When I saw my first 4DX movie, San Andreas, I was immediately sold on how this immersive experience could enhance movies. I went right back to see Mad Max: Fury Road and this summer’s Baby Driver. The reason 4DX works better than a superficial gimmick is that the designers take care to complement the film and craft a well paced experience, so I wanted to find out how they do it.
Daniel Yi is an Art Director who oversees all 4DX conversion in the U.S. He has a counterpart leading another team in Korea, and they divide the films. There are foreign films in 4DX too but sometimes the U.S. and Korean team switch off due to scheduling. The company works with studios to decide which films will play in 4DX and then Art Directors like Daniel Yi are assigned. 4DX hopes to involve directors in the process. Some have attended quality control sessions, but if the directors are not available there are studio reps who are familiar with the 4DX process who can advise Yi and his team. 4DX also prints a full glossary of their motions and effects on their website where you can see video of them in action. You can also find a theater equipped with 4DX near you.
Annabelle: Creation is currently playing in 4DX and this weekend The Hitman’s Bodyguard will play in 4DX. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle has been announced for 4DX although the company could not confirm highly anticipated fall movies like Blade Runner 2049, Justice League or The Last Jedi yet. Yi walked me through the process of designing a 4DX film experience and answered my questions about the format in a phone interview.
WLE: Are the directors of the films ever involved in the 4DX experience?
DY: Yes. We’ve gotten James Gunn. We’ve gotten the co-directors of Big Hero Six and Moana and give input during the QC process.
WLE: When a director is hands on, how do you educate them on what’s possible with 4DX?
DY: We give them rundown of the effects that we have. Our ultimate goal is to have the directors involved even earlier than the QC stage. If we can get them into the preproduction and get 4DX involved so that you shoot the film with 4DX in mind, it becomes an entirely different movie altogether. It becomes an entirely different 4DX experience altogether. When the directors come in, by the time they come in, we already have a product to show them. That’s what we imagine, to the best of our ability, what we think is the director’s vision. They’ll sit in and say, “This is what I was thinking of” and they’ll give us notes based on how much we need to change our creative direction to fit their mold. We’re not always able to get directors for each title because unfortunately our process is so late in the production stage, sometimes it’s a couple weeks, a month before the actual release date. During that time, usually the directors are really busy with press tours. We try our best to bring them in.
WLE: You can design the whole experience in a month or less?
DY: Yeah. Obviously, the more time we have, the better the quality. We always want to be able to spend more time with the content that we have but we’ve definitely been able to do it in a month or less.
WLE: The basics of 4DX remind me of theme park rides I went on as a kid, but for a two hour movie are you more designing it with the pace of a film?
DY: Let’s take Marvel for example. Just to quickly explain the process that we have here, we get the Quicktime files from the studios as soon as the deals are in place and they approve it for 4DX. Once we get the Quicktime we get working on it right away. We split it into two different types of editing. There’s always a minimum of two editors per movie. That’s one for effects and one for motion. Those two are done separately but simultaneously. The motion is basically how the chair moves. The effects editing is everything outside of that. Everything you felt in Baby Driver, the roar of the engine, the air shots whizzing past your ears, the fog, the wind, all of that is considered effects editing. While those two are being simultaneously worked on, it’s overlooked by the Art Director and then we bring it to the Creative Director for our internal QC. Once that’s finalized, we send it to the studios for a studio QC. During that time, it really matters how the Art Director gives direction on those creative feedbacks. We really try to align ourselves with the director’s vision.
For example, in Big Hero 6, there was a scene where Baymax’s inhibitor chip gets taken out and he starts to lose control and starts wreaking havoc on everybody. In the scene they take out all the effects. All you hear is the soundtrack. We figured at that point, this is going to be an emotional scene. The directors probably don’t want air shots while the scene is trying to portray certain emotions. During that scene we would take out all the effects and focus on very minimal movement, maybe a little vibration. We try to align ourselves to what we believe is the director’s visions. When the directors of Big Hero 6 came to QC the process, they said, “You guys really captured that moment.”
WLE: That’s a really good point. The moments you don’t have effects are just as important in creating the experience.
DY: Right, and that’s ultimately our goal. We would like to have the directors come in every single time because that way we have a surefire way of knowing this is exactly what you want. That was really helpful for us in the case of Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2. We designed the whole film and we had James Gunn come in. He gave us very specific feedback. He said for certain scenes, he thought the air shots were distracting so we took those out. Sometimes he would say, “I want to ramp up more because I want them to feel like there’s two titans fighting, these two Celestials fighting against each other. So let’s ramp up the effects to really feel like people are just getting thrown around.” We have these notes coming but ultimately if the director’s not there, we have to go with our best decision.
DY: Right. Even as you’ve seen in Baby Driver, when they’re just talking or it’s an emotional scene, you’re not going to see too much movement, or any at all. I haven’t worked on Mad Max myself but I did work on The Fate of the Furious and Furious Seven and you can tell that’s going to be wall to wall action. Even in Furious Seven there’s going to be times when things are just chill, everyone’s just talking or they’re having an emotional moment. We really try to respect those moments so that we’re not just being obnoxious with our effects and be like, “Hey, we’re 4DX, check this out.” No, we want to be able to express what the directors want us to experience.
WLE: It’s not just when cars are driving though. You moved with the windshield wipers in Baby Driver and when he was dancing. Do you always try to think of outside the box motions that audiences aren’t expecting?
DY: We definitely try to but once again, it really depends on the style of the movie too. Baby Driver is a very stylized film. That same car chase sequence is going to be different from what you experience in Fate of the Furious. One is all about action but with Baby Driver, we felt the need to go with the musical style of the film. You’re not going to get that in every single movie. If the movie is a drama piece but they happen to have a slight musical sequence, it might feel a little bit jarring because that’s not the tone of the film. We really try to ask ourselves: What is the overall tone? What is the overall style? Are we able to be creative with what we’re doing here? In the case of Baby Driver that is how we felt but it really depends on the film.
WLE: Do you also try not to repeat yourself? The second time he used windshield wipers you didn’t do the same motion.
DY: Right, because in the beginning it was part of the song. That was Baby enjoying himself, being in the moment so we were like, “Let’s dance along with Baby.” Towards the end, when he uses the windshield wipers, he’s in a more serious mood. He’s not there to enjoy the music or enjoy the heist. He’s fearing for his life. So it didn’t make sense for us to put in the same motion just because we did it before. We try to be consistent about certain things, but depending on the mood and tone of each scene, the motion will vary too.
WLE: Do you run into situations where there are two possible effects you can use, but you don’t want them so close together so you have to pick one?
DY: We definitely have that too. In your review, you were talking about how there was a red light emergency exit sign or things like that where we didn’t put in the strobe. Part of the reason is we try to be sensitive about certain effects. The strobe effect especially is in your face literally because it’s just lighting up the entire theater. If there was a scene where somebody’s shooting a machine gun and it’s lighting up the screen and we try to mimic it the entire way through, it might be really jarring and really disorienting for our audience. So we may give you a taste of it but we may not follow through with it because nobody wants to be blinded for 10 seconds. If we feel like it’s not appropriate, like the strobe doesn’t match the color because it’s red, our strobe is just white, we try to be discerning on when we use certain things. I do remember you mentioning the Sony logo strobes. That’s actually a technical thing. We call it the strobe point. It’s to let our projectionist know that the 4DX effect is in sync. We try to look for effects at the very beginning to put in a strobe point so the projectionist knows everything is working and we’re good to go.
WLE: Is the 4DX file something that syncs with the DCP?
DY: Yeah, our file is separate from the DCP but it runs alongside the DCP. It plays whatever timecode the DCP is at. Obviously when you start a DCP from the very beginning, that’s why the strobe points come in. If the beginning’s synced, the rest of the movie will sync. We do run separately from the DCP.
WLE: Do you have to use the effect where the chair presses into your back sparingly, because it could actually hurt?
DY: It depends on the film too. If you’re watching a martial arts film or Doctor Strange or these action packed films and people are getting thrown around, it’s hard for us not to put in the effects. There’s always going to be people who don’t like constantly being punched in the back. We understand so we try to be sensitive about that too. We don’t want to punish our audience members by sending them home hurt. It really depends on how we use it. I think one great example would be Exodus: Gods and Kings. Moses stabs two soldiers with this huge sword. He just leaves it in there until he makes sure that they’re dead, and then he pulls it out. We actually have the back tickler hit you in that spot and stay with you that entire period. When Moses pulls out the sword, we take out the back tickler so it really feels like you just got stabbed. We try to look for creative moments like that. If the film has a lot of throwing around guys to the floor, heavy fighting sequences, we try to be sparing in terms of how much we use it.
WLE: Were there any martial arts films in 4DX besides Doctor Strange?
DY: The closest thing to that would probably be the Donnie Yen sequence in Rogue One. That was one of my favorites because the way Donnie Yen moves, he doesn’t just punch and kick. He really dances. It feels like a dance the way he spins around, the way he positions himself. With our motion chairs too, we don’t just give you a kick left and right. We really try to show you his agility, how nimble he is. That was a really cool sequence for me personally.
WLE: Is your collection of 4DX effects locked or can you keep adding more?
DY: There’s always room to improve and that’s our goal. We’re never satisfied with just what we have. If there are ways that we can improve our technology to make it a little bit more smooth, to make it feel more organic, then we’re definitely doing that. Every year we’ve been able to debut new effects and we definitely have more coming.
WLE: When all the seats move in unison, is that really the collective experience?
DY: Part of the fun is actually going to the theater to watch it with the audience. Almost all the 4DX films that I’ve gone to watch before, it’s always that first trailer, the 4DX brand trailer, the reaction is almost unanimous. Everyone’s like, “Oh my God, what is this?” You get excited because everybody’s feeling the same thing. They all just have a similar reaction. I do feel like yes, it is a communal experience and we want people to share that experience. That’s our goal, for everybody to be in the movie together, not just watching it by yourself. It gives you something to talk about.
DY: Yeah, part of the horror experience is being fearful that something is happening to you as well. You get that visually and audibly. Now we’re able to build upon the suspense by adding another layer. You’re literally able to feel it yourself. Let’s say there’s a ghost in the hallway and you feel this chilled breeze. It freaks you out. We want to be able to give you this experience. I guess we are trying to scare everybody with our 4DX motion and effects but obviously we want to add to that layer as well.
WLE: Will The Hitman’s Bodyguard be a lot of gunfights and car chases in 4DX?
DY: Yes. That was actually worked out of our Korea office but I would say so, yes.