When audience members take their seats to see “bullet train” in a 4dx auditorium this weekend, they’ll be greeted with a choice. Inside the armrest is a small button that allows viewers to toggle between two options: “water on” and “water off.” The device serves as an omen, and, for 4DX newbies, perhaps a warning, of the full 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 vying for consumer attention, 4dx employees see the format as an added incentive to lure audiences into theaters. Korean parent company CJ Group first conceived of the technology as an answer to the question of how to innovate the movie experience and make it more essential in the eyes of the public.
Over the course of Bullet Train, Pitt will be punched, stabbed, thrown, and chased as he unravels a complicated web of conflicting jobs. those who choose to watch the film in 4dx will experience every movement on screen as a movement in their seats, which shake and wobble to the beat of the action.
“we have what we officially call the three degrees of freedom: our chairs move with pitch (a rocking motion back and forth), yaw (a turning motion from left to right), and jerk ( an up-and-down lifting motion), explains paul kim, senior vice president of content and production at cj 4dplex. “Then there are the vibrations and then we have 21 different effects on all of our equipment.”
The bells and whistles of a 4dx auditorium include wind machines, strobe lights, simulated snow (it’s foam), smoke scents, and a device inside the seats that digs into the shoulders of audience members.
“I consulted with our artists. They don’t call it a back blow. They call him “the kicker,” Kim laughs.
With so many instruments inside each auditorium, it could be easy to just crank everything up and blast the room. but a 4dx experience is not a matter of sensory overload. instead, each one is meticulously selected through a weeks-long process in korea to align and enhance the content on the big screen.
Each year, the group creates 4dx experiences for more than 30 US productions, along with 40 more titles from China, Korea and other local markets. once a 4dx experience is complete, 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 stab. which takes about two weeks to finish. then comes the effects team,” says duncan macdonald, head of global marketing and theatrical development in the americas at cj 4dplex. “They work very closely with each other. this team has been doing it for so long and it’s really fascinating how they take a film and add 4dx to it. it is a very true and specific talent.”
“I think a lot of people assume this is done through an automated process. it’s not,” adds kim. “really, sometimes they go frame by frame to make sure that every effect, every movement, every vibration is conveyed correctly according to what you’re seeing on the screen.”
as macdonald describes, “bullet train” is “perfect” for 4dx. the film’s abundance of rock-em-sock-em fight scenes have seats swaying. strong hits activate the “back kicker” in each seat. as the bullets whiz by, blasts of air are fired near the side of the attendees’ heads.
but the use of 4dx extends beyond highlighting “bullet train” violence. some comedic moments get unexpected emphasis, such as when the sight of an erupting bidet causes a spray of water from the nozzle in front of each seat. plus, the film’s setting calls for its own ambient flair, from the occasional gust of wind to a more constant slight swaying of the seat that lines up with the swaying of the train cars.
some filmmakers have been more interested in how 4dx is implemented with their work. cj group is pleased to invite you to 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 company’s screening room in hollywood, providing notes that were then sent to teams in korea to tweak the experience. The office even welcomes writer-director Kevin Smith, who stops by the screening room from time to time to check out new releases.
“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 theaters, in our screening room, testing and making sure everything matched his vision of how the movie should play.” p>
By inviting those closest to the filmmaking process to collaborate, 4dx teams are better able to achieve what they set out to do: immersion.
“If the seats are moving for the entire two hours of a movie, I don’t think I’ll really take advantage of what 4dx is,” says Kim. “4dx helps the audience 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 use particular effects.”
After new releases leave theaters, the 4dx audience instructions remain on file within the cj group, in case the films are later re-released. the company also continues to explore opportunities to implement 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 venue in korea welcoming moviegoers to view james cameron’s sci-fi epic “avatar” in moving seats. In the years since, the CJ Group’s entertainment arm has dramatically expanded the format’s global footprint, with 57 theaters in North America and 783 worldwide. the company has 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 proved to be a tumultuous period for the theater industry in general, cj group notes that studios and consumers have shown heightened 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 all formats.
“people just wanted to go out and experience something different,” says macdonald. “4dx is something you can’t get at home. it’s very different from a regular movie 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 that it’s a totally immersive experience. nothing too much not too many back blows just the right amount.”
According to popular legend, the 1890s audience that first saw the Lumière brothers’ “arrival of a train at la ciotat” was so alarmed by the sight of a locomotive heading their way that the room erupted in panic. Now, more than 125 years later, auditoriums are immersing viewers inside the on-screen train as Brad Pitt sends it flying off the rails.