By Dr. Craig D. Reid
James Cameron: An ocean rock's throw away from Avatar

During the years between Titanic (1997) and Avatar, director James Cameron’s passion and admiration for oceanography took center stage with a series of underwater documentaries that were not only experiments in filmmaking but were also a reflection of his growing concerns over environment issues, which not coincidently was one of the main themes of Avatar.

Way before he started working on Avatar I spoke with Cameron about two of these films, Ghosts of the Abyss (2003) and Expedition: Bismarck (2002), as he gleefully recollected the movies and his undying respect for a University of Illinois professor, of whom is a friend of mine.

One of Cameron’s favorite shots from Bismarck was a lone, Nazi seaman’s boot that chillingly greeted Cameron’s exploratory call to the 3-mile down underwater graveyard of a once proud battleship. A ghostly reminder of a dark time featured in Cameron’s first 3-D, high definition (3D-HD) film.

“The boot is a powerful image,” the Academy Award-winning director Cameron tells me. “We know a lot of men were carried to their deaths but there are no human remains, just artifacts, the bones dissolved because the water is very low in calcium. When you see the steel ripped and torn like that, to me, these wrecks have a voice and you can imagine what it was like during the battle.”

Why does Cameron have interest in these underwater graveyards?

“You’re not only in an alien world, where you need discipline and technical skills to survive, but you’re also touching a human story, exploring an artifact of a tragedy, a story held in amber where something happened that shouldn’t have,” he says.

Cameron also enjoyed challenging British military history’s World War II account of the sinking of the German Battleship Bismarck and it seems with his footage, Cameron bankrupted the British account.

Along with his brother Mike and cinematographer Vince Pace, Cameron designed several revolutionary camera systems including new digital 3-D stereocameras. First tested in the back seat of a P-51 Mustang doing acrobatic drills, the stereocams were eventually housed in two robots that swam through the shipwreck.

Cameron points out, “Back then, many people thought they had seen 3-D films, a lot of it has been bad, difficult to diffuse and hard on the eye, but we really massaged things out and had gotten ride of a lot of the ghost images.”

The other underwater oceanographic 3D-HD adventure film Cameron discusses with me is Ghosts of the Abyss, a reported $42 million, Disney documentary focusing on the underwater tomb of the Titanic that was released in 150 Imax theaters across the United States.
Cameron reflects, “I really love the showmanship of large format and the special event feel you get. Audiences can feel like they’ve actually been there, a sense of heightened participation where the reality camera is a surrogate reality, it’s human vision as close as contemporary technology will allow us to do.”
Cameron hired many of the extras from his Titanic movie, shot them against green screen and digitally placed these people into the underwater footage. “These are the ghosts of the abyss,” he explains. “When I dove to the Titanic in 1995, I imagined the events, where people stood, what they were doing and I thought how remarkable it would be to repopulate the ship exactly where it really took place.”
Titanic star Bill Paxton joined Cameron’s expedition as he also did several of the 16-hour dives down to 12,000 foot in one of the two submersives.  Cameron’s expedition took over 900 hours of footage, 300 of which were stereocam shots, and then whittled all the footage down to 50 minutes of film.
As we watch Paxton authentically worry about what to do if they lose oxygen, freaking out about water droplets falling on his brow at 2 miles deep (from condensation) or being thrown around like a cat in a washer, through him, the audience is there.
Ghost’s of the Abyss also features billowing underwater, geothermal vents teeming with symbiotic sea creatures and for the first time ever, mainstream audiences got to see archaebacteria caked onto the sides of ocean floor thermal vents.
“Since their discovery, I’ve truly been fascinated by archaebacteria, it was an important scientific finding, which affected the whole order of taxonomic nomenclature as it introduced a new Kingdom of life to the planet.”
Prior to the discovery of archaebacteria by the University of Illinois professor Carl Woose in the 1980s, there were five known Kingdoms used in taxonomy: Monera; protista; fungi; plantae; and animalia. Now there are six Kingdoms.
When I told Cameron that I used to be a microbiology teacher at the University of Illinois and that Woose was a friend of mine, we yakked another 30 minutes just about science.
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