D-Box: Making Movies Really Move

Nick Dawson looks at the D-Box, a new motion technology that will be playing with Focus Features' forthcoming animated movie 9, and is already shaking up modern entertainment.

This fall, when Focus Features rolls out the animated movie 9, the much anticipated first feature from Academy Award-nominated writer-director Shane Acker, some viewers will be lucky enough to get a little more than just the standard cinemagoing experience. The film will be shown in select theaters with special D-Box technology, which is currently getting buzz for its screenings of the new Harry Potter movie. But before we explain all about D-Box, let’s go back a little bit…

When the Lumière brothers first showed their 50-second movie L'arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat (The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station) in early 1896, the audience’s reaction quickly became legendary. Cinema was an entirely new and unknown phenomenon and the sight of a train seemingly coming at them from off the screen sent viewers into panic. They screamed, they ran to the back of the room.

One of the fundamental strengths of cinema is to place the viewer inside the movie, and the desire to draw the viewer in completely has become a prevailing obsession for filmmakers. The development of sound and color and then widescreen heightened the reality of the cinematic experience, but to some pioneers this was just the start. In the 1940s, surround sound arrived, a decade later movies started to appear in 3D, and subsequently IMAX changed people’s perceptions about the size and resolution of film images that were possible.

But for all these major innovations in technology, there have always been a few that stuck out for the fun they gave the viewer. Movie showman and king of the gimmicks William Castle arguably created his most memorable gimmick for the 1960 schlock extravaganza The Tingler. In the latter stages of the film, the lights went out in the movie theater and Vincent Price shouted from the screen, "The Tingler is loose in THIS theater! Scream! Scream for your lives!" Then audience members sitting in special seats with “joy buzzers” rigged up beneath felt a jolting shock.

And now, almost 50 years on from Castle’s jolting seat comes its much more sophisticated and evolved cousin, D-Box technology. D-Box is a Canadian company founded in the early 1990s that originally made speakers but has more recently devoted itself to intensifying modern entertainment in a very innovative way. After extensive research in the late 90s into the way in the finer points of hydraulic, pneumatic, magnetic and electro-mechanical motion, D-Box developed a product to heighten the viewing experience which utilized electro-mechanical technology, which they determined provided the most precise and smooth movements. 

The result of their endeavors allows people watching a movie in special D-Box seats to experience the same movements as someone in the movie would. When the hero drives over a speed bump, they feel the bump; when his car screeches to a halt, they feel the sudden forward momentum. The D-Box was initially developed for home entertainment, allowing hardcore cinephiles to get special chairs or platforms hooked up to D-Box controllers which read the “motion code” off a Blu-Ray or DVD player. The chair would rock, roll, heave, tip, shudder, vibrate, etc., depending on what was taking place on the screen. The motion code, much like the soundtrack to a film, is a parallel track that replicates in perfect synchronicity the movements in the movie itself.

Up until this year, the D-Box system was a home entertainment hook-up only, something you could use to heighten the buzz of watching a movie or playing a video game in your den. But now D-Box has entered the theatrical market. In January 2009, the company announced that the Mann Chinese 6 Theatre in Hollywood would be the very first movie theater to install D-Box technology. Peter Dobson, CEO of Mann Theatres, said that he was very excited to have the “cutting edge” system in his theatre, as D-Box added “an additional level of immersion taking viewer even deeper into the cinematic experience.”

The movie theater prototype chairs were unveiled a few months later, and in April 2009 Universal Pictures’ Fast & Furious was the first film shown in theaters with the D-Box experience. It was only available at two multiplexes, Mann’s 6 and the UltraStar Surprise Pointe 14 in the aptly named Surprise, AZ, and even though tickets were $8 above the normal price, crowds flocked to the special screenings and were overwhelmingly excited about this new way of watching movies.

Simon Cohen of technology and gadgets blog Sync wrote the following about watching Fast & Furious with D-Box: “Throughout that opening chase scene, every rev of a car's engine, every swerve of the tanker truck and even the move of the camera itself as it flies up and over a steep drop in the highway was matched with a corresponding shake, shudder, shimmy or vibration in the chair. Comparing these seats to theme-park thrill rides is like comparing BMWs to bumper cars.” 

Terminator Salvation was the next movie to get the D-Box treatment, which blogger Chris Holland caught in Austin. Impressed by the experience, he wrote, “While the seats deliver the expected bumps and rolls during explosions and car chases, there are a few more subtle touches that I actually found quite clever. When one character starts a car, the seat vibrates slightly to the purr of the engine while the characters hold a conversation. When the trademark Terminator soundtrack (you know, the one with the persistent percussion) arrives, the seat knocks you about in time to the tune.”

Currently on release with the D-Box experience is Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, which is allowing muggle viewers to finally understand just how it feels to play Quidditch. Over at /Film, Peter Sciretta filed a report from reader Joshua R about seeing the movie: “The beginning was very cool with the dementors flying about. The chair would buck left and right as they turned and vibrated when they crashed through walls. As the beginning sequence is filmed in an exciting behind-the-shoulder view of the dementors, this sequence felt more than ever like a ride at Disneyland.”

At the moment, D-Box is available in seven theaters across North America (Apple Valley, CA, Bloomington, MN, Las Vegas, NV, Austin, TX, and Toronto, ON, are all now fully equipped), and the number is growing all the time. By the time 9 is released on 09/09/09, there may be even more D-Box compatible theaters allowing people to see – and feel – the movie with an even greater intensity.