If you’ve revisited James Cameron’s “Avatar” during its new theatrical engagement (or maybe are watching it for the first time), you are no doubt blown away by its presentation.
“Avatar” looks noticeably better than it did when it debuted in theaters back in 2009 – it boasts improved picture quality thanks to a new 4K remaster and is now presented in high frame rate (or HFR), which creates a more fluid image. As eye-popping as the original presentation of “Avatar” was, this new version is even more visually stunning.
But this new presentation did leave me with a question: How did the movie go from being a standard, 24-frames-per-second movie (as it was when released in 2009) to an updated, 48-frames-per-second marvel? Like Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), the crippled marine who takes a mystical voyage to the alien moon of Pandora, I embarked on an equally exotic quest … to Burbank, California. That’s where I got the answers to “Avatar’s” high frame rate makeover. (Mostly.)
As the press release states, this “Avatar” re-release is “the first film to feature cinematic high frame rate powered by TrueCut Motion technology.” At Pixelworks (TrueCut’s parent company) in Burbank, the team from TrueCut Motion showed me how they transformed “Avatar” from a potentially dusty nostalgia play to something wholly engrossing and new.
The process that TrueCut Motion provides is “end-to-end motion grading,” Miguel Casillas, Senior Director of Ecosystem Marketing at Pixelworks, said. Just like a movie goes through a “color grading” process during post-production, so too should movies submit to a “motion grading” step. TrueCut Motion creates HFR playback that enables filmmakers to make it look as little or as much like a traditional 24-frames-per-second movie as they’d like. Through a “proprietary system” (one that utilizes A.I. and machine learning), they create a “bespoke” experience for every phase of a movie’s life – theatrical, streaming, physical discs. They even said that one day, there’s a chance they’ll calibrate television sets for an optimized picture quality. Just like you buy a new TV at Best Buy with a sticker that says that it is “Dolby Vision approved,” so too could a TrueCut Motion sticker be applied.
Each movie is different, with the calibration depending on how much or how little the filmmaker wants to, in Casillas’ words, “push the envelope.” One thing that the TrueCut Motion team is keenly aware of is what they refer to as “jutter” or strobing – a jittery effect that can oftentimes accompany certain camera movements, especially if they are against an ultra-detailed, high-res backdrop. As a test, the team showed me various streaming shows and movies that, honestly, looked pretty crummy, even with the highest quality monitor. Then they showed me those same shows run through this proprietary process. The scenes came alive.
For the “Avatar” re-release, the TrueCut Motion team tackled a number of unique technical challenges. First and foremost, they were doubling the frame rate of the original release, which was tricky to do without making it look like a live-feed of a soccer game being played on a Best Buy showroom floor. Among other things, if successful, this HFR version of “Avatar” would be more in line, visually, with the upcoming sequel “Avatar: The Way of Water,” which will also be presented in high-frame-rate when it is released this Christmas.
They were also brightening the image of “Avatar,” which had seemed too dark and dull thanks to the limitation of projectors in 2009 and the artificial darkening of the screen thanks to the 3D lenses. (Casillas referred to the original release as the “dark 3D” version.) TrueCut Motion also sharpened the image to make it properly 4K. And within all of that they were making sure that the image felt both new and like classic “Avatar,” keeping an eye on the image to make sure that, during the process, no “motion anomalies” would pop up. These could be outright technical mistakes or anything about the image that felt “off” or took you out of the story.
The results are, obviously, incredible. And it’s telling that this is the second project that Cameron has partnered with TrueCut Motion on (the other was a re-release of “Titanic”). While they couldn’t say if they were working on the forthcoming sequel, it’s hard to imagine Cameron looking at this re-release and going with anybody else.
What’s amazing, too, is the idea that any HFR project could look this good. The format was really introduced with Peter Jackson’s first “The Hobbit” film, “An Unexpected Journey,” which was released 10 years ago this Christmas. Back then, HFR was widely touted. Critics had to go see the HFR version, they were that convinced of its power and the fact that the format would stick around. By the time the first sequel came out a year later, almost all mention of the HFR format was scrubbed from marketing materials and press releases. Critics could see whatever version they’d like, they’d responded so poorly the first time around, and the number of theaters playing the HFR version of “The Desolation of Smaug” dwindled.
In the years since, the technology has been infrequently utilized. Ang Lee, who like Cameron and Jackson is a pioneer, experimented with the format on 2016’s “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” (a presentation that was paired with a 4K image and 3D) and “Gemini Man.” “Gemini Man’s” ideal release was 4K 3D with a frame rate of a whopping 120 frames-per-second. It was virtually impossible to see the film the way Lee meant to present it due to a lack of theaters showing it that way. And, again, a standardized, easily digestible version of the format remained elusively out of reach.
Most of this had to do with the fact that it just didn’t look very good. It was too dark. And the crispness of the image often led to the feeling that you were watching a daytime soap opera shot on video or a movie with the motion smoothing setting on the TV still on. Worse still was, when overloaded with visual effects, it started to look like a video game cut scene.
None of these problems affect the new version of “Avatar.” And that’s the real achievement. According to Casillas, filmmaking is on the edge of a very exciting precipice. “HFR is now cinematic,” Casillas said. The technique developed by TrueCut Motion doesn’t require theaters to purchase any new equipment; it’s just another part of the post-production process. And it looks like a million bucks.
Could high quality HFR content be just around the corner? According to TrueCut Motion, we’re already there.