Avatar: The Way of Water frame rate explained – why do some scenes look so smooth?

Avatar: The Way of Water
(Image credit: 20th Century Studios)

Avatar: The Way of Water is a visual spectacle. From the crystal clear oceans of Pandora to the rich, lush landscapes beyond the horizon, the home of the Na’vi pushes the cinematic envelope more than perhaps any film before it. 

But, throughout its three-hour runtime, you may have noticed something: several scenes – especially in 3D – give the impression of looking overly ‘smooth’ or running at different speeds. No, you don’t need new (3D) glasses. There’s a technical reason involving high frame rate that explains why Avatar: The Way of Water can seem a little different than usual to the untrained eye. 

Is there an Avatar: The Way of Water post-credits scene?

Some, but not all, scenes in Avatar: The Way of Water run at 48 frames per second (FPS), particularly the underwater scenes. That’s double the standard 24 FPS that’s used in the vast majority of movies – which is why you’re probably not used to everything looking so smooth. 

48 FPS is often referred to as High Frame Rate (HFR) and can often change how a movie ‘looks’. That includes, but isn’t limited to, lighting, how smooth an image looks, and how ‘real’ it can seem. The trouble with The Way of Water is it utilizes both 48 FPS and 24 FPS, sometimes within seconds of each other. That can be perceived by the human eye – which can see between 30 FPS-60 FPS – as jarring and instantly noticeable. In some cases, it can even break the immersion and be too distracting. 

So why has James Cameron used HFR? For the director, there is an underlying narrative reason for the back-and-forth frame rate shifts. At the Busan International Film Festival (H/T Variety), Cameron explained why he opted for 48 FPS. 

"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," Cameron said. 

So, yes, Avatar: The Way of Water does things differently. If you’re noticing smooth scenes and scenes that appear to stutter slightly more, that’s down to the director choosing to use technology that isn’t used in 99% of movies. What you’re seeing is 48 FPS vs 24 FPS in action. It’s a big change – but one you’ll get used to on return trips to Pandora.

Want more on Avatar: The Way of Water? Check out our pieces on the Avatar: The Way of Water ending explained.

Bradley Russell

I'm the Senior Entertainment Writer here at GamesRadar+, focusing on news, features, and interviews with some of the biggest names in film and TV. On-site, you'll find me marveling at Marvel and providing analysis and room temperature takes on the newest films, Star Wars and, of course, anime. Outside of GR, I love getting lost in a good 100-hour JRPG, Warzone, and kicking back on the (virtual) field with Football Manager. My work has also been featured in OPM, FourFourTwo, and Game Revolution.