When James Cameron’s Avatar hit cinemas back in 2009, the sci-fi blockbuster seemingly heralded the start of a new era of 3D filmmaking. And for a while it did, inspiring a wave of movies either shot natively in 3D or (more commonly) converted to the format during post-production, however, this was ultimately little more than a fad. The 3D movie boom was over in less than a decade; today, the format is all but dead, and the promise of Avatar seems more like a pipedream.
There’s still a glimmer of hope, though – and fittingly, it comes courtesy of Cameron and the Avatar franchise. A belated sequel, Avatar: The Way of Water, arrives in cinemas on 18 December 2022 and brings with it renewed expectations for the future of the 3D format. This begs the question: can Avatar: The Way of Water succeed where the first Avatar failed and spark a lasting 3D filmmaking revolution?
To answer that question, we first need to consider what made the 3D in the original Avatar so game-changing to begin with. Cameron spent years working with the likes of hardware expert Vince Pace and visual effects house Weta Digital to perfect the technology needed to execute his vision of a photorealistic virtual environment that audiences would immerse themselves in, and it shows. Few movies since Avatar have crafted such a convincing world and none have done as effective a job of transporting us there. Sure, many of us have visited Middle-earth, the Wizarding World, and a certain galaxy far, far away at arm’s length – but whether in 2D or 3D, Pandora is the only sci-fi or fantasy realm we’ve really, truly stepped into.
A large part of this is that Cameron baked the 3D format into Avatar’s very DNA. Together with cinematographer Mauro Fiore and editors Stephen Rivkin and John Refoua, Cameron framed every shot and made every cut with the strengths – and just as importantly, limits – of 3D filmmaking in mind. The 3D effect is achieved by tricking our eyes into perceiving two 2D images as one 3D image, and there are limits to how much trickery our poor peepers (and brains) can handle; this rules out certain camera movements, as well as rapid-fire edits between objects of differing depths. Unsurprisingly for a film developed with 3D in mind from its inception, Avatar sidesteps these pitfalls without once calling attention to its reduced storytelling vocabulary.
Avatar didn’t just gracefully navigate the limits of 3D, though; it redefined the format’s strengths, too. Before Avatar, the main selling point of 3D movies could best be summed up as “stuff flying at you”. In practice, this means that if a character on screen throws a frisbee, it appears to soar out into the theatre itself as young (and not-so-young) audience members try to nab it out of the air. There’s an undeniable novelty to this approach, however, it doesn’t lend itself to the most sophisticated kind of storytelling.
That’s why Cameron uses few (if any) shots like this, flipping the emphasis of the 3D viewing experience from shoving countless things out of the screen to sucking one thing – the audience – into it. Avatar is all about depth of field. When the lights go down and the movie starts, we’re supposed to forget we’re looking at a reflective flat surface and see a window, not a screen. On the other side of this window is a living, breathing reality just like our own – with a foreground, midground, and background – only far more exotic and filled with adventure.
It’s a more subtle take on the 3D format that could easily have bombed, yet audiences were more than happy to buy into it (quite literally, as Avatar’s $2.8 billion+ worldwide gross can attest).
Unfortunately, few in Hollywood shared Cameron’s rare blend of artistic and technological filmmaking nous, and this ultimately hastened the 3D format’s decline.
Sure, there were movies released post-Avatar that demonstrated a firm grasp of modern, depth of field-oriented 3D techniques – notably Hugo, Life of Pi, and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – yet productions like these were few and far between. More often than not, the 3D movies of this era were actually 2D movies converted to 3D during post-production, and while this did occasionally yield impressive results, typically it meant blurry backgrounds and “cut-out” actors (*cough* Clash of the Titans *cough*).
Studio executives were often to blame for these rushed, low-cost conversion efforts, caring less about how well a given project translated to 3D and more about the format’s higher ticket prices. To them, 3D wasn’t a way to redefine cinematic storytelling; it was a bolt-on that guaranteed a nice box office bump for a relatively small additional outlay once the original 2D movie was already in the can. Forget about pushing the narrative and emotional boundaries of a new form of cinema – the name of the game here was making money.
And while studios chasing a quick buck is something audiences have grown accustomed to, even this deeply engrained indulgence has its limits. Once we all wised up to the fact that we were paying a premium price for an inferior product, the 3D movie gold rush was over.
(It’s also worth noting that watching 3D movies makes some moviegoers feel sick; while this certainly didn’t help the format’s prospects, Avatar’s ticket sales nevertheless suggest most people can enjoy 3D just fine.)
Really, that should be the end of this story. Yet with the rapidly approaching release of Avatar: The Way of Water, it’s clear that Cameron still believes a new and lasting age of 3D filmmaking is a possibility. If history has taught us anything, it’s never to bet against the guy responsible for several of the highest-grossing films of all time, but the thing is, the future of 3D rests on more than just how well Avatar: The Way of Water performs. Obviously, if Cameron delivers another critical and commercial hit that breaks the mould, that will play a huge part in laying the groundwork for a 3D renaissance. It’s what happens next that really matters, though.
As the immediate aftermath of the first Avatar so handily illustrates, for a burgeoning format like 3D to really take off, filmmakers and studios need to deploy it properly. If the 3D movies that follow Avatar: The Way of Water don’t aspire to the same level of craft, audiences won’t embrace the format itself. Similarly, 3D can’t go back to being a last-minute means of inflating box office numbers – the technology has to be either an integral part of the production or not used at all. Nothing will kill 3D quicker this time around than another onslaught of crappy 2D conversions.
If the industry can get both these things right, there is indeed a decent chance that Avatar: The Way of Water will spearhead that 3D revolution we were promised – and just in time for Cameron’s next Avatar sequel, no less.