A transvestite who's married to a pornographer may be an odd inspiration for one of the summer's biggest kids movies, but you just have to scratch the surface a little bit more to find out what's right under your nose.
Robert Rodriguez's Spy Kids films have always been "a scrappily innovative series," says the director. The premise alone made the first film a hit. The second was the first time Rodriguez gave up film to shoot in digital. The third helped to usher in the current bonanza of 3D movies. So when it came time for the next instalment, Rodriguez knew he had to kick it up a notch.
"When it came time to do Spy Kids 4, I thought, we can't just go do 3D again. We have to keep with the [innovative nature of]the series. Like Nigel Tufnel would say in Spinal Tap, 'One louder! We have to do one more thing and go to 11!"
And that's when the pornographer and the transvestite entered the picture. Well, more like they wafted into Rodriguez's mind. Thinking of ways to maintain the series' tradition of innovation, Rodriguez says he remembered the 1981 John Waters film Polyester, about a transvestite who is married to a pornographer, yes, but more importantly a film in which the audience was able to experience various smells from the movie – including roses, flatulence, skunk, gasoline and dirty shoes – thanks to scratch 'n' sniff cards.
Waters called the technology that accompanied his movie Odorama. Rodriguez has dubbed his Aroma-Scope.
"The idea itself was really fun and easy to do. I wanted to do something in 4D where again the audience got something for free … and it would just be an added value to the movie and an added experience," Rodriguez says.
While Aroma-Scope is being put front and centre in the film's marketing, even Rodriguez says it's not something that's likely to become a trend at the movies. Judging by the long history of failed attempts to make smells an added dimension at the movies, there's a very good chance he's correct. But there's no doubt that olfactory gimmicks such as this one fit well within children's movies, and with films reaching the limit of what's visually possible, some believe there's a chance smell-o-vision could become film's next frontier – if only we could get the technology right.
"It's a fun one-off. We're not going to convert all of our movies and all of our cinema experience to having a smelling component any time soon," says John Fithian, president of the U.S.-based National Association of Theatre Owners.
Rodriguez himself doesn't expect smells to be swirling through many movies. "I think this is very particular," he says.
But plenty of films have tried, and failed, to give a pungent push to that other dimension.
"This idea has been around since practically the inception of movies," says Patrick Kiger, co-author of Oops: 20 Life Lessons from the Fiascoes that Shaped America. In 1906, for instance, a theatre in Pennsylvania dipped cotton wool in rose oil and put it in front of an electric fan during a newsreel about the Rose Bowl.
Waters's film was a sly parody of Scent of Mystery, a film that introduced an invention billed as "Glorious Smell-O-Vision" in 1960. "First they moved (1895)! Then they talked (1927). Now they smell!" proclaimed ads for the movie. Various smells were pumped into the theatre during the movie: freshly baked bread, a salty ocean breeze, pipe tobacco.
Problem was, the movie wasn't all that good, and the odours often reached viewers well after the action on screen, and was accompanied by a hissing sound.
"It's an old idea, but it's been difficult to find a way to do it effectively over the years," Kiger says.
Other movies have tried, however. In 2003, the makers of Rugrats Go Wild claimed the scratch 'n' sniff cards viewers inhaled during the movie were an homage to Waters. In 2005, Japanese theatres presented the Colin Farrell flick The New World with smell. The scents were emitted from under the audience's seats, with a floral smell accompanying love scenes and a mixture of rosemary and peppermint hitting one's nose during the film's tear-jerker moments.
Aroma-Scope will see audiences given a card that has eight smells. When a number flashes on screen, you rub the corresponding number on the card and take a whiff, explains Rodriguez. "There's some really great smells, really rich smells. And then there's some surprising smells," he says. "We have a spy baby and a spy dog, so you can imagine that the smells get pretty out there."
While it's not likely to be part of more mature movies any time soon, it's ideal for children, especially a generation that has grown up expecting interactivity.
"This kind of helps bridge that gap I think between watching a movie and being part of it," Rodriguez says. "Kids identify so much with these kids on screen. Anything that makes them feel more like a part of the action, more like they're doing the same thing as the kids on screen, it really helps create that bond even stronger."
With film pushing the limits of what's visually possible, scent may be the next frontier, Kiger says.
"We've reached the point I think where there's so much overkill with visual imagery that it's impossible to wow people any more," he says. "Once people reach a threshold where you can't do anything more visual that's going to amaze them, maybe you're going to need all these other things."
Rodriguez jokes that he could do a Machete movie in Aroma-Scope. And though for the moment it's simply a neat way of making a kid's movie a little more enjoyable, he doesn't rule out the possibility filmmakers may be going after our noses down the road.
"This is something just really fun. It's in the arsenal now, though."