James Cameron on 'Avatar: The Way of Water' and why 3D filmmaking isn't over

The director speaks about his use of the groundbreaking technology as the sequel is set to be released in December and the original hits screens again this month

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One of the most eagerly and longest-awaited sequels in cinema history, Avatar: The Way of Water, finally lands in cinemas in December.

The film’s predecessor, 2009’s Avatar, needs little introduction. It remains the highest-grossing film in cinema history, having raked in almost $3 billion globally since its release, according to revenue tracker Box Office Mojo.

The technology used on the film, much of which director James Cameron created specifically for the project, resulted in 3D becoming accepted as a storytelling tool rather than a futuristic novelty.

Cameron first declared his intention to make a sequel in 2006, while the first film was still being made. Following Avatar’s success, the sequel was initially slated for a 2014 release. Eight years later, The Way of Water is almost upon us.

Cameron told an audience at the recent D23 Expo in California, via video message, that December’s film was deep in post-production, and that he was "super-excited to be finally finishing up movie two". He also revealed that filming on the third instalment was well under way, and that production on the fourth title in the franchise had just started, too.

Ahead of its momentous December release, 20th Century Studios is teasing us one last time with a widespread rerelease of the original film, which will be in UAE cinemas from September 22.

Naturally for a project that was so ahead of its time on release, Avatar has been extensively remastered and given a higher dynamic range. Converted to 4K, it features some updated, 40-frames-per-second sections, and will be available on all the latest formats including IMAX, Dolby and RealD 3D — technophile Cameron would surely have it no other way.

It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that the director cites the film’s technological achievements as perhaps its most significant legacy.

“Avatar won Best Cinematography with a 3D digital camera. No digital camera had ever won the Best Cinematography Oscar before,” he tells The National.

“Then in two subsequent years, the same cameras were used by the cinematographers who won the Oscar [2011’s Hugo and 2012’s Life of Pi].”

The use of digital cameras in Hollywood is now the norm, despite notable and vocal, proponents of good, old-fashioned 35-millimetre film, such as Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino, who are keeping the format alive.

Avatar can’t be said to have achieved the same level of acceptance for the 3D format, though. The 3D model seemed to go into something of a terminal decline directly from that 2009-10 high, thanks to high-profile duds such as 2010’s Clash of the Titans, which was widely reviled by critics.

The Motion Picture Association estimates that by 2019, 3D’s share of the box office was only 15 per cent. By contrast, 72 per cent of Avatar’s takings came from 3D screens, according to Box Office Mojo.

Long-term 3D cheerleader Cameron, however, doesn’t think we should write the format off just yet. “3D appears to most people to be over, but it's really not,” he says.

“It's just been accepted as part of the choices you face when you go to a theatre to see a big blockbuster. I liken it to colour. When colour first came out, it was a big deal. People used to go see movies because they were in colour. Around the time of Avatar, people went to see movies because they were in 3D.

"Nobody's going to go see a movie today because it's in 3D. It had an impact on the way films were presented that's now just accepted and part of the zeitgeist.”

Perhaps 3D is indeed now simply accepted, but the numbers suggest it is no longer popular. Could Avatar’s greatest legacy still be to come with the sequel bringing audiences flooding back to 3D films in their droves? Cameron is hedging his bets. “I guess we'll find out if people show up for Avatar 2.

Check out some more Hollywood films set to be released over the rest of the year

Updated: September 15, 2022, 8:35 AM