visuals and audio of the film and each movement is carefully developed in order to enhance the experience where justified. It doesn’t move all the time, only at key moments in the film.
Much like a sit-in arcade machine, D Box tilts and moves the viewer to suit the action happening on screen. Motion sickness has impeded a number of people from experiencing the D Box technology (me included), but for racing and action movies it could be a riot. For people with a nervous disposition like myself, there is the option to decrease the speed of the chair on the control panel at the side.
D Box, with its novelty ride feel, brings us in a roundabout way back to the very start of our article with the 4D cinema experience. 4D takes the 3D experience and D Box sensation of feeling the movie as it plays, and amplifies it with physical effects. The technology itself has been around since the mid 80s, but then it focused mainly on short movies or theme park rides rather than feature-length movies. The first 4D cinema was built in Hong Kong in 2005, and in 2009 they ran Avatar in 4D for the first time.
Below is a Wikipedia example of how the system works, but in a nutshell it uses Hollywood effects on a smaller scale. If it rains in the movie, a rain machine spits out water over its audience. If it’s misty, you can expect to see a thin veil of smoke appearing around the auditorium.
With the 3D experience amplifying what you see in front of you, the 4D effects add a tangible element to the show. Whether this takes off in cinemas will depend on whether audiences like having their viewing experience turned into a theme park attraction, and how long that novelty will last is anybody’s guess. Used for short bursts, the concept seems quite fun, but spread out over an hour and a half it may become too silly. Who knows what the future holds! 3D may not as be as popular as it was when it was first released, but it is still with us, and it seems that cinematic trends come and go as they’re needed.
The film industry does what it can to survive in a digital climate, but the biggest way to keep the theatrical experience alive is simply to keep going to the theater. It will be interesting to see how the tech will continue to evolve. Could we see interactive cinema in the near future, where the ideas of William Castle are extended to focus on an entire film and not just the ending of one? No one knows for sure, but film will continue to inspire awe in audiences, one way or another, for decades to come.
Images: Pacific Theatres, Fox, Louis de Rochemont, United Artists, Universal Pictures, Eastern Media, Paramount, Bryanston Distributing, Filmways Pictures, Sherpix Inc, New Line Cinema, Columbia Pictures, Dimension Pictures, MGM, AIP, Odean, IMAX, Ray Harryhausen, Allied Artists.