What is 4DX? Explanation of cinemas with movable seats

When viewers take their seats to watch Bullet Train in a 4DX auditorium this weekend, they’ll be greeted with a choice. There is a small button in the armrest that allows the viewer to toggle between two options: “water on” and “water off”. The device serves as a harbinger – and perhaps a warning to those new to 4DX – of the intense sensory experience that will unfold as Brad Pitt fights for his life against an army of opposing assassins.

As streaming and other home entertainment compete for consumer attention, 4DX staff sees the format as an added incentive to draw audiences to theaters. Korean parent company CJ Group initially conceived the technology as an answer to the question of how to innovate the cinema experience and make it more important in the eyes of the public.

Over the course of Bullet Train, Pitt is knocked out, stabbed, thrown, and chased while unraveling an intricate web of conflicting hit jobs. Those who choose to watch the film in 4DX experience every movement on screen as a movement in their seats, shaking and jiggling to the rhythm of the action.

“We have what we officially call the three degrees of freedom — our chairs move in pitch (a forward and backward roll motion), yaw (a left and right twisting motion), and heave (an up and down motion). -down elevating motion),” explains Paul Kim, Senior VP of Studio Relations and Production at 4DPLEX. “Then there’s the vibrations and then we have 21 different effects across all of our devices.”

The bells and whistles of a 4DX auditorium include wind machines, strobe lights, snow simulation (it’s foam), smoke smells, and a device in the seats that bumps into the audience’s shoulders.

“I asked our artists. They don’t call it a back puncher. They call it ‘back kickers,'” laughs Kim.

With so many instruments in each auditorium, it might be easy to just crank everything up and get the room going at full blast. But a 4DX experience is not a matter of sensory overload. Instead, each one is meticulously curated in a weeks-long process in Korea to align with and enhance the content on the big screen.

Each year, the group creates 4DX experiences for more than 30 American productions, as well as 40 other titles from China, Korea and other local markets. Once a 4DX experience is complete, the encrypted instructions are wirelessly distributed to the company’s auditoriums around the world. They are then run from local servers at each site.

“There are two teams in Korea. The movement team takes the first stitch. This will take about two weeks to complete. Then comes the effects team,” says Duncan MacDonald, director of global marketing and theater development for CJ 4DPLEX’s US office. “They work very closely together. This team has been doing this for so long and it’s really fascinating how they take a film and add 4DX to it. It’s a very specific, specific talent.”

“I think a lot of people assume this is done through an automated process. It’s not,” Kim adds. “Sometimes they really go frame by frame to make sure every effect, every movement, every vibration is conveyed correctly according to what you see on screen.”

As MacDonald describes, Bullet Train is a great fit for 4DX. The film’s abundance of rock-em-sock-em fight scenes will have the seats rocking back and forth. Violent punches activate the “back kicker” in each seat. As bullets whizz by, gusts of air shoot down near contestants’ heads.

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Brad Pitt and Bad Bunny in “Bullet Train”

But the use of 4DX goes beyond Bullet Train’s emphasis on violence. Some comedic moments are given unexpected emphasis, such as when the image of an erupting bidet triggers a jet of water from the nozzle in front of each seat. Additionally, the film’s setting requires its own environmental flair, from the occasional gust of wind to a more consistent slight rocking of the seats that adapts to the swaying of railroad cars.

Some filmmakers are investing more in the way 4DX is implemented in their work. CJ Group is happy to invite you into 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 Hollywood screening room and provided notes that were then sent to the Teams were sent back to Korea to streamline the experience.

“We work with filmmakers or studio reps to make sure the quality is right,” says Kim. “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 was in line with his vision of how the film should be played.”

By inviting parties closer to the filmmaking process to collaborate, 4DX teams can better achieve the goal they set out to achieve – immersion.

“If the seats are moving for the full two hours of a movie, I don’t think it really takes advantage of 4DX,” says Kim. “4DX helps audiences feel much more immersed 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 certain effects.”

After re-releases leave theaters, the 4DX auditorium instructions remain archived within the CJ Group in case films are later re-released. The company continues to explore ways to implement 4DX with legacy film; Joe Dante’s Gremlins was released in the format over the 2019 holiday season.

The first 4DX auditorium opened to the public in 2009, with a venue in Korea welcoming moviegoers to see James Cameron’s sci-fi epic Avatar in moving seats. In the years since, CJ Group’s entertainment division 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 using 270-degree screens.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has proven to be a turbulent time for the entire cinema industry, CJ Group notes that studios and consumers have shown an intensified interest in 4DX as lockdowns have been lifted. Top Gun: Maverick grossed over $50 million at the box office in the 4DX and ScreenX auditoriums, making it the highest-grossing release of any format to date.

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Tom Cruise in Top Gun: Maverick
Everett Collection/Paramount

“People just wanted to get out there and experience something different,” says MacDonald. “4DX is something you can’t get at home. It’s so different from a regular cinema experience. I think people were looking for this after the pandemic. We get our exit poll after every major title and there’s huge positive sentiment as far as a fully immersive experience is concerned. Nothing too much. Not too many backshots – just the right amount.”

According to popular legend, audiences in the 1890s, when they first saw The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat by the Lumière brothers, were so alarmed by the image of a locomotive speeding toward them that the room erupted in a panic. Now, more than 125 years later, audiences in the auditoriums are instead immersed in the train on screen as Brad Pitt sends it flying off the tracks.

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