When Avatar opened in December 2009 — en route to becoming the biggest movie of all time, topping $2.8 billion at the global box office — for many movie goers, it was the first time they experienced digital 3D. Now, filmmaker James Cameron and producer Jon Landau will reintroduce audiences to their groundbreaking movie with a stunning, newly-remastered version for today’s cinemas.
Starting Friday, audiences will return to a Pandora full of vivid details and colors that they didn’t see the last time the movie was in cinemas, back when many theaters were equipped with first generation digital cinema projectors paired with new 3D systems. And for younger movie goers, maybe this is the first opportunity to experience Pandora in 3D on a big screen. Cameron and Landau’s Lightstorm Entertainment remastered the film in 4K in a high-dynamic range, with select scenes at 48-frames-per-second.
“For us, 3D is about that window into the world — and not a world coming out of a window. We want the screen plane to disappear and for the audiences to get transported into our narrative story,” Landau tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Doing all these things — the 4K, the high dynamic range, the higher frame rate, and the enhanced sound — it transports the audience even more to the world of Pandora.”
The experience is buoyed by the remastering, coupled with cinemas that offer projection systems capable of doing more than what was possible in 2009. Landau remembers the first time he saw the early tests for the remastering for a scene of Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) first riding the banshee, the flying creature ridden by the Na’vi.
“There were colors and details in the banshee that I didn’t know existed. I was saying, ‘Oh my God, look at that. Look at that iridescent quality,’ ” Landau says with a laugh. “When Jake enters the rainforest in the nighttime bioluminescence, the colors, and the detail and the range of colors and how rich your blacks can be and how bright your whites can be, without blowing things out, you go, ‘Wow.’”
Selective use of a high frame rate of 48-frames-per-second was also employed as a creative tool in the remastering, a step that incorporated Pixelworks’ TruCut Motion mastering software. Landau notes that in those moments, 48-frames-per-second made the image appear smoother and more consistent with what the human eye would see in real life.
“Forty-eight frames for us is not something that necessarily needs to be ubiquitous in every shot,” says Landau. “Forty-eight frames would not necessarily enhance a closeup. We want to use it as a creative tool … where it helps, but where it doesn’t take you out of the cinematic feeling of a film. It’s a creative tool that you would use just like you would use focus.”
Sound also has advanced since 2009. For instance, Dolby Atmos wasn’t introduced until 2012. Four-time Oscar-winner Christopher Boyes gave the new Avatar master an upgraded mix. Boyes was the supervising sound editor, designer and rerecording mixer on the original Avatar and returns to this role for Avatar: The Way of Water.
“When you present an image on the screen that has more detail, you need to complement that with sound that has more detail,” says Landau, noting that the mix and much of the postproduction on the new version were completed at Peter Jackson’s Park Road Post in Wellington, New Zealand.
To get a sense of the lengths to which Landau and Cameron go to achieve the best possible presentation quality, consider this. In 2009, more than 100 different delivery versions of Avatar — an unprecedented number at the time — were created for its day-and-date release in 102 countries. That included various grades at different light levels to best accommodate each type of projection system. For this Disney rerelease that number will be considerably higher. And later this year, The Way of Water might encompass the largest number of deliverables ever created for a single movie.
“We drive the studio operations team crazy,” admits Landau. “We sit there and say, ‘OK, if we’re doing this, let’s present the best possible image we can.’ If a theater is capable of presenting at 14 foot- lamberts (a measure of light), we deliver them a 14 foot-lambert master. If they’re capable of delivering three-and-a-half, those consumers should have the best possible experience they could have. And we do a master for the three and a half foot-lamberts.”
The collection of masters also accommodate various aspect ratios and specific requirements for auditoriums configured for Dolby Cinema or Imax.
“We take the maximum width and maximum height when we can, the brightest light levels,” Landau says, noting that the number of unique versions also includes those to accommodate local languages, subtitles, and the hearing impaired. Says Landau: “It’s astronomical.”
The Avatar rerelease isn’t the end of Cameron and Landau’s quest to revisit previous record-breaking films. The duo’s Lightstorm Entertainment is additionally planning to remaster Titanic in 4K, in high-dynamic range and incorporating a 48-frame-per-second frame rate.