Disney has announced the blockbuster hit movie Avatar: The Way of Water will be available for digital streaming purchase March 28 in the US (April 4 in the UK). That should be good news for those who didn’t have an opportunity to catch the Oscar-nominated movie in theaters, or did catch it and want to revisit Pandora, with its eco-conscious inhabitants and soulful, communicative sea creatures.
As expected, the Disney home video release will be in 4K Ultra HD with Dolby Atmos, meaning it should look and sound great when viewed on the best TVs and best soundbars. But will it really look great? That’s something I’ve been wondering following the Disney announcement, which didn’t confirm any release date for a 4K Blu-ray version of the movie.
Avatar: The Way of Water is one of the most technologically advanced films ever produced. The reason why 13 years elapsed between the original Avatar and its sequel is that James Cameron is a painstakingly detail-oriented director, and he seeks out and also develops new processes to bring his vision to the screen rather than relying on available technology.
One of the technologies used in the production of Avatar: The Way of Water is high frame rate (HFR). And while high frame rate cinema isn’t new – films including Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) was shot in that format – Avatar: The Way of Water uses Pixelworks’ TrueCut Motion, a fresh take on HFR tech that lets creators “motion grade” movies in post-production by varying frame rates on a shot-by-shot basis, and it also provides tools to adjust blur and judder angles.
The Hobbit was widely considered to be an HFR failure – viewers appreciated the visual crispness of the film, which was shot and projected at 48 frames-per-second, but found that its fast motion scenes had an uncomfortable “video-like” look. Avatar: The Way of Water, in contrast, is an HFR triumph. Seeing it laser-projected in motion-graded HFR and 3D in my local IMAX theater, the film’s abundant action scenes looked wonderfully crisp, and there was none of the video-like quality that ruined The Hobbit for me and many others.
Disney’s digital Avatar: The Way of Water release will not be in 3D, though I’d hope any future physical media release would include a Blu-ray 3D disc version. James Cameron is one of the few directors who actually uses 3D in a creative and effective way, and 3D cinematography brings many scenes in both the original Avatar and its sequel vividly to life.
The company’s press release also curiously doesn’t mention high dynamic range support, Dolby Vision or otherwise, for the digital Avatar: The Way of Water that will go on sale later this month.
As for HFR, although that’s technically possible within the existing streaming ecosystem, the version that we’ll be getting isn’t likely to be 48fps. A clear indicator why that’s the case comes from a comment made by Kim Beresford, vp integrated planning and motion pictures operations at Walt Disney Studio, at the Hollywood Professional Association Tech Retreat in February. According to a post in The Holllywood Reporter, when questioned about the possibility of an HFR digital release, Beresford replied, “I think there are roadmaps … even if that might not be available today.”
Avatar watered-down… and possibly a wash
An Avatar: The Way of Water with no 3D, no motion-graded HFR, and possibly even no HDR – is that even worth watching at all? Many people did see the Avatar sequel in theaters without those cinematic extras (the The Hollywood Reporter post noted that there were a “whopping 1,065 unique delivery versions of the movie,” with “combinations of 2D, 3D, HDR, 4K, varying light levels, aspect ratios, a high frame rate of 48 frames per second, a range of audio formats”). But there’s a big difference between viewing movies in theaters and at home.
IMAX and Dolby Cinema theaters excepted, a typical movie venue puts out a significantly dimmer image than what a recent-model TV is capable of. On such dim screens, the judder artifacts that accompany films shot at 24 frames-per-second, something that HFR serves to reduce, will be less noticeable.
But screens with high brightness serve to emphasize motion judder. That’s one of the reasons why a Filmmaker Mode gets implemented in some TVs – the judder-reducing motion interpolation processing that set makers apply as a default in other, brighter picture presets makes movies look like daytime soap operas (or like the The Hobbit projected at 48fps), and the Hollywood filmmakers don’t want that.
Filmmaker mode removes all motion interpolation and also reduces picture brightness, making pictures look significantly dimmer. And while I’m speculating here, in the case of Disney’s digital release of Avatar: The Way of Water, that’s the way you’re going to want to view it, because with no motion-graded HFR, the film’s many fast-action sequences are likely to be filled with visual judder.
Of course, this is all film and tech nerd stuff I’m talking about. If you want to see Avatar: The Way of Water and are unable to catch it in a theater, by all means stream it when the digital release hits on March 28. It’s a great film, and deserving of its Best Picture Oscars nomination. But for me, it’s also one that’s best experienced in a theater with 3D, HFR, and extra-bright laser projection. I can’t imagine seeing it any other way, in a theater or otherwise.