ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

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?

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.

"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.



    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No comments yet.


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)