Smell-O-Vision, Percepto and other gimmicks used at the movies

From Sensurround to Smell-O-Vision, we look at the gimmicks directors have used to attract cinema audiences.

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From Pirates of the Caribbean to Transformers, summer movie schedules usually offer plenty of films dubbed stinkers by the critics - but a soon-to-be released picture is about to get cinemas reeking for real.

Spy Kids 4: All the Time In the World, from the US director Robert Rodriguez, is promising to give audiences an authentic "4D" experience. But if you think the existence of a physics-defying fourth dimension is something more likely to be discovered by Nasa than the guy who made Machete, you'll be right. The extra dimension is, in fact, smell, or Aroma-Scope as the film's poster contends.

Cinemagoers who attend screenings of Spy Kids 4 later this summer will be given a scratch-and-sniff card with eight separate scents "tied to the plot" of the movie.

With increasing evidence that audiences are turning against the current trend of 3D, Rodriguez isn't the only one hoping that combining sound and vision with smell could prove a hit. It was announced last month that Samsung has partnered with scientists at the University of California, San Diego to create aroma-synthesising televisions, capable of reproducing up to 10,000 different smells - a technology that could also be fitted in cinemas and even phones.

Usually falling under the umbrella term "Smell-O-Vision", the use of scents in conjunction with moving images is almost as old as filmmaking itself. While it may be the most famous in-cinema gimmick, it certainly isn't the silliest.


Combining film with scents is believed to have been invented in 1906 when a Pennsylvania cinema owner used a fan to diffuse the smell of rose oil during footage of a Rose Bowl American football game. Walt Disney also briefly experimented with using aromas but abandoned the idea due to its hight costs. The first film release in which smells were used to complement a narrative was 1959's Scent of Mystery, during which the aromas of grapes and pipe tobacco wafted into the cinema through special pipes (this was the patented Smell-O-Vision, created by the Swiss national Hans Laube). However, some complained that the scents diffused too slowly, prompting bouts of loud sniffing, and audience members in the balconies sometimes missed them altogether. Released only a few weeks later, the Far East travelogue Behind the Great Wall used its own technology, AromaRama, prompting a short-lived competition that Variety dubbed "the battle of the smellies".


The master of movie gimmickry was the New York-born B-movie director William Castle, who invented new "technologies" for several of his films. Illusion-O, which accompanied 1960's 13 Ghosts, was one of the better ones. The haunted house movie allowed audience members to decide whether or not they were "brave enough" to see the film's ghosts. This was done by giving each ticket-holder a visualiser - essentially a piece of card with two cellophane filters, one red, one blue. Because the blue-tinted ghosts were superimposed on top of the black-and-white film, they were only visible to audience members plucky enough to look through the red filter.


One of Castle's dafter inventions, Percepto was developed for the director's 1959 horror The Tingler, and designed to make audiences scream and shake in their seats, regardless of whether the film itself was scary. In the movie's story, lobster-like parasites are hiding in human spines. They are activated by fright and can only be killed by screaming. Towards the end of the film, when one of the creatures is "let loose" in the cinema, several audience members felt their seat-backs vibrating powerfully and responded with screams of fear or disbelief. Castle achieved the effect by arranging for a certain number of seats to be fitted with motors, adapted from surplus aeroplane parts. The stunt prompted a widely circulated myth that Castle's trickery extended to giving cinemagoers electric shocks.


Although the 1950s are often regarded as the Golden Age of 3D, experiments with stereoscopic film date back to the 1890s in the UK and, according to a recent discovery, the technology was even used by the Nazis for propaganda films in 1936. While the 1950s 3D explosion was kicked off in 1952 with the first stereoscopic colour film, Bwana Devil, it really arrived with the release of the 1953 horror smash House of Wax. The technology, which required two projectors as well as special glasses for audience members, was intended to combat the new threat from television. After a brief resurgence in the 1980s particularly for horror cinema, 3D has become commonplace at multiplexes in recent years, used once again by Hollywood to protect revenues amid falling ticket sales. But with signs of waning audience interest once more (after the huge flop of Mars Needs Moms and news that 2D tickets outsold 3D for Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides), many are asking whether the high production and projection costs associated with the technology could see it abandoned once again.


One of the lazier in-cinema gimmicks, Sensurround essentially saw certain films accompanied by extra-loud bass. However, much of the new sound was so low-frequency that many audience members didn't so much hear it, as feel it. Developed specifically for the 1974 film Earthquake, the technology was intended to give viewers the impression that they were experiencing rumblings in the earth. But cinema owners hated it. Not only were the expensive subwoofers they rented so large that many auditoriums had to have seats removed, but Earthquake was released during the same month as The Godfather, Part II - prompting ticket-holders for the gangster movie to complain of distracting rumblings coming from neighbouring screening rooms.

The Punishment Poll

Another of Castle's gimmicks took audience participation in film to a new level. In 1961's Mr Sardonicus - about a man whose face becomes frozen in a grotesque smile while robbing his father's grave to obtain a winning lottery ticket - audiences were given a card with a glow-in-the-dark thumb printed on it. At a pivotal part in the movie, the director himself appeared and asked viewers to vote on whether the titular character should be allowed to live or die, by holding the card up or down. Although two possible endings were made available in each screening, legend has it that no audience ever voted to spare Sardonicus, meaning the film's "happy" conclusion was never shown.