Avatar: The Way Of Water pushes technological boundaries by using high frame rates – but what are they, and why are they so controversial?
So it’s finally here. After more than a decade of waiting, the blue-hued inhabitants of Pandora are back on our screens as the Avatar franchise returns with sequel The Way Of Water. Just as it did last time – on the way to punching out Titanic and becoming undisputed box office champion – James Cameron’s new film arrives on a wave of awestruck publicity about its technical innovations.
The original Avatar movie, in 2009, has been credited with popularising the then-moribund world of 3D films – although it’s fair to say that it has declined since its peak in the early 2010s. According to the American Motion Picture Association’s annual Theme report, 3D box office share has declined every year since 2010 and accounted for just six per cent of US box office takings in 2021. In the same year, Black Widow became the first Marvel Cinematic Universe movie since Iron Man 2 to release in IMAX cinemas without a 3D option.
The debates around 3D technology are now very familiar to all of us: light loss, headaches, concern about whether it actually makes any difference at all. Cameron and his team, however, are hoping to reverse this trend with Avatar: The Way Of Water. All involved have been talking up the added potency of the movie in 3D and, certainly, every press screening I am aware of has been in 3D. When the first minute-long trailer was shown prior to the main media screening of Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness in May, Disney reps handed out 3D specs especially for that single minute of footage.
But as well as 3D, there’s another controversial technology at the forefront of Cameron’s vision for the return of the Na’vi. It’s time to talk about high frame rates.
What is HFR – and why is it controversial?
The frame rate of a piece of video is the number of still images shown per second in order to create the illusion of a moving picture – with thanks to that Wittertainment interview. The usual frame rate for a big screen movie is 24 frames per second. Avatar: The Way Of Water is intended to be projected at twice that speed, showing at 48 frames per second in cinemas which can support it.
Advocates of the technology – more on them in the next section – point to the fact that images shown at a higher frame rate are smoother and eliminate motion blur, especially during action scenes when the camera is often panning at speed.
However, there is a trade-off. Most of us have become accustomed to watching movies at 24 frames per second – especially in cinemas – and so the imperfection is normal. We expect it. And when it’s not there, it feels strange. This is doubly the case because we are, in fact, also very familiar with higher frame rates.
While high frame rate filming for something like Avatar: The Way Of Water is at the cutting edge of camera technology, that’s not the case on the small screen. Programmes like soap operas would often be filmed and edited on VHS tape at 30 frames per second, rather than more expensive film stock. So we don’t associate high frame rates with cutting edge blockbuster movies. We associate them with cheap TV shows and behind-the-scenes documentaries, which is why the uncanny smoothness of high frame rate footage is often referred to as “the soap opera effect.”
Laurie Wilcox, professor of psychology at York University in Toronto, says that the most common complaint with HFR is footage looking “too realistic.” She adds: “The improved resolution can increase the visibility of make-up and other set-based artifice and so break the illusion of film. For instance, when I watched The Hobbit at 48fps in 3D, the feet of the large eagles looked like they were covered in terry cloth – the illusion was broken.”
This effect is similar to that of “motion smoothing” technology on modern TVs, many of which operate at 120 Hz (which is a different unit to FPS, but very similar for the purposes of this argument).
Motion smoothing uses a clever little digital process to add extra frames to footage in order to match the frame rate of the machine. It is designed to enhance fast-moving TV spectacles like live sport, but it’s the reason why movies can often look very unusual on high-end TVs unless you’re clued up enough to dig into the picture settings. Many film fans will be able to recount painful stories of having to fiddle with their parents’ TVs when they head home for Christmas. I’m speaking from bitter and repeated experience.
In 2018, Tom Cruise and Christopher McQuarrie even waded into the debate with a video in which they explained the issues around motion smoothing and advised viewers to turn it off in order to experience Mission: Impossible – Fallout in the way they intended. The filmmaking community as a whole is very much on their side.
Has HFR been tried before?
In recent years, there has been a movement among some high-profile filmmakers to utilise high frame rate technology on the big screen. But it’s not necessarily a new thing, as visual effects legend Doug Trumbull was fiddling with screening 60fps footage via his Showscan technology in the late 1970s.
The first major example of HFR on the big screen, though, came when Peter Jackson deployed it for the first of his adaptations of The Hobbit in 2012. Interestingly, by the time the sequels came around, Jackson confessed to Variety that he had softened the HFR in response to criticism and, when The Desolation Of Smaug was shown to critics, it was shown at 24 frames per second.
He said: “100 years from now, films are not going to be at 24 frames a second. The technology is going to move in ways we probably can’t even predict now. 100 years ago it was 16 frames a second, black-and-white. 100 years from now it’s going to be different again. At what point does a filmmaker use technology to push things along?”
Someone who is also on board is the Oscar-winner Ang Lee. His last two films – Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016) and Gemini Man (2019) – were shot at 120fps. The former was a little-seen drama, but the latter was a huge actioner starring Will Smith alongside Will Smith, via some digital de-aging. Those who wanted to see it in all of its technological glory, though, were probably out of luck. Only 14 cinemas in the whole of the USA could accommodate a screening in 3D at 120fps, while Paramount said that “some Odeon theatres kitted out with Dolby 3D tech” were able to screen the 120fps version in the UK.
Gemini Man was panned by critics, with the high frame rate technology often singled out for criticism. In an interview with Polygon, Lee said that HFR footage is “more immersive” and “more like life.” He said he had undergone a gradual acclimatisation process to the extent that he now thought of traditional 24fps footage as “a low frame rate,” rather than vice versa.
This is an interesting facet of the debate around HFR on the big screen. Do we dislike HFR because it looks worse than 24fps, or because we’re simply used to seeing films a certain way? It could well be the case that Jackson and Lee are right and, in a few decades’ time, it will seem bizarre that 24fps was the norm for so long.
Professor Wilcox says: “It’s possible that the complaints about high frame rate are a generational phenomenon. That is, the younger generation that is less familiar with film and more used to watching streaming content might not have the same desire for the film look.”
What’s different this time?
All of that brings us to Avatar: The Way Of Water. James Cameron has spoken openly about how he agrees with some of the criticisms around high frame rate, but believes it serves a purpose in assisting his incredibly high-tech vision for this and the subsequent three – count them, three – Avatar sequels.
Speaking to a very handsome and talented film journalist over at Yahoo, Cameron said that HFR serves no purpose for 2D films and is “counter-productive” in dialogue scenes because “it looks a little too glassy-smooth.” He’s well aware of all of the problems spoken about in this article and agrees with both Jackson and Lee that one of the key benefits of HFR is that it eliminates much of the “strobing” associated with giving people headaches when watching 3D films.
But this caused a problem when Cameron wanted to switch between frame rates. Cinemas cannot currently accommodate differing frame rates within a film and, speaking at the Busan International Film Festival, the director confirmed that he used a “simple hack” to get past this. He said: “In any part of the scene that we want at 24fps, we just double the frames. And so, they actually show the same frame twice, but the viewer doesn’t see it that way.”
Professor Wilcox says variable frame rate is a potential solution to the problems faced with HFR, with frame rate shifts akin to pulling focus to achieving the desired look. “My research with Robert Allison on people’s sensitivity to and preferences for HFR 3D content consistently shows that, when given a choice, people prefer HFR imagery. So there are circumstances where it will be a great advantage (e.g. in nature documentary), but until the art of make-up and sets can withstand the additional resolution, film goers may still prefer the 24fps film standard.”
Personally, to my fairly uneducated eye, Cameron’s variable “hack” did not come across at all. It looked as if the entire movie was presented in HFR, with varying levels of success. Scenes of dialogue and in which human and Na’vi characters appeared together still had many of the same issues associated often with HFR, looking a little like video game cut scenes – though we’ve certainly come a long way from the uncanny horror of the near-unwatchable Gemini Man.
However, the technology absolutely spreads its wings during the Avatar sequel’s underwater sequences, which feel genuinely revolutionary. The first time one of the characters plunged into the ocean and the camera moved beneath the surface, I gasped involuntarily. Its seamless underwater photography combined with motion-capture characters in a way that I’ve never seen before, enhanced by the smoothness of high frame rate filming.
To return to my own interview with Cameron, the director explained his own relationship to HFR technology, which is perhaps less extreme than the position espoused by Jackson and Lee. “I don’t see [HFR] as a format. It’s not a format like 70mm. It’s a tool, it’s an authoring tool. I think we got it. I think we got it in balance,” he said.
Just as 3D is being offered up as an option for cinemagoers to choose if they appreciate it, the future of HFR seems like it could be in a similar arena – a choice for those who want it and, for Tom Cruise and his ilk, something they don’t have to worry about. As long as they can work out how to change the settings on their mums’ TVs. That’s my Christmas plan anyway. This year, and every subsequent year.
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