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.”
“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.