Aroma-Scope? A history of 4-D film sensations

Aroma-Scope

Bob Nowotny, Contributing WriterIn 1992, writer/producer/director/editor Robert Rodriguez became a household name thanks to the carnage asada of El Mariachi. It was an auspicious debut. Now, almost 20 years later, Mr. Rodriguez has decided that 3-D is passé, so he’s going one better — 4-D “Aroma-Scope,” the latest attempt at bringing the sense of smell to movie audiences worldwide.

The marketing department at Dimension Films is trying to make Aroma-Scope a really big deal despite the fact that the history of films attempting to enhance the cinematic experience by appealing to olfactory receptors dates back a long, long time.

Then again, Mr. Rodriguez and his Troublemaker Studios are located in Austin, Texas — where, quite frankly, damn near everything is Austintatious — so maybe the halituous hype is not all that surprising.

Smell — The Final Frontier…

The use of scents in conjunction with motion pictures was first demonstrated way before the coming of sound. The year was 1906 — the same year that the world’s very first full-length feature film, The Story Of The Kelly Gang, was released in Australia. And what a movie-going treat audiences experienced at the Family Theater in Forest City, Pennsylvania. Samuel Roxy Rothafel placed a wad of cotton that had been soaked in rose oil in front of an electric fan during a newsreel showing the annual Tournament of Roses Parade. To paraphrase, “you ain’t smelled nothing yet” — this was only the beginning.

Other fragrances followed. In 1929, a New York City theater sprayed perfume from the ceiling during the screening of The Broadway Melody. Four years later, Arthur Mayer installed an in-theater system to deliver scents that were synchronized with various scenes in Paramount’s Rialto Theater on Broadway. Additional efforts at releasing scents timed to coincide with important plot points occurred in Detroit, Michigan, during the run of both Boom Town and The Sea Hawk.

Unfortunately, these odors would linger, sometimes for days before they cleared, so the practice did not catch on.

Scent Of Mystery

“First they moved (1895)! Then they talked (1927)! Now they smell (1960)!”

Smell-o-Vision device

Michael Todd, Jr. (left) sits beside master control and scent engineer of the Smell-o-Vision system with its inventor Hans Lube.

It should be pointed out that all of these early experiments were made by theater owners. In 1960, producer Mike Todd, Jr. released Scent Of Mystery, utilizing a system developed initially for the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Designated “Smell-O-Vision,” the process injected thirty separate odors that were synchronized with the action on the screen, with some of the scents serving as clues to the mystery at crucial moments during the film. This complicated process utilized a series of small perfume containers.

As the film was being projected, small cues on the celluloid would activate a belt consisting of needles which would individually pierce each container, thus releasing the contents that would then be blown by fans from the projection booth via a series of pipes into the theater. As a result, audience could “smell” what was happening on the screen — including the smells of train smoke, a salty ocean breeze and fresh cut sugar cane. While ingenious, the process was very expensive and it was not used again.

However, in 1985, MTV aired a much edited version of Scent Of Mystery that utilized “scratch and sniff” cards available at your local 7-Eleven stores. For the mere price of one dollar, you could then go home with a card that held up to fifty different scents — some quite effective, although the “popcorn” scent was generally panned as “indescribable.”

(Eight years later I was lured once again into a 7-Eleven for a similar reason — this time the shelves were stocked with the  September, 1993 edition of HUSTLER Magazine and its famous “Scratch ‘N’ Sniff Centerfold Edition.” Who could resist?)

Polyester Odorama card

The "Odorama" scratch and sniff card from John Waters' Polyester.

Smelling is believing

In 1981, writer/director John Waters released an enhanced version of Polyester which included scratch and sniff cards containing ten numbered scenes. When a number appeared in the corner of the screen, the viewer would scratch the appropriate spot on the card and was instructed to take a deep breath.

Number two, appropriately, was the smell of a fart. (You’ve gotta love John Waters!)

“This wondrous screen gimmick is called Odorama…and ze producers of zis film have unselfishly spent untold millions of dollars to develop zis startling process.”

Actually, Polyester was shot for around $300,000. Several sources declare it was Waters’ last non-SAG production. (Hey, who needs SAG when you have Divine?) Polyester was blessed with several tag lines, including “It’s Scentsational!” For those of you who haven’t seen this deliciously camp homage to the all-American family, I strongly suggest you find a copy.

Aroma-Scope arrives

Which brings us to now.  You would think that if a new release would incorporate a 4-D process called Aroma-Scope, it would be a remake of Scent Of A Woman. Now that would certainly capture the interest of maturescent buckaroos everywhere. Whoo-ah!

Alas, such is not the case. Instead, we get a fourth edition of the popular Spy Kids series. Spy Kids 4: All the Time in the World opens August 19th. I wonder if it will be “scentsational” or simply a stinker.

Since I’m not Nostrildamus, we’ll have to wait to find out…


About Bob Nowotny

Bob is, without a doubt, the one SmackRef who really can pull off wearing a hat. Although his dream to wear the baseball cap of a major league player never materialized (he grounded out in his only at-bat in Wrigley Field against Hall-of-Fame pitcher Ferguson Jenkins), Bob has found solace in producing four independently-financed feature motion pictures and a number of successful television productions. His work includes The Legend of Billy the Kid — an Emmy Award-winning documentary for Disney.
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4 Responses to Aroma-Scope? A history of 4-D film sensations

  1. Wayne Harrison says:

    So aroma scope……. Emeril was preaching smell-a-vision….. Without even letting my mind wander, I can see or should i say smell trouble at every odor…….. YUK YUK YUK. Imagine Moe, Larry and Curly with Aroma Scope in full force…. Maybe Planet of the Apes or The Mummy…….
    I guess I am from the wrong generation as i still like to use my imagination…..

  2. Rodney says:

    I just hope they never re-release The Klumps in smell-o-vision. Eww.

  3. David Taylor says:

    We are a company who have worked on fragrance dispersal for the past 10 years, we have designed and developed systems we can install in cinamas that do NOT rely on the viewers input. Theses systems are controled by the flim. We can introduce as many differnt smells over the period of the film. These have been used in many applications worldwide and bring a new and lasting experence to the film.

    David A Taylor


    • David:

      This is very interesting — where is your company located? And do you have a website where more information can be found?

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