How Do You Translate Dune Into an Immersive 4DX Experience? Sounds, Smells, and, Uh, “Mist.”

As Dune: Part Two, Denis Villeneuve’s second installment in his adaptation of Frank Herbert’s beloved sci-fi epic, continues to storm the box office, spice-hungry parties have been consuming it in a number of interesting ways. The techies of Silicon Valley are hosting private screenings, cosplayers are dressing up complete with their own ridable sandworms, and dedicated fans yearning for the IMAX experience are selling out 3 a.m. screenings. Then there are those who are opting for the 4DX experience.

4DX is the sensory-immersive use of effects, including wind, scents, mist, and moving chairs, to bring the audience more deeply into a film’s world. It’s like 3D on steroids—or so I’ve been told. And when it comes to Dune: Part Two, some 4DX evangelists swear that it’s the best way to really experience Paul Atreides’ war for control of the desert planet Arrakis.

How does one even begin to craft a 4D experience for an expansive blockbuster sci-fi film? Who decides what smell goes where and the appropriate amount to rumble the chairs? How do you make one of the most electric moments of the movie—Paul’s first time riding a sandworm—even more exhilarating? 4DPLEX, the company behind the 4DX cinematic format, as well as its visually immersive counterpart ScreenX, is a subsidiary of CJ—a Korean conglomerate that owns a slew of business ventures from pharmaceuticals and packaged foods to retail. Slate spoke with Paul Kim, senior vice president of content and production at CJ 4DPLEX, to get the behind-the-scenes scoop. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Slate: What is the beginning of the process for creating a 4DX experience?

Paul Kim: No. 1, the studios and our team work to identify the right movie for 4DX. Not every film’s going to work for 4DX, as you can imagine, but a film like Dune: Part Two is perfect. So, we worked with the representatives at Warner Bros. and Legendary to confirm that this is a title that should be coded—we call the process “coding”—for 4DX.

About a month before the release, or whenever it is that we can, we work with the filmmakers and the studios to receive a final version of the film. And then, from there, the process itself takes anywhere from 10 to 15 days. Our artists start coding for the film: They watch the film frame by frame, [determining], “Hey, this is the right moment for this specific type of effect, this specific type of motion.”

What makes a movie perfect for 4DX?

Anything where you really want to feel a little bit more immersed in specific moments. Off the top of your head, you’re immediately going to think, Oh, yeah, of course: action sequences. Right? Action films, gun battles, I don’t know, flying through the air. I think that’s the natural mode of thought that everybody would have when they think of 4DX, just this kind of—almost like an amusement park type of ride. But I think what surprised me the most about 4DX is that it’s all the subtle moments that you remember. When you’re there and you are watching Dune: Part Two, you’ll notice it’s the subtle moments that really leave that impression.

For example, it’s not the fact that you’re flying so much, but it’s the wind in your face. You can feel it kind of hitting your face. It’s not the quick, jerky movements, but it’s the subtle movements when you feel a little bit weightless, right? These are the really cool things that lend themselves well to 4DX.

Frame by frame sounds like … a lot of work. Especially for a nearly three-hour movie and a 10-to-15-day turnaround time. How long did Dune: Part Two take to code for 4DX, and on average, how big are the teams that work on each film?

I don’t know off the top of my head the exact number of days. However, Dune: Part Two is a little under three hours, right? On a title of that length, you are probably looking at about 14 to 16 days of conversion.

We have two separate teams working on two different aspects of every 4DX film. We have what’s called the motion team, and we have what’s called the effects team. The motion team focuses specifically on the motions and the vibrations of the chair. The effects team focuses on everything else beyond that. 4DX has upwards of 19 different effects in every theater, everything from wind to water to heat to snow to bubbles. And so, we will make one pass with one team and, while that’s happening, another pass with the other team. On any given title, you’re probably looking at maybe two to three people per team. So, anywhere from five to, at most, six people per title.

This is a much smaller operation than I thought. I thought that there was a whole room of 30 or 40 people coding. How many movies do you work on at once?

That can really kind of balloon up and down. But in a busy season, you’re probably looking at … five to six titles, I would say, at once. Although we do provide these big Hollywood tent-pole films and we code anywhere from 35 to 40 Hollywood titles a year, sometimes a little bit more, our theaters are all over the world. There are certain territories or countries that really want their local titles converted for 4DX. So, you’re looking at a total of anywhere from 80 to 90 films a year.

Because the tone of the medium can differ across various cultures, I was wondering if you find that creating a 4DX experience is sort of different depending on the market?

If there are certain local titles that we do for certain countries, they will ask one of the following: “Hey, the general audience here, they don’t like too much. They like it to be subdued. So, can you please tone it down from what you guys normally do with Hollywood films?” Or vice versa: “Hey, we want it at the max—max intensity. Everybody here goes for that kind of experience. I don’t care if it’s supposed to be subtle, just max it out.” Right?

So, now, we will of course use our creative judgment to represent what’s happening on screen in the best way possible. But if we know that that title is going to be local to a specific territory only, and is going to be geared towards a specific culture that may want it a lot more intense, yes, we will of course listen to that and code accordingly. I didn’t know that at first either, but it’s really cool.

What is one of the most involved movies that you have done?

Anything where there’s just a lot of heavy-action gunfire. I don’t know if I can remember specific titles, but, say, something like John Wick: Chapter 4. You can only imagine how quick the shots are, how much action’s going on, how many bullets are flying. I mean, that’s a lot of frame by frame.

You mentioned you have upwards of 19 different effects, including bubbles. What are some of the more unexpected effects that you guys have?

I would say that the most unexpected effect is the bubbles. And again, not all of our theaters will incorporate bubbles or one of the other most unexpected effects, which is snow.


Well, it’s not actual snow—we’re not freezing water—but it is a little bit of fake snow. It’s actually in the ceiling. We have quite a few effect bars, as we call them. Let’s say, in a movie, something that takes place in winter—Frozen, for example—everything starts snowing on screen and then the entire theater starts to fill up with snow.

The effect bars have the big fans that blow the wind. It’s got the bubble blowers; it’s got the snow blowers. We also have fog. At certain moments of a film, if there’s a big explosion and there’s smoke everywhere, then, all of a sudden, the theater is filled with “smoke.”

I’m sorry, but we need to go back to the bubbles. I have to know what they’re used for. Maybe underwater, like a Little Mermaid situation?

That’s a great example. In last year’s Little Mermaid, we utilized the bubbles. We’re careful about how we use it. There was a great moment in the film Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, where there’s this planet with bubbles flying everywhere. We looked at that and said, “That’s perfect.” The director, James Gunn, actually came down to our lab to see it, and he thought that was perfect. We use it sparingly.

Speaking of meticulously planned effects, how do you plan smells? How do you ensure that they aren’t too overwhelming for someone who might be sensitive? Is there a smell team?

We have a very specific set of smells. We don’t go beyond that. One smell can double for multitudes of different things. As you know, they say scent can provoke so many different memories and emotions. And that’s the thing. So, if there’s an explosion on the screen, we have what’s called a burning-rubber scent. Maybe there’s no rubber burning on the screen, but you smell that and, immediately, there’s something in the lizard part of your brain that’s like, Oh, something’s burning. It’s on fire. It’s not a good place to be. Right?

We have gunpowder, burning rubber, ocean, mountain, and what we call “sweet bread.” It’s not really sweet bread, but it’s more of a pleasant smell.

Can you rank the scents?

Personally, I don’t really care so much about the ocean or mountain scents. They’re nice. “Oh, we’ve got a beautiful shot flying over.” That’s great. It’s about the intense smells—intense meaning it leaves more of a memorable moment for you. So: gunpowder and burning rubber. Burning rubber is my favorite, not because it smells great, but it really helps you feel a little bit more—

It’s visceral.

Thank you. That’s the word.

A movie that has a lot more explosions—a war film or something—would have a lot of burning rubber, right? How do you plan it out so that it’s not overwhelming?

That’s the last thing we want. We identify key moments in the film—and maybe that’s only one instance, even if there are plenty of explosions. If there’s one instance where we know that the story takes a climactic peak, and it also makes sense to add a scent there, we put it in there. There’s a moment in Dune: Part Two where there’s a lot of burning bodies. We obviously don’t have a burning-body smell, nor do we want to have that. Add a hint of the burning-rubber smell and, again, it becomes a visceral emotion. You smell it; you’re not just watching it. So, we’re very careful.

For the chair movements, I assume you’re also trying to strike a balance between immersive but not motion sickness–inducing.

There may be moments of the film where we don’t do anything with the chairs. Let’s just focus on the story. It’s a really important moment. For example, in Dune: Part Two, when Paul Atreides first rides the sandworm, it makes sense to think, OK, as much motion as possible. But that’s not what we do. The story needs to be told on the screen. Everything else needs to be almost subliminal. So, you’re going to feel it rock, but it’s not overpowering. It’s subtle. And as he gains more control of the sandworm, it becomes even more subtle because now you have control over it, right?

When he’s standing on top of the dune, looking out to where the sandworm is coming from, there’s no movement. All we do is, if the camera pans, then we slowly move with the camera, so it feels like you’re almost kind of floating around Paul Atreides. And we’ll have a light breeze of air, and what that does is it really helps the movie theater just feel expansive, even though your brain knows you’re indoors.

You know how, when you’re a kid—or maybe when you’re an adult—you think, Oh, I should just quit my job and become a taste tester for an ice cream company or something like that? Is there a specific group of people whose job it is to just product test 4DX, like, “This smells too much here” or “This chair is moving too much here” or “This is too much wind”?

We don’t have a specific group of people that just product test, but we think that the best people to test the codes are going to be the artists who designed them. And so, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s the same artist, artistic team, that worked on Dune tests for Dune internally. It might be the team that’s working on Kung Fu Panda that sits in on it. Because, as you know, with any art form, if you are embedded in it for such a long time, you start to lose the nuances, and we don’t want to do that. So, we do have a checks-and-balance system internally. Most important for us is: How do we make sure that the creative vision of the filmmaker maintains true?

I’m sad that I can’t apply for that position, as it doesn’t exist, but it’s OK. I heard you also have mist. Is it warm? Is it cold? Is it scented? What’s the deal with the mist?

There’s a couple of different water effects that we utilize. One is called face air, and that is the most representative of mist. So, there’s a small nozzle right in front of you where you can’t really see it, in the back of the seat in front of you, and that will spray a mist of water. There’s also a nozzle behind your seat that sprays water straight up, and then it falls on your head. And then, lastly, there’s a mist sprayer in the ceiling right next to the fans. So, we can spray mist and turn on the fans, and all of a sudden you are in a storm. So, those are the three main different types of water effects that we have. Depending on what the situation looks like on screen, we can utilize that for something as simple as a rainstorm or somebody’s walking in the rain.

Now, it’s not a ton of water. It’s just a little bit and it doesn’t last forever, but it gets you in that moment. There’s a movie coming up, Twisters, and you can imagine, if there’s water and wind blowing at the same time while there’s a tornado on screen, it makes a lot of sense. The other way we can use this: Imagine, in horror films, somebody, I don’t know, gets hit with an ax and blood splatters everywhere. And all of a sudden, there’s just water in your face.

Is it cold?

It’s cool.

So, it’s never warm? Because warm water—

It’s not warm. We don’t warm it up. It’s room temperature.

I was just thinking that blood, obviously, is warm, but replicating that might be too real. What’s one of your favorite 4DX experiences that you’ve ever had the pleasure of working on or sitting in on?

Top Gun: Maverick. I feel like the movie was almost made for some of these formats. It was perfect. It really felt like you were in the cockpit. And one of the cool things here is that we had the director, Joe Kosinski, come a couple of times to really give his feedback and his fine-tuning. There’s one section where you’re on the aircraft carriers as the elevators go up and down, raising and lowering the fighter jets. And there’s this moment where we had the elevator go up and you feel the vibrations. And he said, “You know what? That actually felt very close to what the actual elevators felt like.” And when you hear things like that from the filmmakers, that’s just—I mean, that’s what we want to hear, right? But yes, Top Gun: Maverick was my absolute favorite. Probably still is to this day.

I know that a lot of people, when they think of wanting to be immersed in films, again, they think of films that are high in action, but I’m a hopeless romantic. I would like to be immersed in a romance and fall in love with Austin Butler in real time. Have you ever done a romance?

I can’t think of the last romance film that we’ve done, but I know we have done some, and this is years back. I love romance films. I think that they’re great. But for 4DX, do I think it’s the right fit? Maybe for some. But I would say there’s so many other types of films that fill our slate that for a romance film to come in and get converted for 4DX might be a little hard. La La Land was in 4DX. With all the dancing and the music and everything, that makes a lot of sense. Something like The Notebook, maybe not so much.