How to Watch Avatar 2: 3D, Frame Rate, IMAX, Dolby Explained

If you want to see James Cameron’s latest feat of engineering the way he intended it, there are a few important factors to consider.

As reactions to Avatar: The Way of Water trickled in, one thing was clear: James Cameron’s long-planned sequel is a visual masterpiece worthy of being shown on the biggest screen possible. But you’re not alone if you’re not sure which screen that is.

The film will be released in various digital formats, with both 2D and 3D options available. The first Avatar ushered in something of a creative heyday in 3D filmmaking, with films like Hugo, Goodbye to Language, and Jackass 3D demonstrating the creative potential of the medium. But mainstream 3D filmmaking never quite caught on to the extent people believed after Avatar, and it’s becoming increasingly rare for a major release to be shown in 3D, let alone filmed with 3D viewing. But Avatar: The Way of Water is exactly that.

There are several factors to consider when comparing formats, but the main differentiators are 3D, frame rate, and cinematic quality.

3D vs 2D

Perhaps more than any other film in recent memory, Avatar 2 was specifically designed to be viewed in 3D. Although 2D screenings are available in most cinemas, this is by far the most visually limiting option. It is highly recommended that anyone who has access to a 3D screening see it this way unless you have a medical condition that prohibits it.

The most common 3D formats are RealD 3D, Dolby 3D and IMAX 3D. RealD is generally considered the least desirable option (although it’s still preferable to 2D) due to color clarity concerns. Dolby and IMAX are ultimately preferred, with the consensus being that Dolby offers better picture quality, but the larger screens can often make IMAX a better viewing experience.

AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER, (aka AVATAR 2), Took (voice: Trinity Jo-Li Bliss), 2022. © Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

“Avatar: The Way of Water”

Walt Disney Studios Movies / Courtesy Everett Collection

High frame rates

Watching the film in 3D opens up your options significantly. There are a variety of 3D screening formats, and the differences between them are essentially a matter of frame rate. Most movies are shot at a frame rate of 24 frames per second, but Cameron doubled that for many sequences in Avatar 2, shooting at 48 frames per second.

This gives the film a smoother effect that’s often compared to video games, although other filmmakers have particularly experimented with high frame rates in movies like Gemini Man and Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy.

Since it’s still such a niche technology, not every cinema can show films in 48 fps. Some will still present it in a standard 24fps format, inevitably resulting in some depth being lost. “Avatar 2” was shot at multiple frame rates, primarily 48 fps for action and underwater sequences and a more traditional 24 fps for simpler scenes. However, it is important to note that projectors cannot switch between frame rates during a presentation. So a high frame rate screening of Avatar 2 projects the entire movie at 48 frames per second, and the scenes shot at 24 frames per second simply show each frame twice (although this would be imperceptible to a viewer). Screenings in theaters not equipped for 48 fps projection simply show the entire film at a standard 24 fps frame rate, meaning many of the most visually stunning scenes are not presented as Cameron intended.

So for an immersive experience, look for a show that mentions high frame rate (often abbreviated as HFR) or states that the theater uses single laser technology. Some cinemas use older dual-laser projectors that offer slightly higher image quality but do not allow 48fps projection. Single laser showings result in very little degradation in image quality, but most experts believe that being able to view action scenes at the intended frame rate is a compromise worth making.

Avatar: The Way of Water

“Avatar: The Way of Water”

Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

IMAX compared to other premium formats

In addition, only premium format options need to be considered. IMAX theaters are still the biggest and noisiest options, presenting the film on the largest possible screen with a top-notch sound system. The original “Avatar” was the highest-grossing IMAX film of all time, even though there were only about 300 IMAX screens in the world at the time.

That number has increased significantly over the following 13 years, and Avatar 2 will be the widest IMAX release ever when shown on over 1,500 IMAX screens worldwide. But this rapid expansion was possible because not all IMAX screens are created equal. Many multiplexes have theaters branded with IMAX branding but much smaller than the original IMAX screens (although larger than a standard screen). “Real” and “fake” IMAX screens are labeled exactly the same, so it takes a little research to figure out which one you’re looking at. Cinephiles who want to see the film on the largest screen possible should seek out an IMAX theater that plays the film in an aspect ratio of 1.43 rather than 1.9, such as AMC Lincoln Square in New York City or AMC Universal CityWalk in Los Angeles.

After that, Dolby Cinema screens are the second-highest option (although both IMAX and Dolby showings will cost more due to the third-party maintenance these cinemas require). Many of these cinemas are also equipped with single-laser technology, which allows the film to be viewed at high frame rates. Many large AMC multiplexes have movie theaters equipped with Dolby Cinema.

our recommendation

While the screening you choose is ultimately a matter of personal preference and availability, it is generally agreed that the highest quality way to experience Avatar: The Way of Water is through an IMAX 3D screening using single laser technology. This experience is offered at major theaters in many key markets, including AMC Lincoln Square in New York City and AMC Burbank and AMC The Grove in Los Angeles.

Additional reporting by Tom Brüggemann.

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Lindsay Lowe

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