‘Avatar’ and the Headache of High Frame Rate Filmmaking

For all the praise lavished on how convincing, immersive and detailed Pandora looks in “Avatar: The Way of Water,” one aspect of the imagery is intensely distracting: the director James Cameron’s use of a high frame rate. If you saw the movie at a top-notch theater and noticed that certain moments had the glossy, almost hyper-real veneer of a soap opera, that is because he is employing a tool that no filmmaker has yet succeeded in making appealing at scale.

Movies are a succession of still images, shown very rapidly. The frame rate is simply the speed at which those still images are captured by the camera and later projected back at the viewer. At the beginning of the sound era, the rate was standardized at 24 frames per second.

That number stuck for several reasons, but when I wrote about this in 2016, the editor Dean Goodhill offered a convincing explanation. In the late 1920s, 24 frames per second hit a sweet spot. Go slower, and the sound would be muddy. Go faster, and you would have difficulty getting images to register on the film stocks of the time.

But for some directors and cinematographers, particularly those interested in fast action, 24 frames per second has always been insufficient. When an object moves too quickly across the screen, viewers might see a blur. If movies would only add more frames, the argument goes, then a spaceship could zip from one end of a giant screen to the other, and audiences would see it with perfect clarity at every point in its trajectory. Additional frames also, in theory, make it easier for our brains to process digital 3-D.

The problem is that increasing the frame rate begins to make everything look hyper-clear. That extreme sharpness, far from being an unalloyed benefit, changes the whole texture of the image, giving it a look that we associate with video and stripping away whatever mystique and aesthetic allure comes from longer time gaps between frames.

The Return of ‘Avatar’

The director James Cameron takes us back to the world of Pandora for the sequel “Avatar: The Way of Water.”

  • What to Know: The sequel opened on Dec. 16, 13 years after “Avatar” shattered box office records. If you remember little about the original movie, here is a refresher.
  • Review: Cameron’s “embrace of the idealism of adolescence, of the capacity for moral outrage as well as wonder, is the emotional heart of the movie,” our critic writes.
  • Holding Their Breath: Cameron and the sequel’s cast discussed what it took to get the new “Avatar” made and to bring it to life in a changed world.
  • Computer-Generated H2O: Nearly all of the sea shots in the blockbuster are digital. But making them seem real led to a milestone in the technique.

When Peter Jackson released “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” (2012) at 48 frames per second, reviewers complained that the extra frames interfered with the suspension of disbelief. Instead of seeing hobbits, you saw actors in hobbit makeup. Ang Lee faced similar criticism with the 120-frame-per-second “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” (2016) and “Gemini Man” (2019). Instead of watching characters in an action movie, you were watching a documentary of Will Smith and Mary Elizabeth Winstead at a table.

The first “Avatar” (2009) ran at 24 frames per second, but for the sequel, Cameron, who has long expressed interest in another option, has hedged. If you see the 3-D 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 the higher rate; it’s just that the 48-frame-per-second scenes show an additional set of snapshots in time every second.)

Filmmakers have hoped the higher frame rate would make fast action, like shooting an arrow, clearer.Credit…20th Century Studios

There is no discernible rationale for Cameron’s choices: The rate often shifts within a scene or when he cuts to another angle on the same object. And the technique isn’t simply used for action scenes and fast camera movements, the most obvious potential sources of blur or judder. Some of the action is shown at 24, and some quiet, character-driven shots are at 48.

The alternation is rarely seamless. The first three shots of Edie Falco as General Ardmore are at 48 frames per second, but the fourth shot switches to the standard rate. Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) hugs one child at 48 frames per second and then two children together at 24. Spider (Jack Champion) grabs a fire extinguisher at 24 frames per second, then uses it to smash controls on a panel at 48. When the poacher Scoresby (Brendan Cowell) loses his arm, there are two shots of the severed limb. The first is at 24; the second, the reverse angle, is at 48. You wouldn’t want any blur on a flying arm.

Shots submerged from beginning to end are in the high frame rate, and in general, the device is less unnerving when the image simply involves water, Na’vi and tulkun, the whale-like creatures, because we’re watching visuals heavily augmented with effects. But the format becomes a liability when a human being — or any recognizable, real-world object — enters the frame. Suddenly the actors-in-costume, documentary effect is back, and it has the paradoxical consequence of making this $600 million movie look cheap. Certain shots during the tulkun hunt resemble a first-person video game — partly because some video games adopted high frame rates long ago.

Furthermore, whenever the movie downshifts from 48 frames per second to 24, the image — to my eyes — momentarily looks flickery, almost like a form of slow motion, as if your mind is once again learning how to convert still images into a movie. Those of us who have heard the hype about high frame rates have long wondered whether they constitute progress or gaslighting. If eliminating blur was always a white whale for technicians, for viewers it might be a solution in search of a problem. By toggling between two frame rates, “Avatar: The Way of Water” implicitly concedes that more isn’t always better.

Still, if you had talked to the late Douglas Trumbull, who got his start designing photographic effects for “2001: A Space Odyssey,” you would get the impression that nearly everyone toying with high frame rates has been doing it wrong. Trumbull was one of the pioneers of the technology; beginning in the 1970s, he developed a format called Showscan that would have played movies at 60 frames per second. In more recent years, he was pushing a system he called Magi, in which movies could run in 3-D at 120 frames per second.

When we met for coffee in February 2020, he explained — as he had in 2016 — how his system differed from those used by the high-frame rate movies that had been released so far. He promised that movies shot with it would look “fully cinematic,” not like soap operas.

“I have to show it to people,” he said. “I’m so tired of talking about it and explaining this and being put in this defensive position by Ang Lee and ‘Gemini Man’ and ‘Billy Lynn.’”

Magi was about to make its public debut with a short that Trumbull had directed, “Imagination!,” about Nikola Tesla, that would play at the NY Energy Zone, a new visitor center in Utica, N.Y., run by the New York Power Authority.

I’d like to tell you how “Imagination!” looks, but when I went up to Utica for a day, the projector had gone down, with no imminent prospect of repair. The earliest it might be fixed is this week.

If high frame rate looks good anywhere, it remains elusive.

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