Movies

So Do I Need to See Avatar in 3D, or High Frame Rate, or What?

Making sense of the million different versions of Avatar 2 in movie theaters.

A humanlike blue creature swims through a school of fish.
Avatar: The Way of Water (2D version) 20th Century Pictures

Back in April, John Fithian, the president of the National Association of Theatre Owners, exulted that Avatar: The Way of Water would be released in more versions than any movie “in the history of movies.” HFR, IMAX, 3D, 2D, 4DX, ScreenX: To some cinephiles, these are exciting developments from a director who’s always pushed the envelope. But to the average moviegoer, it makes deciding what format to see James Cameron’s sequel in even harder than finding a sitter who’s free on Saturday night.

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So, how should you see Avatar 2?

First, a quick rundown of the choices. In addition to being projected in 2D and 3D, The Way of Water will also screen in a number of PLF formats. PLF is exhibitor-speak for “Premium Large Format,” which covers an array of souped-up experiences ranging from ordinary IMAX to gimmicky formats like 4DX, with vibrating seats and scented mist, and ScreenX, which uses three separate screens to surround you with 270 degrees of imagery. Even in IMAX the size and shape of the image itself may vary. The Way of Water is available in both widescreen and “flat” versions (the latter being roughly the proportions of a standard TV), with projectionists advised to use whichever provides “the biggest possible”—not necessarily the “widest”—image.

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Avatar is being projected in so many formats that it’s basically impossible for one critic to experience them all and recommend the best; I saw Dunkirk many times, but if I tried to do the same for the three-plus-hour Avatar 2, I’d still be watching when Avatar 3 comes out. But leave aside, for now, the vibrating seats—if you’re the kind of person who wants that in a movie, you already know who you are, and I say: Go for it. For most moviegoers the key issue to consider will be Avatar’s use of high frame rate projection, or HFR. The original Avatar was a watershed in the establishment of digital projection generally and digital 3D in particular, and director/visionary/blowhard Cameron is aiming for The Way of Water to do the same thing for HFR. But what is HFR?

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As the name implies, frame rate is the rate at which the frames—the still images that make up the basic building blocks of moving pictures—change. (For a more detailed explanation, see the first scene of The Fabelmans.) Since the advent of sound in movies, the industry standard frame rate has been 24 frames per second, fast enough to provide the illusion of continuous motion. The most familiar exceptions to this process are daytime soap operas, which were shot, on video, at 30fps and delivered a picture that, to people raised on content shot on celluloid—which included, for decades, not just movies but most TV dramas—looked somewhat unnaturally detailed. That’s why some people still refer to high-frame-rate images, whether they’re shot that way in the first place or artificially rendered in the format by the motion-smoothing algorithms inside most TVs, as a victim of the “soap opera effect.”

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You might recognize algorithmic motion smoothing as the thing your parents’ television does that makes movies look like video games. As Tom Cruise himself will tell you, this is an abomination. But for gamers who spend a lot of time with such computer-generated imagery, the “film-like” look of 24fps—the one that the makers of digital cameras spent decades perfecting, so movies shot on digital would still look like movies—can start to seem blurry and imprecise, especially when objects and bodies are in motion (one reason why the motion-smoothing effect is most popular when applied to live sports). That goes also for people like Cameron and the VFX technicians he has spent much of the last few decades working with, people for whom the words “motion blur” are a source of unending dread.

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In the movies, HFR has been rarely used and even more rarely seen. Peter Jackson used a 3D HFR process on his three-film version of The Hobbit in the early 2010s, to overwhelmingly negative reactions, and the process has mostly lain dormant since then, with the failure of Ang Lee’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and Gemini Man only fueling the idea that theatrical HFR was a non-starter. But now that the movie theater industry is almost entirely digital, the capacity to project 48fps—twice the normal rate—has effectively been lying dormant inside most of the world’s movie projectors, and Cameron is now urging them to flip the switch. He even used the theatrical reissue of the original Avatar earlier this year as a kind of soft launch, remastering some of its action sequences in HFR to wet audiences’ whistles for The Way of Water.

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I must confess at this point that I … kind of hate HFR. I can’t fathom why anyone would want movies to look more like video games, and have never once watched a movie shot in the conventional format and wished that everything was just a bit sharper. Although Cameron said people might not even notice the changes made to the original Avatar, they were immediately apparent to me, even though when I saw the reissue I didn’t yet know those changes had been made. For me, high frame rates make it feel less like you’re watching a movie and more like you’re on the set watching it get made. When I watched The Hobbit in 3D HFR, I didn’t see Bilbo Baggins—I saw the actor playing him.

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My reaction to watching Avatar: The Way of Water in HFR started off the same way, even though Cameron applies the HFR more selectively than Jackson did. (Broadly speaking, the movie renders dialogue and character-based scenes in more film-like fashion and applies HFR to action sequences and landscapes.) But over the course of the movie’s three-plus hours, I grew more used to it, and by the second time I saw the movie, I noticed it even less. After its first hour, The Way of Water takes places not in the first movie’s tropical jungle but around and in the ocean, and HFR plays very different under the sea than it does on land. Because underwater photography already has a kind of hyperreal clarity, the shift to HFR is less noticeable, and it’s also when the movie pulls out its most dazzling National Geographic–style imagery. While I was looking at a tableau of blue-skinned aliens riding giant winged sea-snakes across a luminous sea, I tried to remind myself that literally nothing on the screen exists in the real world. My brain essentially refused to believe it.

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Cameron, as always, is far ahead of the curve, so much so that some major theater chains don’t even list whether they’re projecting the film in HFR or not. But in general, when deciding where to see Avatar, you want the biggest, brightest, most souped-up experience there is—well, maybe not the vibrating seats, but everything else. Determining where you can get this might mean showing up at the theater in person to ask an actual human, if you can’t get one on the phone. The same holds for watching it in 3D: If you’re averse to glasses or 3D gives you a headache, you’re welcome to watch it like a plain old movie. But like the original Avatar, The Way of Water is as much a technical vanguard as a movie. If you’re not getting sucked into the world of Pandora, you’re left with just the plot and the characters. That’s not what you, or James Cameron, are paying for.

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