out of the uncanny valley

Why Does Avatar: The Way of Water Look Like That?

A tour of the VFX technology that pushes the look of James Cameron’s Avatar sequel — shot at 48 fps, twice the industry standard — into a deeper ocean. Photo: 20th Century Studios

After more than a dozen years in production, and emerging from beneath modern moviedom’s perhaps most monolithic burden of expectation, Avatar: The Way of Water can now be fairly defined by the sum of its superlatives. Sequel to the most successful movie of all time, the 312-minute, $400 million off-world action epic — the first of four planned Avatar sequels — arrived this weekend as 2022’s most eagerly anticipated title and a lifeboat to the pandemic-decimated movie marketplace. A rainbow-hued triumph of mo-cap technology and underwater Imax imagery, The Way of Water will have to be, according to its director James Cameron, the “third- or fourth-highest-grossing film in history” just to break even. Over its opening three days in theaters, The Way of Water opened the floodgates to profitability, grossing $441.6 million worldwide (including $57.1 million in China, which has remained closed off to all but a trickle of the year’s biggest tentpole films) for the sixth-highest domestic debut of all time. And in an era of escalating VFX, when 90 percent of all films in release contain some kind of computer-generated effects, Avatar 2 pushes pixels into a deeper ocean. Shot at a relatively exotic 48 frames per second — twice the industry standard — the movie stands as a masterpiece in the manipulation of judder.

Not that most people have any idea what judder is or why any of that is important. But given how central high frame rate (and to a lesser degree, variable frame rate) has become to just about all discussion of Avatar: The Way of Water — and the cruciality of judder to any appreciation of HFR — the movie’s ultimate merits have come to rest on a relatively obscure intangible a viewer usually only notices when there is too much of it or not enough. What is judder? Richard Miller, executive vice-president of technology at the digital entertainment-technology company Pixelworks, explains it as the culprit behind instances “when the filmic look becomes annoying or distracting.”

Somewhat less abstractly, judder is a stuttering effect that has been part and parcel of the “motion” in motion pictures since the dawn of the sound era. When static images are run in front of a projected light source at 24 frames per second, judder is the herky-jerky blurring that occurs primarily during lateral camera moves. Too much judder, and things look out of focus. Backgrounds blur. Details degrade. Depth of vision goes out of whack. (There is an orgy-party scene in Damien Chazelle’s upcoming period dramedy Babylon that is all sweeping camera movements and blurry bodies, an unintentional clinic in judder overkill.) But too little judder makes for Uncanny Valley. When director Ang Lee deployed a 120-frames-per-second film rate for his films Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and Gemini Man, the resulting lack of judder triggered backlash. The movies didn’t look real, as the critical consensus went. More like a video game or televised sporting event or ever-awful motion smoothing, but not cinema. “The hyperreality of the image had the countervailing effect of making everything else seem phony,” Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri wrote of Billy Lynn, “the acting, the makeup, the sets, even the stunts and the CGI.”

In 2020, Cameron’s production company Lightstorm Entertainment enlisted Studio City–based Pixelworks to help integrate a higher frame rate in Avatar 2. The goal was to throw the movie’s digital detail saturation and its innovations in high-def, 4K filmmaking into the sharpest possible focus, all while still retaining a classic cinematic look. Through the use of its proprietary TrueCut Motion software — which took a team of 40 engineers 15 years and tens of millions of dollars to develop — Pixelworks achieved a breakthrough it christened “motion grading” that could have wide implications for the look and, even more importantly, the feel of film in the Information Age.

Gone would be the “either-or” conundrum that has dogged high-frame moviemaking to date. Where Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy — also shot at 48 frames per second — had been widely derided for the films’ overextreme clarity and “soap opera effect” (reducing even the most epic action sequences to something like cheapo TV), Pixelworks would help Cameron calibrate judder on a scene-by-scene basis. Motion grading would allow The Way of Water to toggle between the look of 24 fps (better for scenes in which people are talking and the rest of the frame appears basically stationary) and higher frame rates in judder-heavy action scenes. “A typical high frame rate is that fixed rate where everything looks buttery smooth,” explains Aaron Dew, Pixelworks’ senior director of ecosystem marketing. “Shot and exhibited at 48 frames per second, it begins to look like it’s shot on a video camera. It begins to look like a video game. People believe it’s lower quality. It doesn’t evoke that storytelling feeling of cinema. But when it’s been adjusted with motion grading, it’s not buttery. It’s just the right level of judder to keep you in that cinematic state without taking you out of the movie.”

Toward that end, the Pixelworks executives play me a demo contrasting a sequence from Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in its original 48 fps to a version run through TrueCut Motion. In the scene, the camera swoops above an invading army, then pauses as a bearded giant runs headlong into a castle, smashing its wall. The un-motion-graded version indeed looks video game-y, all the less realistic for its fantastical subject matter. But after doubling the amount of judder and providing a hint of stutter to the camera movement, the footage acquires a filmic look that is markedly more immersive for a viewer. The deliberate imperfection makes it feel more like film than CGI.

Pixelworks’ sophisticated 3-D modeling software used on Avatar 2 can take existing footage — shot anywhere from 24 fps to, say, 120 — and convert it into an infinite array of other speeds, what executives refer to in-house as “cinematic HFR.” Miller likens the impact of motion grading to another nearly ubiquitous postproduction effect that has given directors greater control in manipulating filmic “atmosphere” that registers on a subconscious level. “Color grading is where the filmmaker makes the colors look just right, or makes creative decisions scene by scene, allowing characters or worlds to have different kinds of color palettes,” he says. “Now you can do that with motion. Filmmakers are now seeing it can be used as a creative tool to create different looks. Frankly, it’s quite revolutionary.”

Around 2012, Cameron began publicly championing the look of high frame rate but walked back those comments in 2019, announcing he would use HFR “sparingly throughout the Avatar films” and calling the format a “specific solution to specific problems having to do with 3-D.” In the intervening years, Pixelworks continued its research and development, extensively consulting with other filmmakers to get a handle on what Miller refers to as their “sensitivities and preferences and what they liked for different situations.” Ahead of releasing The Way of Water in 48 fps, Cameron decided to give motion grading a trial run with the release of a remastered version of the first Avatar in September. It would be a bellwether for the box-office fortunes of Avatar: The Way of Water but also the first finished film to hit global release implementing Pixelworks’ motion-grading technology. That installment ended up taking in a strong $75.5 million worldwide with a raft of positive notices for its mo-gra updates: “James Cameron’s Pandora Has Never Looked So Beautiful,” gushed one typical headline.

Donning a pair of 3-D glasses inside Pixelworks’ Imax editing bay, company executives walk me through an A-B comparison of footage from 2009’s Avatar with motion grading and without. (The company was contractually prevented from discussing particulars of what it did for Avatar 2 before the movie came out.) Settings on the company’s proprietary software go from zero to 360 — zero being the standard 24 fps setting, while 360 is all buttery-smooth, video-game-level artificiality. In one scene, Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldaña’s tall blue Na’vi characters Jake Sully and Neytiri, scamper up the trunk of a skyscraper-size redwood tree, emerging from shadow into light, and pause on a branch to peer across a vast jungle valley. The original version is distractingly riddled with judder. Visually, there is almost too much going on to take in. But as a company technician gradually increases the motion grading, the scene’s details come into sharper and sharper relief. I suddenly notice a massive waterfall on the other side of the valley, which I’d missed before, thanks to an overabundance of camera stutter. I jot in my notes that the difference makes me feel like I can “see more.”

“James Cameron really wanted to utilize the maximum potential of this technology to, in a creative way, give Pandora a different field than the human world,” says Pixelworks’ tech Jacob Cervino, who also worked on applying the company’s motion grading to Avatar: The Way of Water. “We worked through the whole movie. But the settings chosen for outside the human compound tended to be higher and a little smoother than inside the compound, to give them a different feel.”

He adds, “It really does lend itself to being a creative tool. You can treat heroes and villains differently in different locations, in different movements.”

For The Way of Water, Pixelworks sent terabytes of motion-graded files from its home base in Southern California to the film’s New Zealand production facility for the notoriously exacting Cameron to make his effects selections. The director has said he deliberately chose different grading for underwater scenes to further distinguish them from Pandora’s surface world. And sometimes even within the span of a single sequence, he would want shot-by-shot tweaks. “It’s been a real trial by fire with one of the most demanding production companies in the world,” Miller says.

More on Avatar: The Way of Water

See All
Why Does Avatar: The Way of Water Look Like That?