What Is a 4-D Movie?

Engaging the Senses and Enhancing the 3-D Film Experience

Shrek 4-D ride at Universal Studios

Courtesy of Universal Studios

The movie Avatar helped popularize 3-D films, and today 3-D films are fairly standard at cineplexes everywhere. But what the heck are the 4-D movies that have become popular at theme parks?

You're probably thinking that there are only so many "Ds" our eyes could capture, and our brains could decode. To make matters more confusing, some films or film-based attractions at theme parks and elsewhere are advertised as 5-D, 6-D, and higher. It's enough to make you downright dumbfounded, discombobulated, and dazed (and, to toss in a fifth "D," disconcerted).

Don't despair. We will decipher, decrypt, and otherwise deconstruct the definition for you. 3-D or 3D movies refer to filmed content that has been enhanced to display what appears to be three dimensions. In addition to the traditional aspects of height and width, 3-D films add the perception of depth by displaying two separate images that are shown simultaneously. Although the films are projected onto two-dimensional screens, special glasses (which make audience members look like dweebs) interpret the two images, merge them, and add an additional plane to the viewing experience. But you already knew that, right?

A 4-D film doesn't add any more visual planes. The extra dimensionality refers to the introduction of other sensory stimulants in addition to the 3-D movie. Typically, 4-D presentations will add misters, snow machines, bubbles, theatrical fog, or other water-based effects to spritz or envelop guests during pivotal scenes. For instance, dangling above a waterfall, the plight of a 3-D-enhanced Princess Fiona seems all the more precarious when accompanied by copious water droplets in Shrek 4-D at Universal Studios, Florida.

With 3-D films now routinely shown at movie theaters, the novelty has faded. Theme parks such as the ones operated by Universal, however, often enhance their movie attractions by making them 4-D. Parks are better suited to present the films because they can rig the theaters to deliver the effects for extended runs. It would be more difficult to retrofit cineplexes with new effects every time a movie changes (although a few are equipped to do exactly that).

Besides the tactile, visual, and thermal gotchas delivered with water effects, other 4-D enhancements include:

  • Smell—Spraying scents into theaters can reinforce the filmed action, often to hilarious effect. Perhaps the highlight of Disney's It's Tough to Be a Bug!, shown at Disney's Animal Kingdom, is the funky smell that accompanies the stink bug, Clare de Room, as she, er, lets one rip.
  • Moving seats—The kinetic sensation of vibrating or moving seats can help immerse audience members in an attraction. That's what happens at DreamWorks Theatre featuring Kung Fu Panda at Universal Studios Hollywood.
  • Tactile effects—Attractions sometimes include mild prods, gentle whips, or other touchy-feely devices to freak audiences out. For example, puffs of air accompany some of the 4-D gameplay in the Toy Story Mania rides at Disney California Adventure and in Toy Story Land at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Florida.
Toy Story Mania at Toy Story Land
Courtesy of Disney

So, What's up With 5-D and 6-D Movies?

OK, now you've got a handle on 4-D movies. What, you are probably wondering, is what is meant by 5-D and all those other D movies and attractions? In typical theme park fashion, marketers always want to lay claim to the biggest, best, latest, and greatest and will contort their attraction specifications to create bragging rights. If a competing park has a 4-D film, why not one-up them? In park-speak, a 5-D film combines at least two sensory enhancements with a 3-D film.

Most often, a 5-D attraction presents a 3-D film in a motion simulator theater (in which the seats move in tandem with the action projected on a stationary screen) that also includes water effects or other sensory ticklers.

For 6-D or higher attractions, this includes multiple sensory effects, such as water, smell, and air puffs, as well as motion-simulator seats and 3-D content.

In addition to theater-based attractions, 4-D films are sometimes incorporated into moving rides. Passengers wearing 3-D glasses travel through scenes with multiple movie screens in roving motion-based vehicles. They will be bombarded with fire blasts, water drops, and all kinds of other sensory triggers in wild attractions. Two rides that stand out are the Transformers: The Ride at Universal Studios Hollywood and Florida, and The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man at Islands of Adventure. The results are delightful, divine, diverting, and delicious.

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