Pop Culture and Media

James Cameron's 'Avatar: The Way of Water' looks different from every movie you've ever seen—here's why

Avatar: The Way of Water
Courtesy: Disney Co.

With "Avatar: The Way of Water" hitting theaters this weekend, director James Cameron is gambling that audiences are ready to not only return to Pandora after 13 years, but that they will be open to a film shot in 48 frames per second. 

For virtually the entire history of film, movies have been shot and displayed at the cinematic standard of 24 frames per second. This means that 24 still images are displayed on the screen every second, creating the illusion of motion. 

While there have been high profile attempts to bring higher frame rate films to theaters in the past — Peter Jackson tried it with his "Hobbit" films and director Ang Lee wanted audiences to see 2019's "Gemini Man" at a whopping 120 frames per second — both received swift blowback from critics and audiences for the way they looked.

"It came to kind of define the genre of film," Richard Miller, executive vice president of technology at Pixelworks, says of the 24 frames per second look. "We've become very used to it. I think our brains know that we're watching a story when we see it."

Newscasts, live sports and even soap operas typically hit your TV screen at 30 frames per second, which gives them their distinct visual feel. But when a film is presented in a high frame rate, the end result can end up looking too realistic to some people, and take them out of the story.

Avatar: The Way of Water
Courtesy Disney Co.

"The old way of doing high frame rate makes it look like sports or a documentary or a soap opera, and it kind of disengages that storytelling zone," Miller says. "When filmmakers make a movie, they try to instill a suspense of disbelief. You can only really get there with the 24 frames per second look. If you try a high frame rate look, you ruin the suspense of disbelief." 

"I think everybody who has a recent TV, they've seen it," he adds. It's kind of subconscious, but it just doesn't quite look right. It doesn't look like a movie." 

Enter James Cameron.

For "Avatar: The Way of Water" as well as the recently re-released original, Cameron's Lightstorm Entertainment worked with Pixelworks' TrueCut Motion platform to adjust the look of the onscreen motion in every shot of the film. 

These "motion grading" adjustments – which Miller hopes will one day be as common as color grading in the post-production process – allow the film to be shown in 48 frames per second so that images look crisp and detailed on bigger, brighter and better displays, but without any unusual-looking motion taking viewers out of the story.

The result is that "Avatar: The Way of Water" is the first major film to be released in a high frame rate but adjusted to keep its "cinematic" look.

In the case of the "Avatar" sequel, the action and underwater sequences will run at a higher frame rate, allowing the motion to look better and more realistic, while dramatic scenes have been adjusted to look like the traditional 24 frames per second standard that audiences are accustomed to. 

"It's a tool for the director to create the look that he or she wants shot by shot," Miller says. "It's used selectively. Some shots may not need the tool at all." 

The end goal is to create a seamless visual experience that maximizes the aesthetic and cinematic appeal of each shot in the film.

Still, Miller says, the idea is also for moviegoers to not notice anything different about the action onscreen other than that it looks great.

"Sit back, relax and immerse yourself in the movie," he says.

"Allow that suspension of disbelief to happen and just lose yourself in the world of Pandora. If you never notice anything distracting about the motion and you just love the movie and the story, our job is done."

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