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  • Author Stephen Graves
  • Published June 20, 2014

5 cinema inventions that were ahead of their time

Some film-makers aren’t shy about pushing the boundaries of tech. And it doesn’t always work out (remember Smell-O-Vision?). Stuff.tv’s Stephen Graves takes a look at some cinema cul-de-sacs – and some amazing comebacks…


Some film-makers aren’t shy about pushing the boundaries of tech. And it doesn’t always work out (remember Smell-O-Vision?). Stuff.tv’s Stephen Graves takes a look at some cinema cul-de-sacs – and some amazing comebacks…


Film isn’t just about the picture. Throughout the history of cinema, film-makers have tried to go beyond the image on the screen, adding sensory experiences to the mix. They may have faded from history or been dismissed as gimmicks at the time, but we’ve rounded up five cinema innovations that are coming into their own now.


Smell-O-Vision made its first (and only) appearance in 1960, with the aptly named Scent of Mystery; perfume containers in the cinema were timed to release odours at appropriate moments in the film. It was seen as nothing more than a fad; the problem was, the scent dispersed too slowly through the cinema, so that most viewers were several seconds behind the action on screen.


Still, the idea of smelly films has undergone periodic revivals; most notably, John Waters’ 1981 comedy Polyester invited audiences to scratch-n-sniff “Odorama” cards. More recently, director Michel Gondry got in on the act; screenings of his film Mood Indigo were accompanied by bespoke perfumes created by “scent impresario” Kaya Sorhaindo, puffed out into the room using a manually-operated diffusion unit.


But what about automating the process? Nescafé recently used a digital scent diffuser to pipe the smell of freshly-brewed coffee into Australian cinemas during a pre-film commercial.



Meanwhile, the new oPhone Duo scent device can reportedly generate up to 300,000 combinations of smells, without the problem of lingering, blending aromas. So who knows? Perhaps Smell-O-Vision may ride again…


Curved screens (Cinerama)
Back in the 1950s, cinema owners needed a way to woo audiences away from the new medium of television. They found it in Cinerama. Invented by Fred Waller and Merian C Cooper, it was the first widescreen format – and used three 35mm cameras recording simultaneously to capture its expansive images. The image was then projected, using three synchronised projectors, onto a massive curved screen – the first of its kind.


It was the IMAX of its day – but although it was a success with audiences, it proved to be massively expensive to produce and distribute, using three times as much film as a conventional picture and requiring specially-outfitted cinemas.


Recent Blu-ray releases of the old Cinerama films have used digital restoration techniques to clean away the infamous “join lines” between the three pieces of film, and can be projected in a special curved “smilebox” format to simulate the experience of sitting in a Cinerama theatre.


But curved screens are making a comeback; LG’s curved OLED TVs bring the immersive experience into your front room.



Immersive cinema
Cinerama wasn’t the only attempt to put viewers into the picture. For its theme parks, Disney pioneered Circle-Vision 360˚– a nine-camera system that recorded and projected images in a complete circle:



And in the 1970s, the San Diego Hall of Science developed the OMNIMAX format – an IMAX film recorded using a fisheye lens and projected onto the inside of a dome for a stunningly immersive picture…



Both of these formats have proved of somewhat limited appeal – the expense of shooting the films and creating venues in which to screen them means that they’ve been limited to theme parks and museums.


But immersive cinema is due for a comeback. Capturing footage from multiple digital cameras is much cheaper than shooting on film – and the arrival of affordable, high-resolution VR helmets in the form of Oculus Rift and Sony’s Project Morpheus means that there’s finally a way to watch them.



Indeed, the first truly 360˚ film shot for the Oculus Rift – Zero Point – is already in production. And Titanic director James Cameron has weighed in on VR film-making, stating that he’s “very interested” in exploring the format’s possibilities.


Want to have a crack at VR film-making yourself? Parrot’s new Bebop drone is compatible with the headset, giving you a genuine birds-eye view.


Interactive film
The 1961 horror film Mr Sardonicus purportedly gave the audience the opportunity to vote on the film’s narrative, with audiences given the option to choose between a “merciful” ending and a “punishment” ending. In fact, it was a promotional gimmick – the audience had no impact on the outcome of the “punishment poll.”


But the idea of interactive films has intrigued film-makers for years. Director Francis Ford Coppola attempted a genuine version of the experiment with his recent film Twixt; he planned to take it on tour and edit the film live, remixing it on the fly and adapting it to the audience’s responses. If they liked the comedy moments, he’d include more funny scenes; if they jumped out of their seats at the horror, he’d dial up the scares. In the event, the film received a critical drubbing, and his interactive experiment was only performed once, at San Diego Comic-Con.



More recently, the technology has emerged to make it possible for audiences to interact with films on a large scale. The Many Worlds short uses biometric sensors to track audience members’ heart rate, brainwave activity and perspiration – choosing one of four different endings based on the data it gathers. Effectively, it’s automating the process that Coppola wanted to carry out live.


Meanwhile, sensors like the new Xbox One Kinect can track your heart rate and emotional state, monitor where on the screen you’re looking and even measure your engagement with the film you’re watching. It’s surely only a matter of time before some canny director takes the storytelling techniques of Many Worlds and gathers biometric data using the Kinect to influence the course of the story.


Live music
It’s not really fair to call live music with cinema “ahead of its time”. After all, orchestral accompaniment was the norm for cinemas in the silent era; it was only the advent of talkies that marked the end of musicians working in cinemas.


Now, though, they’re making a comeback; since we all have big screens in our living rooms, it takes something special to tempt us out of the house to watch a movie.


Appropriately enough, it was silent film homage The Artist that kicked off the current fad for films with live orchestral accompaniment. This year, the Royal Albert Hall has hosted orchestral screenings of films as diverse as Star Trek and Gladiator, while upcoming shows include West Side Story and The Godfather. Try fitting that in your living room…



Stephen Graves is online deputy editor of Stuff.tv


The LG 55EA980W – the world’s first curved OLED television – is on-sale now and available to buy from Currys/PC World, John Lewis, Harrods, Richer Sounds and other leading stockists. For more information, please see here.

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