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Words Wendy Syfret

Smell-O-Vision: a doomed romance

In 1906, a small family-owned theatre in Forest City, Pennsylvania screened a newsreel about a football game staged at the Pasadena Rose Bowl. Cinema was still new—its jolting, unnaturally sped up figures were strangers to those who sat in the audience. Despite the lingering fingerprints of the unknown, they were excited by the tentative flirtation between art and technology.

To heighten the novelty, and perhaps lend to the protracted sense of the surreal that still clung to movies, the cinema’s proprietors had the idea to engage another faculty. While the projected memory of the Rose Bowl screened in front, they dipped cotton wool in rose oil and held the sodden swabs before a fan. As the heady odour permeated the venue, the audience was lured further away from reality, departing their life for a moment and sinking into a floral-esque spectacle. More than a century later, this quiet gimmick would be remembered as the beginning of one of cinema’s more troubled, but fascinating movements. It was, as far as we know, the first time smell was engaged to heighten the magic of the movies.

Throughout the 1920s and 30s, private cinemas played with the relationship between film and smell, with varying levels of success. There are numerous accounts of scents like lilac and orange blossom being released during screenings. By the 1940s it was enough of a novelty that Walt Disney explored engaging it for his experimental epic Fantasia. But three decades after the cotton wool swab dipping, Disney decided the technology—to roll out on a commercial scale—was too expensive. Tied up in fiscal and technological realities, scent and cinema lived together as a trick for the next few decades, a second thought, never quite made real. That was until a certain wealthy individual decided it was worth the time and consideration to stage a legitimate attempt.

Michael Todd Jr was the son of a super-producer who shared his name. He possessed the curious mix of Hollywood heritage, disproportionate self-confidence, glossy hook-ups (Elizabeth Taylor was at one point his step-mother) and cash necessary to attempt to bring the scented gimmick into the mainstream. In 1960, he debuted a hopeful industry game-changer: Smell-O-Vision via the film Scent of Mystery.

The movie was a soapy thriller about a photographer on holiday in Spain who becomes embroiled in a murder plot. The love interest—Elizabeth Taylor, as a favour to her stepson— was marked by her perfume. The villain smelt of tobacco. The opening scene was a butterfly landing on a peach tree—the audience’s first hint of the sense-sprawling venture was a waft of soft peach scent. Between (somewhat clumsy) odour-themed plot points there were also gags: when a taxi driver is seen drinking coffee, brandy is smelt.

Hopes were high, especially Todd Jr’s, and Scent of Mystery was preceded by a now legendary press blitz. The film’s posters read: “First they moved (1895)! Then they talked (1927)! Now they smell!” The producer enjoyed trotting out bon-mots like, “I hope it’s the kind of picture they call a scentsation!”

Behind the spin was Zurich-born osmologist Hans Laube, an acquaintance of Todd Jr’s father. The technological mind behind the production, he created a device that pumped the desired odours into the cinema at the appropriate times, with neutralising chemicals squirted between for reprieve. But despite the impressive cast and colourful promotional campaign, the execution was less charming than promised.

The mechanics of the device were distracting: as each scent was disseminated it would hiss and whir. Additionally, the timings were difficult to get right—by the time an odour reached the nostrils of viewers the moment of wondrous synchronicity had passed. (Carmen Laube suggests on the blog in70mm that the producers abandoned her father’s sophisticated little unit at the last minute in favour of wafting scents in cheaply via air con.) Most worrying was that the scents were often overwhelming to the audience. Many complained of nausea—or of olfactory fatigue—as mixed-up flowers, perfume and cigarettes poisoned the air around them.

The experience was widely panned. National cinemas cancelled their screenings. In an effort to recoup costs, and assumedly save face, the film was ultimately recut and re-released—scent free—under the name Holiday in Spain.

Reflecting on the backlash a lifetime later, Saskia Wilson-Brown, founder of The Institute for Art and Olfaction and very possibly Smell-O-Vision’s biggest fan after Todd Jr himself, is direct about its failings. “From a technological point of view, getting scent into and out of a theatre is no easy task. And then, people are so sensitive to smell. For film distributors—who naturally want to reach the most people possible—it presents a risk, the unknown. And we all know there’s nothing the mainstream film industry hates more than an unknown.”

While the medium had just suffered its most infamous attempt and failure, something had been sparked within the public consciousness. Four decades later, when Michael Todd Jr passed away in 2002, his hopeful project would be mentioned in the first line of his New York Times obituary.

Beyond the spectacle, introducing an element of smell into film seems a sensible proposition. The movies are an emotional plane where our feelings are toyed with, coaxed to identify with leading men and women. The connection to smell, of course, is more that sentimental. As psychiatrist Dr Fred Vista explains, “odours are detected in the nose by the olfactory bulb, which runs from the back of the nose along the underside of the brain.” This bulb, effectively an organ of smell, connects directly to the hippocampus and the amygdala—sections of the brain prominently involved in autobiographical memory and emotion. No other senses—including cinema’s dual pillars of sight and sound—have such immediate connections with our mental RAM.

Sentiment, spectacle and unintended nausea aside, above all Todd Jr’s dream was flawed because it was expensive. At the time, to install Laube’s specialist system could cost a cinema between US $15,000 and $1 million, or $119,983 to almost $8 million today.

Faced with a multi-million dollar reality, it appeared the dream was gone for regular cinemas, though never quite forgotten. Among the handful of fans Todd Jr managed to charm was future filmmaker John Waters. Working on opposite ends of the 20th century, Todd Jr and Waters are arguably very similar. Both love a spectacle and would do almost anything to have their audience face the shock of the new. For Todd Jr, that meant Elizabeth Taylor sunbake in a scented cinema. Waters was more into seeing Divine eat dog shit.

Scratch and sniff card from John Waters’ Polyester

Scratch and sniff card from John Waters’ Polyester

In 1981, Waters picked up where Todd Jr left off. Polyester was a black comedy lampooning middle-class suburbia—divorce, abortion, foot fetishes and all. Filmed in Waters’ native Baltimore, it starred his favourites: Divine, Edith Massey, Mink Stole. Waters called his take ‘Odourama,’ and while inspired in part by Smell-O-Vision, it took a different approach. Learning from his predecessor’s stumblings, he used scratch-and-sniff cards to evoke desired scents. Cards were handed out at screenings and were numbered one to 10. When a number ashed on the screen, audiences would press their face to the corresponding patch:

1. Roses
2. Flatulence
3. Model airplane glue
4. Pizza
5. Gasoline
6. Skunk
7. Natural gas
8. New car smell
9. Dirty shoes
10. Air freshener

Not only were paper cards cheaper, they eliminated issues of missed narrative cues or certain profiles commingling. The also halted the lingering of smells long after the screening, polluting another audience’s experience. That said, Waters was less concerned with viewer comfort—he would later note on a DVD commentary track that he was pleased an audience actually paid “to smell shit.”

Unlike Scent of Mystery, Polyester was well received critically, and its low-key approach to the scented dream was more widely picked up. Cinemas didn’t need costly conversions to screen it, only a stack of gimmicky cards mailed in the post. Todd Jr wanted Smell-O-Vision to become the next wave of cinema’s evolution; John Waters was having fun with it. But fate’s twisted hand has meant the latter’s approach has been more widely reproduced: it’s regularly featured in John Waters film festivals, screenings, and weirdly, the 2011 film Spy Kids: All the Time in the World.

For a long time after Waters’ early forays, the idea of sniffable-films was relegated to homage: to dutiful fan re-screenings of Scent of Mystery and Polyester. But in the early 2000s a strange new flush of interest emerged. At the dawn of the millennium the silver screen was legitimately threatened by a new media, for the first time since the early days of television. The Internet gave birth to a culture of streaming and downloading that ate into box office numbers. Fifty years later, the climate that had seen Smell-O-Vision championed as a weapon against home entertainment had returned—modern lmmakers were once again looking for ways to capitalise on spectacle and articulate the singular quality of being at the movies.

Leading this new wave of awkward experimentation was Japanese company NTT Communications Corp., a subsidy of Nippon Telegraph and Telephone. In 2006 they trialled installing fragrance-releasing machines at two Japanese theatres (one each in Tokyo and Osaka). Likened to giant Glade PlugIns, the machines released various combinations of six base oils that corresponded to key plot points on screen. The system may have been inspired by Laube’s prodigious design, but with the help of the internet to synchronise the scent generators installed under a small clutch of select “aroma premium seats” they were able to eliminate the predecessor’s bungles in timing.

The process was trialled in April at a screening of the Terrence Malick-directed vehicle The New World. Rather than calling on very literal, specific scents to mimic on-screen action (in which the main player was Colin Farrell), it was decided smells would be used to evoke a general mood throughout the pilgrim tale. America smelt woody, the English court was citrus, and love was minty—obviously. Despite the improved technology, and clear attempt to play it cool and subtle this time around, the outing once again left moviegoers underwhelmed. According to Chris Fujiwara of Film Comment, it felt “like watching a movie while an aromatherapy clinic was being held in the lobby.”

The failure did achieve something: it marked Japan as the modern spiritual home of the technology. The idea that was born out of Hollywood dreams appeared to need fostering by the ingenuity of Japanese inventors—who also saw potential for more pervasive brand marketing.

As recently as March 2013, researchers at the Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology unveiled a prototype invention they called a “smelling screen.” Presented at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ Virtual Reality conference in Orlando, it combined a digital display with small fans capable of directing odour. By operating the fans on a low speed—avoiding a distinct breeze effect—scents were allowed to waft naturally.

In the US, an adapter that fits into the back of a TV is being developed by researchers at University of California, working in collaboration with the Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology. This small addition produces scents by heating an aqueous solution (for instance, ammonia) to expel an odorous gas. While promising, it does feel the dream is becoming less grand in an attempt to slip in quietly to the modern world.

Not that everyone has given up on wonky aspirations. Wilson-Brown’s institute regularly works with film festivals around the world to bring Scent of Mystery back to life through special screenings. Alongside project producer Tamara Burnstock, Wilson-Brown’s long-standing obsession with the film made her feel “like it could benefit from a re-examination, particularly the scent component which was seen as a failure the first time around.” Moved not only by the challenge, but also the film’s somewhat sad history (Laube’s daughter wrote of her father, “Scent of Mystery was his swan song. He lost all his money … and he died about 16 years later, penniless and broken”), The Institute for Art and Olfaction gured if anyone could make it work, it would be them.

Custom Smell-O-Vision scents, reimagined. Courtesy The Institute for Art and Olfaction

Custom Smell-O-Vision scents, reimagined. Courtesy The Institute for Art and Olfaction

Wilson-Brown explains they had to change scent formulas by necessity. “We didn’t have a copy of the original formulas, so we had to start from scratch. Also, we re-investigated the machines, so the atmospheric smells could be propagated in a more cost-effective way.”

With her acute understanding of scent, film and technology—and the odd appeal of their fusion—Wilson-Brown is cautiously excited about the new wave of innovation that suggests we may one day see Todd Jr’s aspirations waft into mainstream entertainment. “If there is a demand for it, the technology will become streamlined and more cost-effective, and that will make a big difference.”

Arguably, other than Waters, who set out to disgust, no one seems to have harnessed the complex relationship between scent and human emotion in a way that could be packaged as entertainment. In the same way that 3D movies must be developed with the technology in mind from the outset, Wilson-Brown concedes that that if scent is not considered first, “it will never be more than an afterthought—a marketing stunt.”

While we shouldn’t expect Smell-O-Vision’s proud, dominating return in the immediate future, one thing is clear when reviewing its history. While it may lay dormant for decades, there will always be another Michael Todd Jr or John Waters or Saskia Wilson-Brown whose love of the movies is so pervasive they’ll try and make it work.

This article appears in the NOSES issue of Museum, available to purchase online now.

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