A Whiff of Polyester: Inside the Odorama Process

Inside Criterion / Production Notes — Sep 25, 2019


With Polyester, his first movie to flirt with the mainstream, maverick filmmaker John Waters set out to send up the overripe Hollywood melodramas of yesteryear—but also “to make a movie that really stunk,” as he has put it. Inspired by the gimmickry of genre maestro William Castle and such turn-of-the-sixties stunts as Smell-O-Vision and AromaRama, which piped scents into theaters during select films, Waters came up with his own proprietary system for incorporating the olfactory sense into the cinematic experience—all in order to bring audiences closer to Polyester’s housewife protagonist, Francine Fishpaw (Divine), whose own powerful sense of smell helps her steer her way through domestic turmoil. When the film was released in 1981, it was accompanied by the wonders of Odorama: scratch-and-sniff cards were distributed to audience members, who were then cued by the film precisely when to scratch off each of the ten numbered smells. In the inimitable Waters’ conception, the gimmick was also a genial prank on moviegoers: among the scents were fart, skunk spray, and dirty shoes.

Those worried that this advanced technology parted ways with the film when it exited theaters, fear not: our brand-new edition of Polyester includes the patented Odorama card, so you’ll be equipped to smell along with the movie from the comfort of your own home. For a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the painstaking production process required by these new scratch-and-sniff cards—during which we had to start, well, from scratch—check out the video above. While past Polyester home-video releases (including our own 1993 laserdisc) had also included the Odorama technology, making this a reality in 2019 required quite a bit more legwork. 3M, the company that produced the cards and associated smells for Polyester’s theatrical release, has long since gotten out of the scratch-and-sniff game; most companies that still regularly print scents do so for perfume ads—and thus were quick to turn their noses up at this project.

Finally, we located a company, Tennessee’s Print-A-Scent, that maintained a library of smells large and varied enough to meet our needs. After a selection process that involved Waters himself—whose spirited sniffing away, despite a sense of smell he readily admits is “not good,” can be seen in a delightful supplement on our new edition—fragrant inks were bottled up and shipped to New Jersey, where the cards were printed by Kaleidoscope Concepts. Some of the ten-day screen-printing process that commenced—during which one scent at a time was layered onto the entire run of cards, and left to dry before moving on to the next—can be seen (though, alas, not smelled) here.