Those 9-foot-tall, blue Na’vi won’t be the only things that look a little strange when you see Avatar: The Way of Water in theaters this weekend.
Folks who decide to heed director James Cameron’s wishes and see the movie in 3D might be treated to a “high frame rate” (or HFR) experience. In other words, certain scenes in the movie will look real strange, especially to people who don’t play video games or watch sports, and have never had to think about a frame rate in their lives.
I envy those people.
Anyway, here’s a rundown of what exactly is going to happen during your 3D screening of The Way of Water so you’re not too confused by it.
What is HFR?
Let’s get the basics out of the way first. A frame rate is simply how many frames are shown in one second of a movie, TV show, or video game. This fools your eyes by showing you a bunch of still images really quickly to make you think it’s a moving image. For the last century or so of longform cinema, movies have been projected primarily at 24 frames per second.
Why that number? Don’t worry about it. That’s just the way it’s been since the late 1920s when talkies became the norm.
However, in recent years, some movies have decided to experiment with the format a bit. Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy and Ang Lee’s Gemini Man both offered HFR (i.e., much higher than 24fps) screenings during their theatrical runs. The net effect, as you can see in that Gemini Man clip, is that the movie takes on a more “realistic” visual texture. Everything is so smooth, it’s as if the actors are in the room with you.
And a lot of people don’t like that, for a variety of reasons. First, most people just aren’t used to it. Second, and perhaps more importantly, watching something at 120fps (in Gemini Man’s case) on a huge screen can be nauseating. That said, Avatar: The Way of Water’s implementation of HFR might be a little more palatable.
Which parts of Avatar: The Way of Water will use HFR?
Cameron’s myriad press appearances in recent months have clarified how The Way of Water will use this divisive, unusual tool. Certain parts of the movie will project at the usual 24fps and other parts at 48fps.
First off, it sounds like you don’t need to worry about it if you see the movie in 2D.
“The one thing I will say pretty definitively is that 48 frames doesn’t benefit a 2D movie very much, if at all,” Cameron told Yahoo News. “It’s really about making a better experience in 3D.”
As for which parts of The Way of Water will look smoother than others, Cameron addressed that in the same interview. Put simply, if a scene is underwater, it’ll project at 48fps. There may also be flying scenes and other outdoor shots shown that way, but it sounds like all that underwater action is where you’ll see HFR the most.
Cameron also admitted that it’s not a great idea to use HFR for other, more mundane scenes.
“If it’s just people sitting around talking or walking and talking, relatively slowly evolving images, it’s not necessary,” he told Yahoo News. “In fact, it’s actually sometimes even counter-productive because it looks a little too glassy-smooth, right? So the trick to it was to figure out where to use it and where not to use it.”
Think about HFR in The Way of Water this way: If those Na’vi are on land, everything will be moviegoing business as usual. If they’re about to dive into the depths of Pandora’s oceans, well, get ready for some unnervingly smooth action.
Trust us: The more prepared you are going into Avatar: The Way of Water, the less nauseating it’ll be.