The One Thing Disney Must Do With Its ‘Avatar: The Way Of Water’ 4K Blu-Ray – But Probably Won’t
The spectacular visuals of James Cameron’s game-changing, box office-busting Avatar sequel, The Way Of Water, have the potential to serve up a true reference grade home cinema experience when the film …
The spectacular visuals of James Cameron’s game-changing, box office-busting Avatar sequel, The Way Of Water, have the potential to serve up a true reference grade home cinema experience when the film arrives on 4K Blu-ray disc (presumably) later this year.
History suggests, though, that the picture quality (and maybe the sound quality too) of this eagerly anticipated physical media release could be seriously undermined by the fact that the film is set to be delivered on 4K Blu-ray by Disney.
To say that Disney has a checkered past when it comes to 4K Blu-ray technology would be an understatement. On the upside, it has delivered some pretty impressive 4K releases of some of its animated classics – including the recently released 4K version of 1950’s Cinderella. On the downside…
It stopped deploying the much-loved Dolby Vision version of high dynamic range (HDR) on its 4K Blu-rays way back in 2018 after using it on a just a handful of its early releases. It earned a reputation for releasing many big titles with weirdly anaemic Dolby Atmos audio mixes. It got rid of so much all of its in-house physical media division in 2020 that many knowledgable and respected industry commentators started to worry that the studio was going to pull out of the 4K Blu-ray market altogether. And finally, so far as I’m aware, Disney 4K Blu-ray releases have only ever used so-called BD-66 discs, with 66GB of storage capacity, rather than the higher capacity 100GB alternatives.
It’s this last, presumably cost-based feature of Disney’s 4K Blu-ray releases that’s at the heart of my main concern about the studio’s upcoming treatment of Avatar: The Way Of Water.
The thing is, Cameron’s Avatar sequel is a seriously long film: Three hours and 12 minutes long, to be precise. This means that its 4K Blu-ray disc release needs to accommodate over 50% more image frames than a 4K Blu-ray disc of a typical two hour film. So if Disney continues to apply its 66GB disc ‘rule’ to The Way Of Water, then it follows as sure as night follows day that the film’s imagery will have to undergo a much higher level of compression to fit it all in the available storage space than would be the case if Disney finally bit the bullet and stepped up to a 100GB 4K Blu-ray disc instead.
Increased compression means you end up watching images delivered at bit-rates far lower than the maximum 100Mbps or so that the 4K Blu-ray format is technically capable of, which in turn means you’re left pretty much inevitably and invariably with softer, less detailed picture quality – along with increased potential for distracting compression-based noise such as macro blocking.
You’d like to think that Disney would realise pretty much automatically that a film as long as The Way Of Water would need to be put on the highest capacity 4K Blu-ray disc available. However, even a film as massively popular as Avengers: Endgame was only released by Disney on a 66GB 4K Blu-ray disc despite boasting a three hour two minute runtime – resulting in picture quality which, as I discussed in my review of the release, while clean lacked that sense of 4K sharpness, detail and ‘snap’ you get with famously great 4K Blu-ray releases (such as Top Gun: Maverick, which was mastered by Paramount onto a 100GB disc, despite only boasting a 2hr 11min run time).
The fact that Endgame’s 4K master was apparently derived from a mere 2K-resolution digital intermediate source may have helped hide the potential compression issues associated with fitting its long running time on to a 66GB disc. Avatar: The Way Of Water, though, was delivered for release using a native 4K Digital Intermediate which will surely form the basis of the image going onto Disney’s 4K Blu-ray release, so the amount of source detail the 4K Blu-ray master will have to try and handle is going to be much higher, and so much more difficult to compress onto a 66GB disc without causing softness and/or artefacting.
To try and give you a clearer idea of the issues I’m talking about here, while Avengers: Endgame’s slightly soft, ‘scrubbed’ images are typically delivered from Disney’s 4K Blu-ray at bitrates below (sometimes substantially below) 40Mbps, the spectacularly detailed looking 4K Blu-ray of M. Knight Shyamalan’s Glass, which sees a 129 minute film being placed on a 100GB disc, frequently hits bitrates above 80Mbps, and even peaks well above 90Mbps.
Also worthy of note is the fact that the 4K master of Avatar: The Way Of Water available on the Kaleidescape movie server platform clocks in with a file size of just under 103GB. Which is almost twice as big as the maximum capacity of a 66GB 4K disc.
The pretty basic compression issues we will likely get if Disney doesn’t break its 66GB 4K Blu-ray track record for The Way Of Water are potentially exacerbated by the issue of Dolby Vision support.
Dolby Vision is a ‘premium’ high dynamic range format that, among other things, allows a source to send extra scene by scene picture information from compatible 4K Blu-ray players to compatible TVs, to help those TVs deliver more accurate and more dynamic-looking pictures. Unfortunately, though, Dolby Vision masters require more bandwidth than regular HDR10 ones, so if Disney was to decide to do what many Avatar fans (and, I suspect, James Cameron himself) would like it to and use The Way Of Water as its moment to dive back into delivering Dolby Vision on 4K Blu-ray, then the amount of compression required to fit the film onto a BD66 disc would have to rise even higher.
My mention back there of James Cameron’s well-known desire to try and deliver the best results possible with home entertainment as well as cinema releases of his films perhaps raises hope that the Avatar: The Way Of Water release will indeed mark the point where Disney finally embraces 100GB 4K BDs (and maybe goes back to Dolby Vision too). After all, pet Cameron-produced project Alita: Battle Angel was released on 4K Blu-ray featuring masters in both Dolby Vision and its rival HDR10+ format, so that owners of every brand of TV could enjoy the film looking its best. Alita remains one of only a tiny number of releases mastered to disc in both premium HDR formats, and at the time of its release it was, tellingly, the first title from 20th Century Fox (ahead of its purchase by Disney) to carry a Dolby Vision master.
All this extreme Alita HDR support, though, still only appeared on a 66GB disc. So we can’t look at that release and assume that Cameron automatically pushes for 100GB discs for the 4K Blu-ray releases of his films. Nor can we forget, I guess, that the current Terminator 2 4K Blu-ray release, which Cameron doesn’t appear to have been closely involved with, is infamously a bit of a mess.
There could be hope too, though, in the way Disney’s ‘new management’ is showing signs of a renewed interest in the physical media side of the studio’s business. In my fevered imagination, at least, this new interest in physical media could, in conjunction with Cameron’s drive to give fans of his films a great experience, extend to the studio actively pulling out ALL the stops to deliver a true powerhouse 4K BD release of the third highest-grossing film in cinema history.
My optimistic side, along with improvements in this respect with other recent Disney 4K Blu-ray releases, also makes me think for the same reasons that the Dolby Atmos audio mix Avatar: The Way Of Water gets will be suitably massive and full-range in its impact, rather than being another one of Disney’s thin, compressed-sounding efforts.
Hopefully we won’t have to wait too much longer now before details of the Avatar: The Way Of Water 4K Blu-ray are confirmed. In the mean time, though, if Disney happens to be listening, the mastering of the film for 4K Blu-ray is yet to be completed and the disc fabrication has yet to be locked in, then I’d implore the people involved with it to at least not hamstring the most eagerly anticipated home video release of the year right from the off by trying to cram it onto anything smaller than a 100GB disc.
Avengers: Endgame 4K Blu-ray Review: Not Quite The Disc Fans Deserve