What is 4D cinema? (and why you should care)

ICTA Insights

“Whenever any animal’s behavior puts it out of touch with the realities of its existence, it becomes extinct.”—Michael Crichton

“Extinction is the rule. Survival is the exception.” —Carl Sagan

When it comes to business, these are two of my favorite quotes. The cinema exhibition business is no exception and, thankfully, seems to be fully aware of the meaning behind these statements. Today’s moviegoers have an unprecedented amount of alternate entertainment options, and theatre chains and the studios are taking action as they work to make sure that going to the movies remains a standard entertainment option for today’s consumers. Battling against videogames, streaming services, big-screen home theatres and shortened release windows, movie theatres are evolving with new technologies, 3D projection, 3D sound, large-format screens, and seating options designed to further immerse the viewer and enhance the audience experience.

One of the most exciting of these emerging immersive technologies is “4D.” You may have seen this term heralded on billboards and splashed across marquees and theatre posters, touting these new 4D theatres from Mexico to Dubai, from Japan to the U.S., with more appearing regularly. But what does “4D” mean exactly? And perhaps even more importantly, why should you care?

Well…if you’re in any way connected to the business of producing, marketing or exhibiting feature films, you’re likely going to care a lot about 4D in the very near future.

Why? Because when we talk about 4D, we are talking about boosting box-office revenues with something consumers simply cannot get at home or via other avenues. 4D is proving its popularity by attracting and exciting new theatre patrons and creating a bigger fan base of the sought-after, young, affluent “avid moviegoer.” It is spurring more frequent theatre attendance by individual patrons, and it helps justify an up-charged premium ticket price, resulting in healthier profit margins. All this while giving valued theatre patrons a bigger, better “bang” for their entertainment “buck” than ever before.

In general, “4D” refers to the technology that adds motion, wind, vibrations, scent, lighting, fog and other physical effects to a theatre. These special effects are meticulously programmed in sync with the movie. Part art and part technology, this programming provides another “dimension” to the viewing experience while complementing the onscreen sight and sound. Imagine feeling the flight of a spaceship, the thrill of a car chase, the explosions of a battle, or the wing flaps of a dragon. 4D allows moviegoers to experience the action depicted on screen in a unique and exciting new way by enveloping them in a full sensory experience. It “pulls” the viewer into the movie like never before.

Typically, 4D manufacturers outfit a theatre with special seats that move (pitch, roll and heave) in different directions and have effects built in, such as audio transducers, air/water blasts, leg and neck ticklers, scents and other special effects. Inside the theatre itself, you may find wind fans, strobe lights, rain, fog machines, and even snow and bubble machines to add to the overall experience. All of these multiple special effects are programmed to work in concert and enhance the action on the screen for an intense, realistic moviegoing experience.

Granted, 4D is a marketing term–4D manufacturers haven’t beat scientists to the punch in entering the “4th dimension” of time and space. The term “4D” is really just a way to illustrate a progression in theatre technology. A regular movie is considered 2D. 3D allows projected images to “pop out” and have depth. Now, with the addition of movement and other effects, we have “4D.” Although you may see marketing terms referencing 5D, 6D and even up to 12D, this usually just means the manufacturer broke out the motion and other effects (wind, water, scents) into separate categories or “D’s.” Thankfully, unlike the theme park industry, the cinema industry seems to have settled on the simple term “4D” as the general description for these enhanced theatres!

So, you may ask, “Isn’t 4D basically an amusement park ride?” Although the technology does have its origins in that industry, unlike an amusement park ride where the motion and effects are constant and “broad” to create a short-lived thrill experience, 4D cinema is more “nuanced” in its use of motion and other special effects. Typically, only 20 to 25% of a cinema movie has motion, and there are long stretches where there are no effects at all. Then a car chase suddenly erupts onscreen and you accelerate with the motion. Water splashes when the hero crosses into a stream. Pokers tap you when the car hits a bump. The scent of gunpowder fills the air and a smoke cloud appears during an explosion. The difference is that in Cinema 4D, it’s all about the movie onscreen. The 4D effects are there to augment that experience.

In keeping with 4D cinema’s attention to creative sensibilities, the studios are involved in the process. For each movie, they sit with the 4D programmers and “QC” the 4D programming “cut” to ensure the creative intent. Though programming of 4D effects understandably differs among 4D manufacturers, all strive to enhance the filmmaker’s artistic vision, not distract. In fact, all of the major studios support the 4D format and there have been well over 150 Hollywood feature films programmed in 4D since its cinema debut.

4D is not only coming onto the scene, it has arrived. Just harken back to the time of silent pictures. Who would have imagined that “talkies” would have become the norm so soon? As the 4D market grows, it has the potential to become the game-changing technology in cinema that draws people back to the theatres and separates the competition.

“Hold on to your seats, folks, you can’t get this at home!”


Dan Jamele is VP/CTO of MediaMation, Inc. (www.mediamation.com), an interactive attractions technology company manufacturing 4D seats and technology under the MX4D™ brand. An inventor and holder of various U.S. patents, Jamele addressed the crowd at the ICTA 2015 conference panel “Immersive Technologies.”