When audience members take their seats to watch “Bullet Train” in a 4DX auditorium this weekend, they will be greeted with a choice. In the armrest is a small button that allows viewers to switch between two options: “Water on” and “Water off”. The device serves as a harbinger – and, for 4DX novices, perhaps a warning – of the full-tilt sensory experience that is about to unfold as Brad Pitt fights for his life against an army of opposing assassins.
With streaming and other home entertainment competing for consumer attention, 4DX employees see the format as an added incentive to draw audiences to theaters. Korean parent company CJ Group first conceived of the technology as an answer to the question of how to innovate the cinematic experience and make it more essential in the eyes of audiences.
During “Bullet Train”, Pitt will be punched, stabbed, thrown and chased as he unravels a convoluted web of conflicting hit jobs. Those who choose to view the film in 4DX will experience every movement on screen as movement in their seats, which shake and wobble in time with the action.
“We have what we officially call the three degrees of freedom – our chairs move with pitch (a rolling motion back and forth), yaw (a spinning motion left to right), and heave (a rolling motion up-down). on all of our equipment.”
The bells and whistles of a 4DX auditorium include wind turbines, strobe lights, simulated snow (it’s moss), smoke smells, and a device inside the seats that sinks into the shoulders of members of the public.
“I checked with our artists. They don’t call it a back puncher. They call it ‘the back kicker’,” laughs Kim.
With so many instruments in each auditorium, it can be easy to get everything going and blasting the room. But a 4DX experience isn’t about sensory overload. Instead, each is meticulously curated through a week-long process in Korea to align and enhance content on the big screen.
Each year, the group creates 4DX experiences for more than 30 American productions, as well as another 40 titles from China, Korea and other local markets. Once a 4DX experience is finalized, the coded instructions are distributed wirelessly to company auditoriums around the world. They are then run on local servers within each location.
“There are two teams in Korea. The movement team takes the first shot. It takes about two weeks to complete. Then the effects team comes,” says Duncan MacDonald, Head of Global Marketing and Americas Theater Development at CJ 4DPLEX. “They work very closely with each other. This team has been doing it for so long and it’s really fascinating to see how they take film and add 4DX to it. It is a very certain, specific talent.
“I think a lot of people assume it’s done through an automated process. It’s not,” adds Kim. “They really go frame by frame sometimes to make sure that every effect, every movement, every vibration is conveyed correctly based on what you see on screen.”
As MacDonald describes it, “Bullet Train” is “an excellent choice” for 4DX. The film’s abundance of rock-em-sock-em fight scenes have the seats shaking back and forth. Strong blows activate the “back kicker” of each seat. As the bullets whistle, gusts of air fire off near the side of the participants’ heads.
But 4DX’s use goes beyond highlighting the violence in “Bullet Train.” Some comedic moments take on unexpected prominence, like when the image of an erupting bidet triggers a jet of water from the nozzle in front of each seat. Additionally, the film’s setting requires its own environmental flair, from the occasional gust of wind to a more consistent light seat sway that lines up with the swaying of the wagons.
Some filmmakers have become more invested in how 4DX is implemented with their work. CJ Group is happy to invite them into the process. Earlier this year, “Top Gun: Maverick” director Joseph Kosinski, “Lightyear” director Angus MacLane and “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” editor Bob Murawski visited the screening room of the company in Hollywood, providing notes that were then sent back to teams in Korea to fine-tune the experience. The office even hosts writer-director Kevin Smith, who will occasionally drop by the screening room to watch what’s new.
“We work with filmmakers or studio reps to make sure the quality is there,” Kim shares. “We worked directly with director Joseph Kosinski on ‘Top Gun: Maverick.’ He was in our cinemas, in our screening room, testing and making sure everything matched his vision for how the film should play.
By inviting parties closer to the filmmaking process to collaborate, 4DX teams can better achieve the goal they have set themselves: immersion.
“If the seats move for the entire two hours of a movie, I don’t think that really takes advantage of what 4DX is,” Kim says. “4DX helps audiences feel much more engrossed in a movie. We want to make sure it’s the right scene and we want to make sure it makes sense when we’re using particular effects.
After new releases leave theaters, 4DX Auditorium Instructions remain on file within the CJ Group, in case the films are re-released in the future. The company also continues to explore the possibilities of implementing 4DX with older films; Joe Dante’s “Gremlins” was released in the format during the 2019 holiday season.
The first 4DX auditorium opened to the public in 2009, with a hall in Korea welcoming moviegoers to view James Cameron’s sci-fi epic “Avatar” in moving seats. In the years that followed, the entertainment arm of CJ Group significantly expanded the format’s global footprint, with 57 theaters in North America and 783 worldwide. The company also focused on another premium format – ScreenX, a panoramic auditorium that projects images around the audience with 270-degree screens.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has proven to be a tumultuous time for the theater industry as a whole, CJ Group notes that studios and consumers have shown more intense interest in 4DX as lockdowns have been lifted. . “Top Gun: Maverick” surpassed $50 million in box office sales at 4DX and ScreenX auditoriums – the highest-grossing release to date across any format.
“People just wanted to get out there and experience something different,” MacDonald says. “4DX is something you can’t get at home. It’s so different from a regular cinematic experience. I think people were looking for that after the pandemic. We get our exit poll after every big title and there’s a huge positive feeling in that it’s a fully immersive experience. Nothing too much. Not too many back punches – just enough.
According to popular legend, audiences in the 1890s who first saw “The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat” by the Lumière brothers were so alarmed by the image of a locomotive barreling towards them that the audience broke out in panic. Now, over 125 years later, auditoriums are instead taking viewers inside the on-screen train as Brad Pitt derails it.
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