Hans Laube & Mike Todd Jr. w/ The Smell-O-Vision machine
1906 – 1940
‘The use of scents in conjunction with film dates back to 1906, before the introduction of sound. In this first instance, a 1958 issue of Film Daily claims that Samuel Roxy Rothafel of the Family Theatre in Forest City, Pennsylvania, placed a wad of cotton wool that had been soaked in rose oil in front of an electric fan during a newsreel about the Rose Bowl Game. In 1929, during the showing of The Broadway Melody, a New York City theater sprayed perfume from the ceiling. Arthur Mayer installed an in-theater smell system in Paramount’s Rialto Theater on Broadway in 1933, which he used to deliver odors during a film. However, it would take over an hour to clear the scents from the theater, and some smells would linger for days afterward.
All of these early attempts, however, were made by theater owners and not part of the films themselves. The audience could be distracted by the scents instead of focusing on what the film director intended. Furthermore, because of the size of the theaters, large amounts of perfume had to be released in order to reach all members of the audience. This caused another problem: The human nose has a difficult time transitioning between smells until the molecules that triggered one smell are completely cleared from the nose, and with that volume of perfume, the scents would mix together, becoming muddled. Walt Disney was the first filmmaker to explore the idea of actually including scents with his 1940 film Fantasia, but eventually decided against pursuing this for cost reasons.
1941 – 1958
Emery Stern of Queens, New York, patented a more refined system in 1951. He envisioned a separate scent-selection reel to run in synchronicity with the film, though geared down to a much slower speed. Scents would be distributed through the theater’s ventilation equipment, with their release triggered by a photoelectric signal from the scent reel. Stern suggested using Lucite rods to carry the light signal and quick-dispersing Fréon as a vehicle for the scents. When a scene was over, a neutralizing agent could be released to remove traces of an odor. Late in 1951, the Government announced that patent No. 2,540,144 had been granted to Stern for a device which “will automatically release” various scents from containers built into TV sets. Set off by electrical impulses, the odors were intended to be appropriate to the type of program, e.g., peach blossom for romance. Stern’s system was overlooked in the rush to 3-D and wide screens.
‘On October 17, 1959, The New York Times reported that Walter Reade Jr. was rushing to release Behind the Great Wall, a travelogue through China made by Italian director Carlo Lizzani, accompanied by a process called AromaRama to send scents through the air-conditioning system of a theater. “In addition to seeing the action and hearing the dialogue, our audiences will be able to smell the scenes,” said Aromarama’s inventor Charles Weiss. “More than 100 different aromas will be injected into the theater during the film. Among these are the odors of grass, earth, exploding firecrackers, a river, incense, burning torches, horses, restaurants, the scent of a trapped tiger and many more. We believe, with Rudyard Kipling, that smells are surer than sounds or sights to make the heartstrings crack.”
The system Reade used was similar to the one described in Emery Stern’s patents, though the scent track was contained on the movie print itself instead of a separate reel. Air was cleaned for reuse by passing it over a device called the Statronic, whose electrically charged surfaces attracted scent-bearing particles. Reade said his equipment could get a smell to every seat in the house within two seconds and suck it back out almost as quickly, though not all audience members agreed.
To Tell the Truth – Inventor of Aromarama
‘Behind the Great Wall was released on December 2, 1959, just three weeks ahead of Scent of Mystery, and the competition between the two films was called “the battle of the smellies” by Variety. The film received scathing treatment from New York Times reviewer Bosley Crowther, who called it a “stunt” that had an “artistic benefit” of “nil”. The accuracy of the odors was described as “capricious… elusive, oppressive or perfunctory and banal… merely synthetic smells that occasionally befit what one is viewing, but more often they confuse the atmosphere.” Not all reviews were unfavorable. The New York Herald Tribune said in its review, “Curiously enough, the smells do not give the impression of being blown in or wafted from any specific direction (although they are said to be linked to the airconditioning system.) Actually the individual smells simply appear in the nostrils without any effort being made to sniff or strain for them. And what is more remarkable, each individual odor disappears promptly when the image smelled leaves the screen.”
‘When the romantic whodunit Scent of Mystery opened in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago, audiences were treated to more than just sights and sounds. As the projector droned, a device known as a smell brain pumped 30 different scents—wine, freshly baked bread, pipe tobacco, a salty ocean breeze—through a network of tiny tubes to movie viewers’ seats.
‘This was the debut of “glorious Smell-O-Vision,” the masterwork of Hans Laube, touted in publicity accounts of the day as a “world famed osmologist,” and the flamboyant, gimmick-loving Hollywood producer Michael Todd Jr. While Scent of Mystery wasn’t the first attempt to employ aromas in filmmaking, it was by far the most technologically intricate. Beyond that, it was the first—and apparently the only—motion picture that relied on smells as integral devices in the plot. And Laube and Todd had high hopes. Ads for the movie proclaimed: “First they moved (1895)! Then they talked (1927)! Now they smell!”
Peter Lorre in ‘Scent of Mystery’
‘Smell-O-Vision did not work as intended. According to Variety, aromas were released with a distracting hissing noise and audience members in the balcony complained that the scents reached them several seconds after the action was shown on the screen. In other parts of the theater, the odors were too faint, causing audience members to sniff loudly in an attempt to catch the scent. These technical problems were mostly corrected after the first few showings, but the poor word of mouth, in conjunction with generally negative reviews of the film itself, signaled the end of Smell-O-Vision.
‘The history-making nature of Smell-O-Vision aside, audiences and movie critics were unimpressed, and Scent of Mystery quickly evaporated at the box office. Today it’s remembered, if at all, as a bit of trivia on movie-buff websites. Yet Laube and Todd’s attempt to lead moviegoers by their noses presaged a postmodern culture in which the manipulation of scents has become a powerful tool in shaping consumer behavior, with manufacturers assaulting the nostrils with chamomile-scented carpeting and rosebush sofas and wristwatches and mobile phones that smell faintly like coffee. Synthetic aromas have become so ubiquitous that some people consider them environmental hazards. Laube and Todd, in fact, were visionaries.
1961 – 1980
John Waters ‘Polyester’ (trailer)
‘Polyester was the first of John Waters’ films to skirt the mainstream, even garnering an R rating (his previous films were all unrated or rated X). The film was set in a middle-class suburb of Baltimore instead of its slums and bohemian neighborhoods (the setting of Waters’ earlier films). Odors, especially Francine’s particularly keen sense of smell, play an important role in the film. To highlight this, Waters designed Odorama, a “scratch-and-sniff” gimmick inspired by the work of William Castle and the 1960 film Scent of Mystery, which featured a device called Smell-O-Vision. Although this approach solved the problems inherent in previous attempts at this technology, it did not gain widespread usage for other films.
‘Special cards with spots numbered 1 through 10 were distributed to audience members before the show, in the manner of 3D glasses. When a number flashed on the screen, viewers were to scratch and sniff the appropriate spot. Smells included the scent of flowers, pizza, glue, gas, grass, and feces. For the first DVD release of the film the smell of glue was changed due to, as Waters states, “political correctness”. The gimmick was advertised with the tag “It’ll blow your nose!” In the commentary track on the film’s 2004 DVD release, Waters expressed his delight at having the film’s audiences actually “pay to smell shit”.
1982 – 1994
In 1995, the BBC’s Children in Need brought scratch and sniff smell-o-vision to the masses. Through the Saturday evening family show Noel’s House Party, viewers could experience various odors to complement their television experience.
1996 – 2006
‘For Terrence Malick’s film The New World, Shochiku, the film’s Japanese distributor, teamed with NTT Communications to introduce that company’s new fragrance-delivery technology to filmgoers. On the floor of the Premium Aroma zone of the Salonpas Louvre (The New World was also shown this way at one other theater, in Osaka) sat several plastic globes about nine inches in diameter. These balls contained aromatic oils to be mixed and released during the film according to a network-server-controlled timetable.
‘Past smell presentations linked scents to objects visible or implied in the film, like pipe tobacco and baking bread in Scent of Mystery and old socks in Polyester. Scorning such vulgar literalism, Japan Aromacoordinator Association instructor Yukie Nakashima, who mixed the smells for The New World, sought rather to expand on the film’s mood than to play up its realism. This approach had two main consequences. First, the smell track imposed a certain reading—the same one indicated in the printed program, which exhorted the viewer to “enjoy a beautiful love story together with aromatic scents.” The New World was picked as the flagship for Premium Aroma not because Malick’s complex orchestration of image and sound cried out to be raised to the Gesamtkunstwerk level but because the Japanese distributor saw the film as essentially a love story in a pastoral setting and, as such, ideal for aroma enhancement.
The theater set up
‘Although woodsy smells celebrated the English arrival in America, and citrus pervaded the scene at the English court, in general the (predominantly minty) perfumes targeted romantic scenes between Pocahontas and Captain John Smith, making their relationship the focus of the film. Because the appearances of the Algonquin princess’s second admirer, John Rolfe, were usually odorless (so that a viewer might infer that whereas Colin Farrell sometimes smells like peppermint, Christian Bale has no smell), when, after meeting Smith, Pocahontas rejoined Rolfe and took his arm, the floral scent that was emitted put a perhaps sharper period to the narrative line than Malick intended.
‘The second effect of the smellifiers’ penchant for the suggestive was that when anything appeared on screen that has an odor in real life, its absence from the smell track became conspicuous. So, one sniffed the air in vain for boiling leather, gunpowder, or the ashes with which Pocahontas covers her face; and when, on taking up residence at the colony, Pocahontas smelled the pages of a book, the smell-sensitized viewer felt acutely the lack of a sympathetic aroma in the theater.
The smell release schedule
2008 – 2009
‘In 2010, the Norwegian film Kurt Josef Wagle And The Legend of the Fjord Witch by director Tommy Wirkola, previously best known for his Kill Bill spoof Kill Buljo and to his hit Nazi-zombie comedy Dead Snow, was released to cinemas with scratch and sniff cards that the audience could use while watching the movie. The film was a low brow parody of the current first-person horror craze a la Paranormal Activity and [REC]. It never quite got the same headlines as Wirkola’s earlier films, but it was nonetheless hailed by several critics as one of the more interesting films to have come out of Norway during the 00’s.
‘Also in 2010, self-proclaimed multi-sensory artist Megan Dickerson staged outdoor showings of the 1971 film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory for hundreds of people and used oscillating fans and artificially scented oils to distribute aromas of blueberry pie and banana taffy during the film. The problem, according to some audience members, was that the scents were layered on top of one another, and people got sick from all of the smells mixed together. Undeterred, Dickerson says she may hand out small, squeezable “scent bottles” in the future so that individuals can experience the fumes from their seats.
‘Inspired by Dickerson’s project, several film venues and festivals around the United States held screenings of Willy Wonka using a more primitive but, some have said, far more successful version of Smell-O-Vision. Unlike Dickerson’s method, or the original Smell-O-Vision, or its arch-rival AromaRama, these screenings didn’t involve installing expensive ventilation systems to pump artificial scents into the theater. Instead they went guerrilla – each person who attended got a bag of candy and smelly things. The pre-show instructions, delivered by a costumed Oompa Lumpa, explained that on-screen prompts would tell viewers when to smell, eat, chew or open the various objects in their bags. “And it worked,” according to critic Scott Berkun who attended a Seattle showing. “When 200 people all started eating chocolate at the same time, the room did smell like chocolate. When everyone ate cherry bubblegum, it smelled like cherry. This simple approach to the problem was definitely way more effective than Smell-O-Vision ever was.”
‘Lastly in 2010 came Charles Band’s marijuana sci-fi movie, Evil Bong 3D: The Wrath of Bong, presented in 3D and Smell-O-Vision. The film was predictably panned by critics, and the Smell-O-Vision was declared dubious and disappointing. According to the site Jackalope Ranch, “there were eight numbered scratch and sniff sections on our Sniff-O-Rama card, and when a number popped up onscreen, audience members were supposed to scratch and sniff the corresponding section. About half the scents were supposed to be some kind of marijuana, but either smelled like fresh cut grass or skunk spray.”
Trailer: ‘Evil Bong’
Trailer: ‘Spy Kids 4’
‘The latest attempt is Roberto Rodriguez’ Spy Kids 4. It uses scratch cards that are to be used at particular junctures during the film, thereby releasing particular kinds of scents to suit various scenes. Avinash Jumaani, a distributor with Pictureworks, says he hasn’t used the cards yet. So he doesn’t really know what kind of smells will be released. However, he added that this kind of 4D is already being used in entertainment arcades. Spy Kids has renamed the cards 4D-Aromascope. They will have “eight smell options to use through the film, during eight kinds of sequences, after each number is flashed on the screen,” explained Jumaani. He added that what goes for 4D is an added feature, like “lights, water, heat and so on.”
‘Like John Waters’ earlier invention Odorama, Aromascope uses a card loaded with eight different smells that will be handed out for free at both 2-D and 3-D showings. But the process is more touch-and-sniff now. You wipe a finger over the scent the way you do with an iPhone or an iPad. A tutorial given by Ricky Gervais, who speaks for the movie’s robotic dog, will play before the story begins. “When each of the eight aromas are unleashed you will get to experience a special moment in the film and be transported into scenes in the family adventure film,” explains a spokesperson for film distributors The Weinstein Company. “This fun added attraction takes the audience beyond sight and sound and into a symphony of scents as the movie is coming to life.”’ — collaged from various sources
We’re not entirely sure why people keep trying to bring back Smell-O-Vision, although Keio University’s success in printing scents using a modified printer gives us hope that this sort of thing might someday be somewhat feasible — and useful. It works by using an off-the-shelf Canon printer that’s been given a “scent jet,” Kenichi Okada told New Scientist. “We are using the ink-jet printer’s ability to eject tiny pulses of material to achieve precise control.” The scent dissipates quickly, after one or two human breaths. And while specific scents can be printed, there is as of yet no way to build a general purpose device. According to the University of Glasgow’s Stephen Brewster: “We don’t yet know how to synthesize all the scents we want. There is no red-green-blue for smell — there are thousands of components needed.”
2013 – ?
‘You are driving to work in the morning and a gentle scent of citrus fruits is keeping you alert. There’s a fly in the car, but before it starts to annoy you the tiny sensor on your cuff button detects it and releases a targetted mist of insecticide. 20 minutes later, you arrive at the office smelling great; that new perfume you downloaded from the web is really doing it for you. In the afternoon, after a stressful meeting, the tiny biosensors in you clothes detect that you need to relax, so a calming lavender starts to fill your personal scent bubble. This may sound like science fiction, but a handful of enthusiasts and international companies have been working quietly on the nascent technology.
‘Areas with potential for applying such technology are the virtual reality, computer gaming and of course the movie and television industries, says Takamichi Nakamoto, an engineer at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. In December 2008 he demonstrated the first case of “teleofaction” at the International Conference on Advances in Computer Entertainment in Yokohama, Japan. Teleofaction allows viewers to watch TV and smell what they are watching at the same time. “The addition of smell to TV and games makes them more realistic” Takamoto explains. His odour recorder can only recognise 10 aromas, but in principle it could recognise the whole spectrum of smells. He believes that in future, technology will allow for TV to transmit smell as well as audiovisuals.’ — Cosmos
Japanese revive “Smell-O-Vision”
Coming Soon: 4D Movie Theaters with Smell-o-Vision
Scent-Lok BaseSlayers hunting garments
Equal Strategy, Singapore-based scent technology
Sensory Design & Technology’s e.Scent™
Projet Eyeka – Brief : “What is the futur of digital scent?”
The Camera That Smells
South Park: The Fractured But Whole – Nosulus Rift Experience
Electric Smell Machine – generate virtual smell using electrical signals
p.s. Hey. ** Shane Christmass, Comfortable, that’s interesting. Feels right even if I’m not sure what that means either, ha ha. I don’t know ‘The Bacheloress’. Huh, I guess I should peek at it at least. I like dense fiction, but not dense stories so much, but hey. Ty Segal does an Amon Duul cover? Okay, this I have to hear. I don’t have Spotify, but I’ll track it down. Thanks, man. I have heard bit of the new Royal Try, but not the Kool Keith track, wow. I liked what I heard, duh. Download. The Vape Dick novel is going as smoothly as you need? ** Corey Heiferman, Huh, interesting. I love theory and contemporary philosophy, but I found and read it on my own not in school so it doesn’t have those connotations. I’m not sure what you mean by ‘soft academia’. I try not to think about things in general ways, but, if I try to, I’d say I’m pretty pro academia, especially in these grotesquely anti-intellectual times. And teaching Barthes seems like a big up to me in theory. I have no personal experience with what you call ‘the creative writing industrial complex’. I know writers who went through creative writing programs who found the skills acquisition aspect useful and successfully evaded the attempts to normalise their approach to their work, and I also know writers who found it nothing but destructive. So kind of a mixed bag, and, again, I don’t personally find consolidating all writing programs into a single, judgeable thing to be a useful way to think about them. My guess is that it depends? ** David Ehrenstein, Hi. Yeah, I remember in, I think, the early 90s virtually every person I knew was reading ‘A Lover’s Discourse’. My favourite Barthes, as I think you know, is a seemingly odd one: ‘Empire of Signs’. So, so beautifully written. ** Kleiston, Huh. Well, gym bunny, why not? I ran around ‘the track’ in a gym once for fun in my street clothes, but I think that’s it. I did not know that about office kitchens, it’s true, busted, interesting. I think one of my siblings did a genealogy thing about our family at some point. But I can’t remember what the reveal was. It must not have been very celebrity packed. Oh, I guess I’m distantly related to Sam Houston, the Alamo guy. Well, I’m deathly afraid of the idea of being in outer space or far up in the sky. Planes are no problem. But if I watch a movie, and if there’s a scene where someone looks out the window of their spaceship at the earth or, holy shit, takes a space walk, I literally start sweating and can’t breathe and have to grip the arms of my chair. So there’s that, fear-wise. Yeah, it’s weird, it’s true, I love magic and horror and the paranormal and all that stuff, but I don’t buy it for a second. Strange, that. When you stop going for the next level in your writing, you’re lost, it’s over. You might get famous and rich if you do that, but you’re toast. I liked the first 2/3 of ‘Get Out’ pretty well, but then it turned dumb ass. ** Bill, I did an image search using the book title in quotes, and there was all this stuff of all different kinds, and I fished around in the stuff to make absolutely sure that the images were deliberately, directly tied to the book, and then grabbed the ones that had je ne sais quoi and stacked them up. Yeah, pretty simple. Your gig is very Sirenic, sigh. Wait, what is ‘the Beanbender’s collective’? I don’t you’ve ever mentioned it before? I might be spacing. Knock ’em dead with your pre-existing wok as only you can do, maestro! ** Steve Erickson, Hi. I look forward to reading your new pieces over the weekend. Everyone, Your weekend will not be full-fledged until you read (1) Steve’s interview with music video and film director Joseph Kahn, and (2) his article on British rapper Slowthai. Great you’re doing the phoner volunteering. These elections couldn’t be more important. Yeah, I think ‘French maid’ is pretty pre-woke. ** _Black_Acrylic, Hey, Ben. I’m trying to remember what my first theory book was. Does Bataille’s ‘Literature and Evil’ count? Maybe not. Sure enough, I’ve never heard of Mickey Mallet, but he sure seems interesting. ** Alex rose, Hi, first letter of the alphabet + lex! My doorstep begins four floors down and there’s a door code that even I can barely remember, so no problem. Probably because the shithole who would succeed him is just as heinous if not even more so, and so, first, you would need to get those two in the same place, which happens rarely, and then fire two perfectly aimed headshots before the Secret Service wrestled you to the ground, and that would probably be very difficult? Ugh, about the silent treatment. Man, if it’s any consolation, and it’s not, most film programmers and curators are the rudest, most procrastinating, chickenshit bunch of people in power that I have ever had to deal with in my life. I’m cranky too. May our maligned souls eventually rest in peace. Love, me. ** Okay. You have what I’m thinking is a golden opportunity to learn all about the history of smell’s fitful relationship to cinema this weekend. Give it a shot. See you on Monday.