Smell-O-Vision was a system that released odor during the projection of a film so that the viewer could "smell" what was happening in the movie. The technique was created by Hans Laube and made its only appearance in the 1960 film Scent of Mystery, produced by Mike Todd, Jr., son of film producer Mike Todd. The process injected 30 odors into a movie theater's seats when triggered by the film's soundtrack.
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. However, between 1903 and 1915, there were no games held, so it is unknown what the newsreel was about, although the Rose Parade (which has been held annually since 1890) seems likely.
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. Further attempts with releasing scents timed to key points in a film happened at a Detroit, Michigan theater with The Sea Hawk and Boom Town.
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 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, becoming muddled.
Laube's technique, which he dubbed "Scentovision", was to connect pipes to individual seats in theaters, so that the timing and amount could be carefully controlled by the projectionist using a control board. He introduced this system during the 1939 New York World's Fair, soon after which all his equipment was seized by police "under the pretext that a similar, patented system already exists in the USA". The New York Times reported in 1943 that Scentovision "is said to have produced odors as quickly and easily as the soundtrack of a film produces sound", but Laube, a Swiss national, returned to Europe in 1946, unable to interest any film or television studios with his invention.
Scent of Mystery
Todd Sr. had staged a series of musical films at the 1939 World's Fair and met Laube during this time. Fifteen years later, Todd and his son were thinking of ways they could enhance their film Around the World in Eighty Days. They remembered Laube's invention and although they decided not to use it for this film, Todd Jr., after his father's death, was intrigued enough to sign Laube to a movie deal.
Laube's system, for which he had been issued a U.S. patent and which was renamed "Smell-O-Vision" by Todd, had been improved in the intervening time. Now, instead of the scents being manually released, it used what he called a "smell brain", which was a series of perfume containers linked in a belt, arranged in the order that they would be released. The belt was then wound around a motorized reel. As the film threaded through the movie projector, markers on it would cue the brain. Needles would pierce membranes on the containers, releasing the scents, which would then be blown by fans through the pipes to individual vents underneath the audience members' seats. The cost of outfitting a theater to accommodate the system was anywhere from US$15,000 at Chicago's Cinestage theater to $1,000,000 elsewhere ($119,578 to $7,971,879 today).
Both Laube and Todd understood that the system had aesthetic limitations. For example, a heavy drama was not the sort of film that could employ it well. Thus, the system was to be deployed with the mystery-comedy Scent of Mystery, which would be the first film in which smells revealed certain plot points to the audience. For example, one character is identified by the smell of pipe tobacco.
Competition with AromaRama
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. The particular process was invented by Charles Weiss who stated in a 1959 appearance on CBS's popular television programme To Tell the Truth:
I... have invented a process to make movies smell. I call the process AromaRama. After more than two and a half years of work, our picture Behind the Great Wall will open December 2 at the Mayfair Theater in New York. In addition to seeing the action and hearing the dialogue, our audiences will be able to smell the scenes. 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.
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. Besides the slightly earlier release date, the name AromaRama itself made fun of Todd Sr.'s Cinerama process, and the choice of film was also deliberate, as travelogues were one of Cinerama's specialties.
An alternate explanation of the provenance of the word "AromaRama" is provided by its developer, Charles Weiss: "Screenwriter Henry Myers (Destry Rides Again) came up with the name "AromaRama" because the process was to the sense of smell what Cinerama was to the sense of sight. AromaRama echoed Cinerama rather than made fun of it. 'Behind the Great Wall' was chosen because distributor Walter Reade felt many of the scenes would be even more impressive with scents added. Because it had won major awards in Europe, it was expected to be well received in America – and it was.
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." By contrast, the film itself, which was not made with AromaRama in mind, received high praise. Further negative reviews came from Time, Variety, and The New Yorker.
Not all reviews were unfavorable. The New York Herald Tribune in its review titled, "AromaRama Premieres Here: Audience Smells What It Sees and Hears in Movie," the uncited critic writes: "With a few minor exceptions, the audience last night pronounced the successtion of smells a total success from the start, which consisted of an opening from Chet Huntley, television commentator, who demonstrated what was about to happen by slicing an orange while the odor track suffused the theatre with a smell of oranges being sliced." A follow-up article in the December 13, 1959 Sunday Herald Tribune said: "Curiously enough, they 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...There is no question about its effectiveness in creating illusions of reality."
The Sunday News awarded the film 31⁄2 stars out of a possible 4 stars in its review titled, "'Behind Great Wall' Puts Smell on Screen." Reviewer Dorothy Masters wrote, "Several wise men anticipated the birth of AromaRama, the major prophet being Charles Weiss, a public relations executive, who journeyed afar to enlist the support of a chemical company, an electronic air-filter plant, a camera equipment firm and an industrial timer organization. Together they devised a workable system for coordinating the picture of an orange with the smell of an orange."
The December 21, 1959 edition of Time Magazine stated in its review of "Behind the Great Wall", which it panned, "The AromaRama process itself, developed by a public relations executive, Charles Weiss, is fairly ingenious. The film carries a "scent track" that transmits cues to an electronic "trigger" that fires a salvo of scent into the theatre through the air-conditioning ports. The AromaRama people claim that they can reach every nose in the house within two seconds and remove the odor almost as fast. The perfumes are built up on a quick-evaporating base (Freon) and as the air is drawn off for filtering it is passed over electrically charged baffles that precipitate the aromatic particles. The fragrances were developed by Rhodia, Inc." Rhodia was a subsidiary of Rhone Poulenc.
'The World Telegram Sun exclaimed, "You've got to breathe it to believe it – scented movies are here to stay!"
The Film Encyclopedia in its article on AromaRama states, "It competed with another process, SMELL-O-VISION for the attention of audiences in Hollywood's desperate attempt in the 50s to regain customers lost to television...Neither system proved popular, although technically they were both successful..."
Charles Weiss is alive (86 years old as of November 2010) and well in Boca Raton, Florida. He has never stopped experimenting with motion pictures and aromas. He spends most of this time adding fragrances to classic black and white films to demonstrate how smells might be used in the future.
The film's poor reception threatened to derail the debut Scent of Mystery before it even opened, as the cinematic press now expected the odor release system to be poor.
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. A 2000 Time reader survey listed Smell-O-Vision in the "Top 100 Worst Ideas of All Time".
In homage to Smell-O-Vision, American film director John Waters released an enhanced "Odorama" version of his film, Polyester in 1982. Waters included scratch and sniff cards that the audience could use while watching the movie. Each card contained ten numbered spots that were scratched when that number flashed in the bottom right corner of the screen. Although this approach solved the problems inherent in previous attempts at this technology, it did not gain widespread usage for other films. The idea, however, was duplicated twice: Once in the mid-1980s when MTV aired Scent of Mystery in conjunction with a convenience store promotion that offered scratch and sniff cards; the second time was the 2003 animated film Rugrats Go Wild!, the makers of which claimed it was a homage to Waters.
The Walt Disney World and Disneyland Resorts currently make use of this idea, in their 3-D films and other attractions. The Animal Kingdom's attraction It's Tough to Be a Bug (also at Disney California Adventure Park) releases an unpleasant odor coinciding with a stink bug on-screen, causing an audience reaction, similarly Mickey's Philharmagic at the Magic Kingdom in Orlando produces pie scents. Soarin' Over California and Soarin' include orange blossom, pine forest, and sea air fragrances as the scenery flies below the passengers. Heimlich's Chew Chew Train drips watermelon scented water onto the riders before crawling through an Animal cracker scented box. Monsters, Inc. Mike & Sulley to the Rescue! briefly takes riders through a ginger scented sushi house. It is unknown, however, if the technology behind this is the same or a derivative of Laube's work.
In 2006, NTT Communications, a Japanese telecom giant, developed a new way to display odors during the release of Terrence Malick's The New World. During 7 key moments throughout the film, scents were emitted by an internet server that was linked to the reel of film, effectively downloading the scent. The scents used were supposed to evoke from the audience the emotions that were trying to be expressed in the film. including an illustrated schematic for a visual representation for how it worked. Scents included floral for romance scenes, peppermint, and rosemary for tear-jerking moments; orange and grapefruit for joyful sequences; and eucalyptus, tea tree, and herbs for angry scenes.
In 2010, the Norwegian film Kurt Josef Wagle And The Legend of the Fjord Witch by director Tommy Wirkola was released to cinemas with scratch and sniff cards that the audience could use while watching the movie. One year later, the American film Spy Kids: All the Time in the World by director Robert Rodriguez used the same idea, at no additional ticket cost, advertised as "4D Aroma-Scope".
April Fool's joke
In 1965, BBC TV played an April Fool's Day joke on their viewers. The network aired an "interview" with a man who had invented a new technology called "Smellovision" that allowed viewers at home to experience aromas produced in the television studio. To demonstrate, the man chopped some onions and brewed a pot of coffee. Viewers called in to confirm that they had smelled the aromas that were "transmitted" through their television sets.
The host of Emeril Live once reminded the studio audience that although they could smell the delicious scents of his cooking, the home audience couldn't because they didn't have smellovision.
Steve Urkel invents a helmet-based smellovision device on an episode of the sitcom, Family Matters and convinces Carl Winslow to try it out. As usual, however, the device quickly goes haywire, burning Carl's hair in the process.
On the animated sitcom Futurama in the episodes The Honking and That's Lobstertainment!, Smell-O-Vision has successfully taken off. Harold Zoid, a washed up movie actor, comments he flopped after they invented "Smell-O-Vision". There is a second reference when the logo is shown at the start of another episode. It reads at the bottom "Now in Smell-O-Vision" and another has the sentence "Smell-O-Vision users insert nostril tubes now".
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 odours to complement their television experience. A similar event called "Smelly Telly" for Cartoon Network's Cow and Chicken animated series involved scratch and sniff cards as well, lasting from April 26 to 30, 1999.
- Digital lollipop
- Digital scent technology
- Smelling screen
- The Old Grey Hare, a Warner Brothers cartoon that mentions "Smellevision"
- Gilbert 2008, p. 148
- Gilbert 2008, p. 151
- Smith, Martin J.; Kiger, Patrick J. (February 5, 2006). "The Lingering Reek of Smell-O-Vision". Los Angeles Times. p. 26.
- Gilbert 2008, p. 151–52
- McGee, Mark Thomas (2001). Beyond Ballyhoo: Motion Picture Promotion and Gimmicks. McFarland & Co. p. 120. ISBN 0-7864-1114-7.
- Gilbert 2008, p. 153
- Kirsner, Scott (2008-05-15). "Inventing the Movies". Createspace. pp. 45–46. ISBN 978-1-4382-0999-9.
- Chuck Weiss appearance on To Tell the Truth, including his affidavit as read by host Bud Collyer. Originally aired November 5, 1959 and rebroadcast on Game Show Network on March 19, 2009.
- Gilbert 2008, p. 159
- Gilbert 2008, p. 161
- Crowther, Bosley (December 10, 1959). "Behind the Great Wall (1959) Smells of China; 'Behind Great Wall' Uses AromaRama". The New York Times. Retrieved March 19, 2009.
- Gilbert 2008, p. 162
- Drobnick, Jim (editor) (2006). The Smell Culture Reader. Berg Publishers. p. 360. ISBN 1-84520-213-9.
- López, Daniel (1993). Films by Genre. McFarland & Co. p. 293. ISBN 978-0-89950-780-4.
- "It's Walter's World in the Baltimore Sun Times". November 17, 2006. Retrieved 2007-04-06.
- Schedule for releases
- Further reading of how it this system works can be seen here.
- Anderton, Ethan (June 24, 2011). "'Spy Kids 4' Hitting Theaters with an All-New Form of Smell-O-Vision".
- Bloxham, Andy (21 October 2010). "'Smell-O-Vision' TV developed by Japanese scientists". The Telegraph (Telegraph Media Group Limited). Retrieved 2 April 2013.
- Hodson, Hal (29 March 2013). "Smell-o-vision screens let you really smell the coffee". New Scientist (Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.) (2910). Retrieved 2 April 2013.
- "Best ever April Fools' pranks". The Times. March 30, 2007. Retrieved 2009-06-03.
- BFI Film and TV Database, last accessed 16/12/2009 http://ftvdb.bfi.org.uk/sift/title/537570
- "Smelly Telly". Cartoon Network. Archived from the original on May 8, 1999. Retrieved 2012-12-28.
- Gilbert, Avery (2008). "Hollywood Psychophysics". What the Nose Knows. Crown Publishers. ISBN 978-1-4000-8234-6.
- SMELLIT could someday bring Smell-o-vision,
- Hollywood Ballyhoo, The Belknap Collection for the Performing Arts, University of Florida
- Timeline of Influential Milestones and Important Turning Points in Film History
- Film History of the 1950s, The Greatest Films
- Museum of Hoaxes, Smellovision
- Smellovision's coming to the big screen
- When Roses Won't Do, E-Mail a Fragrance