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How to Show Smell in Movies

Updated on April 29, 2017

This article is going to be about the techniques that filmmakers use to depict smells on screen. I don’t mean Smell-O-Vision or Scratch and Sniff events here. Smell-O-Vision was a system launched with the film The Scent of Mystery (Jack Cardiff, 1960), implementing technology that released odour during the projection of the film. It was the only time when the technology was used because it was both costly and poorly received (there was a delay in the events on screen and the scents being evenly distributed across the theatre). There have been some other attempts to create odours to accompany films. Among them there are a “smelling screen” invented in 2013 in Tokyo, Japan, and “Feelreal,” a multisensory VR mask for video games and movies with smell cartridges, invented in California.

Scratch and Sniff events include film projections before which the viewers get scratch and sniff cards. The first one was John Waters’ comedy Polyester released in 1981. In 2011 Robert Rodriguez’s movie Spykids: All the Time in the World in 4D was to be watched through 3D glasses and with a scratch card. When the number flashed on screen, you were supposed to scratch the square with that number on your card and inhale the smell.

Such events might be fun but for me it would be a one-time experience. That’s because they render the viewer completely passive and leave nothing to the imagination. Traditional movies can also make you smell. Remember Stealing Beauty (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1996) and sensuous Lucy played by Liv Tyler walking in rye fields and meadows, bathed in sunshine, picking summer flowers? Or the smells of spaghetti carbonara in Rome, the tropical flowers of Bali and jasmine incense in India (almost) wafting from the screen during Eat Pray Love (Ryan Murphy, 2010)? Or how you wanted to drink the same wine as the characters in Sideways (Alexander Payne, 2004) on a taste tour from winery to winery, imbibing liquid happiness? And all the great movies featuring food. So how do the filmmakers do it?

Sideways
Sideways
Stealing Beauty
Stealing Beauty
Stealing Beauty
Stealing Beauty

The cinematic techniques that recreate smell include:

1) Identification with a character smelling something. Close-ups of the object being smelled.

e.g. The Five Senses (Jeremy Podeswa, 1999) revolves around the senses and the characters disconnected with one of them: Rona, a cake decorator without a sense of taste, Ruth, a massage therapist out of touch with her emotions, Richard, a French eye doctor who is losing his hearing and thus plans to build a "sound library" of aural memories, and Robert, a housecleaner who is unlucky in his love life and who has a highly developed sense of smell so he decides to meet his former lovers and smell them to determine if they still love him.

2) The use of sound, often paired with a close-up.

e.g. The Scent of Green Papaya (Tran Anh Hung, 1993) uses close-ups with the accompanying sound, which brings the image closer. The protagonist’s finger touching the seeds of papaya creates a sensuous moment.

The Scent of Green Papaya
The Scent of Green Papaya

3) The use of the haptic image, that is, an image that stimulates tactility; the sensation of touch and movement. The use of detail that invites the gaze to move along textures. Often these images reject the control of sight by being blurred, and thus make the viewer rely on other senses.

e.g. magnified rain drops in Wong Kar-Wai’s The Grandmaster (2013) are shown in slow motion so you almost feel drenched in rain and the rain drops on your face.

The Grandmaster
The Grandmaster

Other examples of olfactory movies:

Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream People Call Human Life (Stephen Quay, Timothy Quay, 1995) is about a young man, Jakob, who goes to a special school to study self-negation, repeating every day: "None of us will amount to much. Later in life we will all be something very small and subordinate." With time, Jakob finds himself in the center of a strange romantic triangle in the erotic machine of a house. The film calls on the sense of smell by haptic imagery, visual fixation on eccentric detail and a combination of miniature and gigantic objects to imbue them with symbolic significance.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (Tom Tykwer, 2006)

The story, based on Patrick Süskind’s novel, is set in 18th century France. The protagonist, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, has a superior sense of smell so he is able to recognize the smell of fruit or rotting fish, even from a great distance. He becomes a perfumer who is obsessed with creating a perfect scent. To that end, he kills women to capture their scent, to “preserve[] the best part of her and made it his own: the principle of her scent” (Süskind, Perfume). To stimulate the sense of smell, the movie assaults the viewer with vivid images of a stinking fish market and open sewers, stylized painterly images with lush saturated colours, and the emphasis on touch and smell in the long passages without dialogue.

Perfume
Perfume
"She was indeed a girl of exquisite beauty. She was one of those languid women made of dark honey smooth and sweet and terribly sticky." /Suskind: Perfume/
"She was indeed a girl of exquisite beauty. She was one of those languid women made of dark honey smooth and sweet and terribly sticky." /Suskind: Perfume/

Jasminum (Jan Jakub Kolski, 2006)

The story is set in a monastery in a small town Jasmine where a paintings conservator Natasha arrives with her young daughter, Eugenia, to restore some canvases. Among the inhabitants of the monastery, there are three monks, each of them exuding one strong odour: of plum, sweet cherry and bird cherry. A secret elixir of love is produced at the place but while Natasha tries to distill the fragrance, something is missing. The smells are enacted in this movie by means of painterly images and small scenes of everyday life that one of the monks shows to the girl.

Jasminum
Jasminum

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