Movies in Motion: Looking back at the greatest hits of 4D and motion seating

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Cinemas Features

Over the years, audience members have grown more or less familiar with 3D and large-format screens. But there’s one format that, particularly in the United States, is still on the ascent: 4D and motion seating. Popular overseas before making their transition stateside, these technologies add an extra dimension to the movies in form of seat movement and vibration on top of (for 4D) effects like fog, scent, wind and even bubbles.

A lot has been written about 4D and motion seating in the abstract. But we at FJI wanted to go directly to the source to get some more nitty-gritty insight on how these scenes are put together—or choreographed, like their own alternate movie score, if you will. As such, we asked representatives from leading 4D and motion seating companies 4DX, MediaMation and D-BOX to give us the skinny on some of their personal favorite scenes.

4DX

Big Hero 6

Animated movies, notes Jane Lee of 4DX, make for a particularly fun fit with 4D technology. The action is often hyper-exaggerated, which grants editors opportunities for experimentation. Lee cites the car-chase scene in Disney’s Big Hero 6, where our heroes careen around corners, fly through the air and jump curbs. “There are many elements of this car-chase scene that are not doable or realistic in real life or any live-action films out there. [So] it’s perfect for 4DX,” Lee explains.

“There might be the same effects in almost every car scene, but each scene for each movie will feel different, because different parts will be intensified based on what’s playing onscreen,” says Lee. In this Big Hero 6 scene, for example, the wind effect is a constant. When audiences hit a slo-mo patch, the wind is lessened. “Turning down the wind is very subtle, but it’s also very impactful to things like slow-motion scenes.” There’s the back-and-forth seat movement, of course, and vibration tied to shifting gears. And on the less obvious side: leg ticklers when the car drifts along the road. The motion isn’t “directly correlated,” Lee admits, but is nonetheless a fitting sensation for a car scratching along the ground. 4DX also utilizes leg ticklers when Big Hero 6’s microbots put in an appearance. “People might say, ‘How can you use a leg tickler in a film like this?’ But there are always different, creative ways to approach it.”

Tomorrowland

A creative approach was also necessary in the centerpiece scene from Tomorrowland, which sees young Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson) explore the fantastical, retro-futuristic world that gives Brad Bird’s movie its name. Unlike the Big Hero 6 car-chase scene—or, indeed, many of the high-energy action scenes 4D is commonly associated with—the action here is relatively minimal. One moment that Lee highlights is one where a laser scans a pin on Frank’s shirt, giving him entry into Tomorrowland. In 4D, the onscreen laser is accompanied by vibration, so “if you’re watching the film in the auditorium in your 4DX seat, it really does feel like you’re getting that pin lasered onto your shirt… I think it works better with subtle things that people don’t notice. It’s little vibrations and things like that that aren’t so noticeable that they take away from watching the films. It’s organic.”

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

While smaller, more subtle movements are key to crafting an immersive 4D experience, Lee does note that “4D fans generally do like it when they get a lot of 4D effects in a film. They get what they’re coming to watch the movie for. They come for the entire experience.” And one place 4D can really shine is fight scenes. But, as Lee notes, when it comes to 4D, not all fight scenes are the same.

Some fight scenes, like Donnie Yen’s standoff against stormtroopers in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, are martial-arts-based. As such, the 4D action must be fluid. “It feels like a dance. It’s not jerky. It’s very slow-motion movements,” says Lee. Yen’s movements “aren’t big, so for those types of scenes we wouldn’t do big seat motions where you’re jilting and jerking. We do vibrations to show in the moment when his hand contacts with someone else, just to show how precise it is. It’s very calculated and very targeted.”

The “jilting and jerking” comes into play with scenes like the big Hulk vs. Hulkbuster throwdown in Captain America: Civil War. If Donnie Yen’s Rogue One fight is a dance, then the other is more like wrestling, Lee explains. The action is so “grandiose that we add a lot of seat movements. You really feel like, ‘Oh my God, this is a huge fight with buildings falling down.’”

MediaMation

The Walk

“When we got into this, we started off doing attraction rides at theme parks,” explains Kirk Miller, director of 4D programming—branded MX4D—at Torrance, Calif.–based MediaMation, Inc.. “And it works if someone’s riding a three- or four-minute ride—they pay ten bucks to go in, and they want [the movement] to be super-aggressive. When we got into movies, we had to rethink everything and deliver a whole new style.” Because “people are sitting for two hours,” not four minutes—“we want to avoid unpleasant motion.” There’s also “the coke and popcorn factor”—i.e., you don’t want to movement to be so extreme that people spill theirs. And then there’s MediaMation’s key priority: “The number-one thing is respecting the fact that people are watching a movie and not getting in the way of that. You want to add to it. You want to make it richer.”

All that leads up to one of MediaMation’s boldest—and yet least bombastic—projects: Robert Zemeckis’ The Walk, about a high-wire artist who in 1974 walked between the two towers of the World Trade Center. Unlike a fight scene or a car chase, the 4D movements during Philippe Petit’s nail-biting high-wire walk can’t be big. “We didn’t want to knock him off the rope!” jokes Miller.

“It’s not a big motion movie, so we didn’t expect to even do it,” Miller recalls. “But Sony wanted to try it, so we said sure, why not? And it came out great, because it’s a lot of subtle [movements]. It was a really good match.” Those subtle movements largely consisted of vibrations and “the little wobbles” of Petit’s death-defying stunt. “We got every footstep—the stop and go of his feet landing. It was very detailed… It was really a surprising experience for me, because I was a little bit dubious going in. The more I felt what it was like, the more I thought ‘This is a really great idea.’”

John Wick: Chapter 2

As we’ve seen with The Walk, 4D technology isn’t just confined to big spectacles. Miller says that, at MediaMation, they’ve tackled just about every genre except romance. Of course, the bulk of 4D films are still action-adventure…like Chad Stahelski’s fight-heavy John Wick: Chapter 2.

“The tone dictates everything” when it comes to 4D, Miller says. “So if it’s a more serious movie, like say Gravity or something like that, we’re not going to be doing a lot of effects.” Of course, the tone of John Wick: Chapter 2 is very much not serious, with Keanu Reeves, Common, Riccardo Scamarcio, Ruby Rose and more trading blows and bullets across multiple continents. Thus, Miller and his team really got a chance to cut loose.

In an early scene, recently unretired hitman John Wick (Reeves) starts off in a car chase, which later moves to gun and hand-to-hand fighting. For the car component, a transducer—a speaker installed in each seat, emitting low-frequency sound waves to cause a vibration—mimics the rumble of a muscle-car engine. “When the engine’s turning over, we have a certain vibration that mimics that,” says Miller. The seats themselves move in time with bigger motion. Acceleration, changing gears and turning corners all get their own “events”—4D and motion-seating lingo for an individual seat movement or environmental effect, like strobe lighting, fog or scents. The latter category comes into play when one man flies off his motorcycle (wind) and another one lands in a puddle (water). When the hand-to-hand fight kicks off, MediaMation utilizes seat and back pokers to mimic the impact of bodies on pavement. Gunshots? Got it covered: Those are strobe lights.

MediaMation, Miller explains, tends to be “pretty literal with effects, in that the characters are experiencing the things that we’re doing. We make exceptions, but that’s our basic idea. The last thing I want somebody to say when they’re sitting in the audience is ‘What was that? Why was that there?’ We’re very nuanced. We like to get every detail, and we take a lot of time to ensure that we get the right feel.”

Spider-Man: Homecoming

Among recent releases, one of Miller’s favorite 4D subjects is Jon Watts’ Spider-Man: Homecoming. Spidey, of course, loves to swing from skyscraper to skyscraper… but there were no skyscrapers in this scene, which has Peter Parker (Tom Holland) chasing a van full of illegal weapons in suburbia.

Still, Spider-Man finds some things to swing off of, so you get the wind effects and the back-and-forth seat movements. There’s fog when the bad guys blow up an old car and strobes for the explosion. Leg ticklers come into play when Peter slides down a roof, bringing shingles tumbling down behind him. A comedy beat puts Peter in a golf course with—shock! horror!—nothing for his web shooter to connect to. And then, of course, the sprinklers come on. MediaMation couples the moment with an in-theatre “rain effect,” explains Miller, “which I think adds to the humor.”

Miller highlights this Homecoming sequence as a great example of pacing. “A big part of what we’re looking for is moments where it’s rough and then it’s smooth,” the contrast “lending credibility” and making the entire experience more immersive. “In between swinging and landing on things, and landing in a swimming pool and the water spray going off, we build breaks, where it’s just rest.” Miller is careful to note that, when you see a MediaMation movie, you aren’t constantly in motion. “We move around a third of the time, roughly.”

D-BOX

Minions

Whereas 4DX and MediaMation are 4D companies, D-BOX Technologies, headquartered just outside of Montreal, falls under the realm of motion seating. What that means is, there are no environmental effects—lights, scents, water, etc.—just seat motion and vibration. “We started in the music industry, so all of our background is about music. Harmony, symphony, making sure the precision is all around,” says D-BOX’s Michel Paquette.

The motions aren’t big—in fact, the range of motion is only an inch and a half—but they’re precise, tailored to each individual movie by motion encoders who are also musicians. “Many people ask us, ‘What’s your algorithm?’” says Paquette. “We don’t do algorithms, because it’s an artistic decision. Am I the antagonist? Am I the protagonist? Am I close to the action? Am I far from the action? The soundtrack is a potential trigger to add vibration. The video track is a potential trigger to add motion.”

All that is to say that the movement in D-BOX can be extremely subtle. Paquette cites Minions, which in an opening scene has one of those banana-loving yellow goofballs repeatedly pop up from the bottom of the screen, “as if he’s peeking in. So each time he would peek in, we would send a little vibration. It’s maybe just an eighth of an inch. That event may last, I don’t know, one-eighth of a second. And in that one-eighth of a second, we could probably have had 16 events in there.” Paquette, as with Lee from 4DX and Miller from MediaMation, cites his company’s technology as being particularly well-suited for animated movies. “You get into this already creative environment, and by adding this,” the children are wowed.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Motion seating, as done by D-BOX, is somewhat impressionistic—it’s not always “x motion appears on-screen, so x motion will be felt in the seat.” To wit, there’s a scene in Star Wars: The Force Awakens when Rey (Daisy Ridley), held captive on an enemy base, begins to feel the power of the Force flowing through her and uses that power to mind-whammy a stormtrooper into letting her go. So…what does the Force feel like? For D-BOX, it’s on par with a low-grade earthquake—a one or two on the Richter scale. Audiences feel “a very, very low frequency, 50 to 70 hertz.” It’s so subtle that you don’t know exactly what it is you’re feeling, but you know it’s there. Paquette likens the experience to the famous moment in Jurassic Park where water vibrating in a cup heralds the arrival of the T-Rex. What Spielberg could do through visuals and sound, D-BOX can also do through motion.

“We can convey these messages. We can appeal to the body, because we can do increments of a thousandth of an inch. And all of this can only be done if you have very precise robots,” says Paquette. Disclaimer: Watching The Force Awakens in a D-BOX seat will not actually give you Jedi powers.

Formula 1 demonstration

Precision and subtlety, however, do not imply a lack of power. D-BOX’s seats can achieve up to 1g acceleration—enough to throw someone out of their seat. Paquette, a self-professed gearhead, notes that if a “high-end sports car breaks out, starts skidding, you will not get more than a .7 or .8g. So we can do more than that.”

Such high levels of acceleration aren’t appropriate for all movies…but they’re a pretty good fit for, say, a Formula 1 demonstration, of the sort that D-BOX offered to attendees at a 50th-anniversary celebration of the Canadian Grand Prix earlier this year in Montreal. There were actually two demonstrations: one in a 32-seat theatre, where audience members got to experience footage from various races from the perspective of drivers, the second an actual racing simulator. “For [the Formula 1] folks, of course, it’s a question of precision,” Paquette says. “It’s not about throwing people out. It’s about bringing them into this level of believability.” And D-BOX succeeded…or they wouldn’t have been there in the first place. “Those guys don’t mess around when it comes to branding, let me tell you!”