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Thrills, spills and smells of 4-D films promise a white-knuckle ride

July 14, 2011 | William Zimmerman
4D - Korean Cinema.jpg
By John Harlow, The Australian via ISPR

Just as audiences go sour on 3-D movies, fed up with high ticket prices, murky images and uncomfortable glasses, Hollywood blockbusters are being converted into 4-D.

The fourth dimension is often said to be time, which drags during a poor 3-D movie. But in South Korea 4-D refers to a new chain of cinemas that synchronise blockbuster movies with the physical effects usually found in theme park rides.

A Korean company called CJ 4D Plex has built cinemas where the seats rock and viewers are assailed by wind and fog, strobe lights and scents to accompany 3-D images on the screen.

The company has opened its first office in Los Angeles and plans to build America's first 4-D multiplex in New York to show Hollywood movies. If it takes off, Europe will follow.

Last week the biggest 4-D film in Seoul was Kung Fu Panda 2, the martial arts cartoon featuring the voice of Jack Black as Po the roly-poly panda and Angelina Jolie as his feline companion.

Dewey Hammond, an American visitor to South Korea, says 4-D is a stunning experience: "If there is a low angle looking up at a character, your seat tilts backwards at the same time. When arrows start flying, expect bursts of air shooting past your ear."

In the 4-D version of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, patrons have complained about leaving the cinema feeling damp from the water effects but "smelling sweet, like Johnny Depp". After Transformers: Dark of the Moon, where the dominant scent is burnt rubber, there were reports of nausea and temporary deafness.

Martin Kim, who runs CJ 4D Plex in Los Angeles where computer programs to match the films to the effects are written, says 4-D works best with action rather than art-house or comedy films. So there are no plans to make seats jump up and down with Colin Firth in The King's Speech or lurch drunkenly with the protagonists of the hit comedy Bridesmaids.

"Our 4-D system builds on 3-D and takes it to the next stage," the company says. "You feel what the protagonists feel."

The firm made its name with a 4-D version of Avatar, James Cameron's science fiction epic, which put 3-D on the map. It added the smell of explosives and howling wind effects and sold out screenings for weeks, despite charging three times the normal ticket price.

The success has encouraged the company to open three more 4-D cinemas equipped with seats that bend backwards and fly into the air. "They are in a niche right now, like Imax giant screens a decade ago, but they have proved there is an audience for even more immersive spectacle than 3-D movies can offer," a Seoul film distributor says in Variety magazine.

Cameron, who has been critical of the quality of many of the 3-D films that followed Avatar, hopes to go even further when he films Avatar 2, due in 2014. He wants to shoot it at 48 or 60 frames a second, compared with the standard 24 frames, to produce even more realistic images.

He is unlikely to add water sprays or scents, however. That, an associate says, is a little too futuristic.

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