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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. 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.
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 ($124,083 to $8,272,216 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.
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 technique was invented by Charles Weiss, a public relations executive, whose reputation was gained creating special news-making events in New York City, the most competitive market in the United States. His appearance on To Tell the Truth, included his affidavit as read by host Bud Collyer. Originally aired November 5, 1959 and rebroadcast on Game Show Network on March 19, 2009.</ref> 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.
From "Guinness Movie Facts & Feats": "The first film made as a "smellie" was a wide-screen travelogue about China, "Behind the Great Wall" (U.S. 1959), filmed in Totalscope, De Luxe Color, stereophonic sound and the new wonder of Aromarama. Premiered at the De Mille Theater, New York on December 2, 1959, the film was accompanied by a range of 72 smells that included incense, smoke, burning pitch, oranges, spices and a barnyard of geese. The process, devised by Charles Weiss, involved circulating the scents through the ventilating system."
From The New York Times of Sept. 10, 1958: "Plans were announced yesterday for a forthcoming feature-length production utilizing a fragrance process called "Weiss-Rhodia Screen-Scent." Rhodia was a subsidiary of Rhone Poulenc, the largest industrial corporation in France. The process was perfected during a two-year period by Rhodia, Inc., manufacturers of aromatics, for a new independent production company headed by Charles H. Weiss."
Time Magazine stated on December 21, 1959, "The Aromarama process itself, developed by a public relations executive named Charles Weiss, is fairly ingenious."
The New York Post quoted developer Charles Weiss on September 9, 1958 that scent mix-ups were unlikely: "It's all electronically triggered by a high-audio beep signal, and its release is carefully measured in advance."
In the September 9, 1958 World Telegram and Sun, Charles Weiss stated: "I foresee the time when you will get a suspense picture of the Hitchcock kind. You see an old, blind woman in a dingy furnished room. We know she's going to be murdered and as we sit there we smell jasmine, the killer's scent. Thereafter, when we smell jasmine we'll know the murderer is lurking around somewhere."
The Daily Mirror was cited in a December 11, 1959 newspaper ad, "We were astounded. Even the audience burst into applause as a half-sliced orange filled the screen."
Just as "The Great Train Robbery" (1903) was the first motion picture with a plot, "Behind the Great Wall" was the first with scents throughout the entire film.
Science Magazine: "A similar contraption known as Aromarama was invented by Charles Weiss."
Film History of the 1950s: "Charles Weiss' 1959 system of pumping "Oriental" scents into the theatre through the air-conditioning was called 'Aromarama'."
Box Office (1960): "The local engagement of "Behind the Great Wall," first film in the Aromarama process, developed by Charles Weiss."
Film History Timeline: "Aromarama, an experimental, short-lived scenting system developed by inventor Charles Weiss."
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 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 3 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", "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, 92, is alive and well in Boca Raton, Florida. He has experimented with motion pictures and aromas 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 four times: firstly in the UK by ITV in June 1985 when an edition of science programme The Real World and Saturday morning children's programme No. 73 were both aired in "Aromavision" with accompanying "Aromapack" scratch and sniff cards distributed with listings magazine TVTimes, the second time in the mid-1980s when MTV aired Scent of Mystery in conjunction with a convenience store promotion that offered scratch and sniff cards; the third time was the 2003 animated film Rugrats Go Wild!, the makers of which claimed it was a homage to Waters. The fourth time was with the fourth installment of the Spy Kids movie series, in which scratch n' sniff cards were given to movie goers, who were instructed to scratch the number as it came up on screen.
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".
In 1965, BBC TV played an April Fools 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.
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. In the latter episode, Harold Zoid, a washed up movie actor, comments he flopped after they invented "Smell-O-Vision". In the former episode, there is also a reference to the system when the logo is shown at the start of the 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 odors 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.