Despite all the praise for how believable, gripping and detailed Pandora looks in “Avatar: The Way of Water,” one aspect of the footage is extremely distracting: director James Cameron’s use of high frame rates. If you’ve ever seen the movie in a world-class theater and noticed that certain moments have the glossy, almost hyper-realistic veneer of a soap opera, it’s because no filmmaker has yet managed to make it appealing on a large scale.
Movies are a series of still images that are played very quickly. Frame rate is simply the rate at which these still images are captured by the camera and then reflected back to the viewer. At the beginning of the audio age, speed was standardized at 24 frames per second.
That number has held steady for a number of reasons, but when I wrote about it in 2016, editor Dean Goodhill made a convincing statement. In the late 1920s, 24 frames per second hit a sweet spot. Go slower and the sound would be muddy. If you go faster, you’ll have trouble saving the footage to the movie stocks of that time.
But for some directors and cinematographers, especially those interested in fast action, 24 frames per second has always been insufficient. When an object moves too quickly on the screen, viewers may see a blur. If movies only added more frames, then a spaceship could sprint from one end of a giant screen to the other, and audiences could see it at every point of its orbit with perfect clarity. Additional frames also theoretically make it easier for our brains to process digital 3-D.
The problem is that increasing the framerate starts to make everything look overly sharp. Far from being a pure benefit, this extreme sharpness changes the whole texture of the image, giving it the look we associate with video, and removing any mystery and aesthetic appeal that comes from the longer time intervals between frames.
The Return of ‘Avatar’
Director James Cameron takes us back to the world of Pandora for its sequel, “Avatar: The Way of Water.”
- Need to know: The sequel was released on December 16, 13 years after “Avatar” broke box office records. If you remember very little about the original movie, here’s a reminder.
- Review:Our critic writes that Cameron’s “embracing of adolescent idealism, the capacity for moral anger as well as curiosity is the emotional heart of the film.”
- Holding Your Breath:Cameron and the cast of the sequel discussed what it took to make the new “Avatar” and bring it to life in a changing world.
- Computer Generated H2O: Almost all of the nautical footage in the blockbuster movie is digital. But making them look real led to a breakthrough in technique.
When Peter Jackson released “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” (2012) at 48 frames per second, critics complained that the extra frames interfered with the suspension of disbelief. Instead of seeing hobbits, you saw actors with hobbit make-up. Ang Lee faced similar criticism with “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” (2016) and “Gemini Man” (2019) at 120 frames per second. Instead of watching characters from an action movie, you were at a table watching a documentary by Will Smith and Mary Elizabeth Winstead.
The first “Avatar” (2009) was released at 24 frames per second, but Cameron took precautions, expressing his long-standing interest in another option for the sequel. If you see the 3D version of “Avatar: The Way of Water” in IMAX, Dolby Cinema, or any presentation labeled “HFR,” parts of the movie will play at 48 frames per second. Other moments mimic the standard 24. (Technically, the projector is running at a higher speed; only 48fps scenes show an additional set of snapshots every second.)
There’s no discernible logic to Cameron’s choices: The speed often changes as he cuts through a scene or on the same object at another angle. And the technique is simply not used for action scenes and fast camera movements, which are the most obvious potential sources of blur or jitter. Some of the action is shown at 24, and some quiet, character-driven shots are shown at 48.
Change is rarely smooth. The first three shots of Edie Falco as General Ardmore are at 48 frames per second, but the fourth shot switches to standard rate. Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) hugs a child at 48 frames per second and then two children at 24 frames per second. Spider (Jack Champion) takes a fire extinguisher at 24 frames per second and uses it to smash the controls on a panel at 48 frames. poacher Scoresby (Brendan Cowell) loses his arm, two shots fired at the severed limb. The first is 24 years old; second, the reverse angle is 48. You don’t want any blur in a flying arm.
The thoroughly immersed footage is at a high frame rate, and in general, the device is less frustrating when the image only includes the water, Na’vi, and whale-like creatures, the Na’vi and tulkun, because we’re viewing the visuals heavily augmented. Effects. But when a person – or any recognizable, real-world object – enters the frame, the format becomes an obligation. Suddenly the costumed actors, the documentary effect is back, with the paradoxical result of making this $600 million movie look cheap. Some shots during the Tulkun hunt look like a first-person video game, in part because some video games adopted high frame rates a long time ago.
What’s more, as the movie drops from 48 frames per second to 24 frames per second, the image – to my eyes – seems wobbly for a moment, almost like a kind of slow motion, as if your mind was once again learning to turn still images into a movie. Those of us who have heard the hype about high framerates have long wondered if they were progress or gaslighting. If removing blur has always been a white whale for technicians, it could be a solution for viewers in search of a problem. “Avatar: The Way of Water” alternates between the two frame rates, implicitly admitting that more isn’t always better.
Still, if you spoke to the late Douglas Trumbull, who started designing the photo effects for “2001: A Space Odyssey,” you’d get the impression that almost everyone who plays with high frame rates gets it wrong. Trumbull was one of the pioneers of technology; Beginning in the 1970s, he developed a format called Showscan that would play movies at 60 frames per second. In more recent years, he’s been pushing a system he calls Magi, where movies can be displayed in 3D at 120 frames per second.
When we met for coffee in February 2020, as he did in 2016, he talked about how his system was different from those used in high-frame-rate movies ever released. He promised that movies shot with it would look “purely cinematic” rather than soap operas.
“I need to show people,” he said. “I’m so tired of talking about it, explaining it, and being put in this defensive position by Ang Lee, ‘Gemini Man’ and ‘Billy Lynn’.”
Magi is the Trumbull-directed short about Nikola Tesla, which will play at the NY Energy Zone, a new visitor center in Utica, NY, managed by the New York Power Authority. He was about to make his public debut with .
“Imagination!” it seems, but when I went to Utica for a day, the projector failed and there was no imminent possibility of repair. It can be fixed this week at the earliest.
If high framerate looks good everywhere, it’s tough.