What to Look for in AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER (Cameron, 2022): A Primer on 3D Aesthetics

James Cameron’s sequel Avatar: The Way of Water (2022) is set for release this coming week. (Here’s a trailer.) For those of us who care about the art of 3D filmmaking, this has all the makings of a big event indeed. So I wanted to take a moment to prime my readers to think about a few fundamentals of 3D–or stereoscopic–cinema. What should you be looking for if you watch The Way of Water in 3D? How can you make the most of the experience?

In a graduate seminar I teach at Washington University in St. Louis, we study the 3D aesthetics of the first film in Cameron’s franchise, 2009’s Avatar. By “aesthetics” I simply mean the film’s 3D look and its effect on us. This is not to say that we ignore the film’s colonialist and ableist fantasies. On the contrary: we discuss, as other scholars and critics have, how the film constructs a fantasy realm in which a disabled white body dreams of able-bodiedness and, when he achieves it, he saves a “primitive” population (the Na’vi) threatened with colonial annihilation. But these aspects of the film’s politics cannot be divorced from–nor do they entirely explain away–the film’s stereoscopic spectacle.

I hope to address Avatar‘s use of stereoscopic strategies to enhance the ableist and colonial pleasures another time. Here, I simply wish to focus on the stereoscopic aspects of the 2009 film, fully aware that this is only part of the story, as they say.

Drawing on scholar Stephen Prince’s excellent book on 3D, I invite my students to view 2009’s Avatar in terms of convergence point settings. The concept can be fairly complicated to explain, but here’s a simple way of thinking about it.

When viewing a 3D film, pay attention to where your eyes are converging from moment to moment (see figure 1 below). If your eyes converge on an object that appears to reach into the theater space, or pop out toward you from the screen, you are experiencing negative parallax. If your eyes converge on an object or space that seems to be on a plane that’s deeper than the movie screen itself, or seems to be behind the screen, you are feeling the effect of positive parallax. If your eyes converge on the screen plane itself, then you are witnessing an effect called zero parallax. (There’s a fourth kind of experience, divergent parallax, where your eyes don’t converge. Instead they are pulled in opposite directions. You’re more likely to experience that in Jean-Luc Godard’s masterwork Goodbye to Language (2014) than in a Cameron film.)

Figure 1.

2009’s Avatar is a great 3D movie because of the way it manages convergence settings–these three kinds of parallax. It does so not just from shot to shot, but from scene to scene and even act to act. Specialists in 3D aesthetics call this strategy one of depth budgeting. You don’t want your film to overwhelm the viewer’s perceptual field by doing too many 3D things too early or too quickly.

Wisely, Cameron’s 2009 film doesn’t emphasize all three parallax experiences from the get-go. In fact, it teaches you to anticipate patterned uses of 3D effects by making negative parallax a rare thing in the first few scenes. Negative parallax, we are invited to expect, will be a special experience, reserved for special moments in the film’s narrative.

Here is a slide I share with my graduate students (see figure 2 below). I use it to set up a simple question and begin to explore answers. (At this stage, reader, you may wish to review the film’s beginning on Disney+ or the parts of it available on YouTube.) My slide contains images from the first few scenes of the film, in which protagonist Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) arrives aboard a space ship completing a six-year journey to the planet of Pandora. I ask my students, who view the film in its original 3D format, which of the major convergence point settings are used as Sully awakens in his zero-gravity pod, exits his pod into the ship’s hull, and boards a military transport to Pandora’s surface?

Figure 2.

The last time I discussed these moments (or our memories of them) with a class, we discovered that Avatar‘s experience of stereoscopy is a modulating one. The sensation of binocular depth varies in intensity as these scenes unfold. I call this strategy a slow disclosure of parallax ranges.

In the final analysis, negative parallax (NP) is used sparingly in these opening moments. Scenes tend to emphasize positive (PP) and zero parallax (ZP). Yet in one shot, an object is allowed to float into the space of the theater (or appears to): a single droplet of water hovering in Sully’s pod, right before his eyes.

This slide reveals the strategy at work:

Figure 3.

Note when the film combines zero with positive parallax: during moments when Sully is placed in the foreground of a militarized or at least highly organized technological space. He is perceptually “up front” as the deep recesses of this futuristic world show the degree to which organic life is controlled–in ordered rows–by the imperialist/capitalist power behind the Pandora expedition. Travel to, and life on, Pandora dehumanizes.

However, the film’s stereoscopic experience gives us reason to imagine a different world. In the center image above, of Sully in closeup, an isolated particle of life-giving water gravitates into the viewer’s space. Through negative parallax, the moment leaps out at us, not just perceptually but metaphorically. This single droplet begins as two–two drops of organic fluid joining in the technological spaces of Sully’s pod and the movie theater.

The moment reveals that a coming together of two unruly things–perhaps humanity and the Na’vi, perhaps Sully and his future love, the Na’vi warrior Neytiri (Zoë Saldaña)–can form a rough harmony.

In light of the film’s themes–ableism, colonialism–this metaphor perhaps isn’t without its problems. But the point is that Avatar‘s stereoscopic effects draw our attention to and amplify these themes in perceptually stimulating ways.

Will the film’s sequel, Avatar: The Way of Water, organize our experience of parallaxes like this? Or will Cameron push beyond his previous experiments?

Let me round out this post with a few other things to watch for in Avatar: The Way of Water. The 2009 film…

  • often relies on low-angle shots or low camera heights, with the bottom frame of the image close to a surface (the ground below, for example). This leads to powerful negative parallax effects in the lower portions of the frame.
  • tends to use very forceful negative parallax effects in scenes which display advanced computer technology, with the tech overwhelming the space of the theater.
  • creates many “dancing” or glistening surfaces which are transparent or reflective (such as glass, mirrors, and water). These surfaces exploit the power of visual contrasts–of light and movement–to create additional stereoscopic stimuli that tickle the eye with immediate juxtapositions of depth and flatness in the image.

I expect all three of these techniques–especially the last one, given the sequel’s underwater environments–to figure prominently in this week’s film.