What’s the best way to watch Avatar 2? IMAX, 3D & HFR explained

Jake Sully in Avatar 2, The Way of Water20th Century Studios

Avatar 2 is in cinemas now, with audiences all over the world diving into The Way of Water – but what’s the best way to watch the sequel? We’ve got the breakdown on IMAX, 3D, HFR, PLF, and more.

Released in 2009, the original Avatar is still a technical wonder to behold. The visual effects put recent blockbusters to shame, and while it kicked off a 3D trend beyond red-and-blue-glasses gimmickry, nothing has come close to beating it.

So, when it returned to cinemas earlier this year, it wasn’t surprising to see moviegoers flock to theaters, with the re-release raking in $75.5 million worldwide, more than the entire hauls of other 2022 movies.

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Avatar 2 has finally hit cinemas, and it’s already one of the highest-grossing movies of all time, but if you’re seeking maximum impact, you may be wondering: how should I be watching it, are all IMAX screens the same, should I go for 3D, and what do HFR and PLF mean? Don’t worry, we’ve got those answers.

The best way to watch Avatar 2: The simple answer

You should watch Avatar 2 in IMAX 3D, ideally on an IMAX screen with single-laser technology.

Why? Firstly, James Cameron has ensured the movie’s IMAX presentation will be in 1.90:1 aspect ratio – simply put, you’ll see more of the movie as the screen is taller, and it’s designed for a PLF (premium large format) like IMAX.

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Do you need to watch it in 3D? No, but it’s the way Cameron has intended. Unlike some other movies, Avatar 2 is an example of “natively authored 3D”, filmed using the Sony CineAlta Venice 3D camera which is IMAX certified. Basically, you won’t see a better-looking 3D movie, so unless you can’t for medical reasons, go for it.

If you can’t watch in IMAX 3D, the next best option is a Dolby Cinema, which offers 3D, 4K, and HFR, as well as HDR and Dolby Atmos sound, which some believe to be superior to IMAX sound systems. There’s one drawback: the screen may not be as large, so you won’t get the same immersive experience.

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The best way to watch Avatar 2: What does it all mean?

Before we explain, let’s break down the basic meanings:

  • IMAX derives from “maximum image”, is the name of cameras and theaters equipped with larger screens and enhanced sound.
  • 3D allows viewers to experience extra immersion, creating the illusion of being able to touch images or enter into them.
  • HFR stands for “high frame rate”, used to describe movies that run faster than the standard 24fps (frames per second).
  • PLF stands for “premium large format”, used to describe IMAX, some Dolby Cinema screens, and other cinema-specific formats like Cineworld’s Superscreen and Screen X.

In the months leading up to the movie’s release, it was boasted that “there will be more versions of Avatar 2 than any movie in the history of movies,” according to John Fithian, president and CEO of the National Association of Theater Owners.

“We are talking about high resolution, high frame rates, 3D, IMAX, PLF, different sound systems, and in 160 different languages.”

IMAX with Laser explained

Let’s be real, only cinema nerds will care about this, but there is a difference worth knowing: not all IMAX screens are the same, and it’s down to the lasers.

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Some IMAX screens are equipped with dual-laser technology, others use a single laser, while older screens use a Xenon lamp-based projector. Laser screens offer superior visuals; higher brightness, richer color, and sharper images. If the screen uses dual lasers, it’ll have a better picture.

Cinemas will tell you if their IMAX screen uses laser technology. For example, AMC shows it from the outset of booking, while Cineworld has every location listed on its website.

This raises another question: why should I choose single laser over dual? This is where HFR and 3D come in.

HFR and 3D explained

Movies are generally shot in 24ps, the standard frame rate for movies. Unlike gaming, where higher frame rates are often sought after, it can feel a bit disorientating (and even nauseating) in movies where HFR has been used. One example is Ang Lee and Will Smith’s Gemini Man, which was shot at 120fps.

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During an earlier appearance at the Busan International Film Festival in South Korea, Cameron explained (as per Variety): “We’re using [high frame rate] to improve the 3D where we want a heightened sense of presence, such as underwater or in some of the flying scenes.

“For shots of just people standing around talking, [high frame rate] works against us because it creates a kind of a hyper-realism in scenes that are more mundane, more normal. And sometimes we need that cinematic feeling of 24fps.

An image from Avatar 2, Avatar: The Way of Water20th Century Studios
Avatar 2 is set to be one of the biggest movies of 2022.

“Can theatres support variable frame rate, switching back and forth within the movie between 24fps and 48fps? The answer is no, they just run it at 48fps. In any part of the scene that we want at 24fps, we just double the frames.

“And so, they actually show the same frame twice, but, but the viewer doesn’t see it that way. And so, we just we’re essentially using a simple hack to use the high frame rate platform that already exists.”

So how does this affect the way you choose to watch Avatar 2? Well, as per Forbes, “while all IMAX projectors can display HFR, dual laser can only do so at 2K resolution rather than 4K (allegedly due to overheating).”

If you choose to watch on a dual-laser screen, you’ll get a better overall picture, but lose the resolution in the HFR scenes, while single-laser IMAX maintains the same quality of the 3D and 4K image.

Dolby Cinemas have another advantage: they will always be capable of HFR in 4K, it’s just down to whether you want to lose the scale of the larger screen.

You can find out how how much Avatar 2 cost to make here, and why the sequel has taken so long here.

Avatar: The Way of Water is in cinemas now. You can read our review here and check out the rest of our coverage here.