Cameron's Interview re Ghosts of the Abyss

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Mary Hamric

May 4, 1999
Someone on the Countdown to Titanic message board posted this May 10 interview with Cameron regarding his upcoming feature "Ghosts of the Abyss"...which we are all waiting for with bated breath!
Very technical....

Anyway, Cameron interview from the May 10th Hollywood Reporter.

What good would it be to have made the highest-grossing film of all time if it didn't mean you could then do whatever the heck you pleased? Since James Cameron was a kid, he dreamed of exploring the deep ocean. Now the director of the aptly titled 1997 blockbuster "Titanic" is following up with a string of documentaries, including a return visit to the sunken ship that changed the course of movie history for the making of Walden Media's large-format 3-D film "Ghosts of the Abyss." Cameron talked with The Hollywood Reporter's Paula Parisi about his latest extreme-filmmaking foray and future plans.

The Holiwood Reporter; What compelled you to revisit the Titanic?

James Cameron: The first time, we went out there to essentially get some introductory scenes for a fictional movie. In the course of getting those shots, which were storyboarded and well-planned, we sort of exceeded our initial goals and took our remotely operated vehicles inside the ship -- just very briefly, and not very far inside -- and we were fascinated by what we found. There was a sense that, "Wow, it would be great if we could go even further and explore the interior properly before the ship deteriorates into oblivion" -- and it is on that path, slowly. It took us three years to build the equipment that would allow that to happen.

THR: What equipment did you build?

Cameron: When I finished the movie and the dust settled, I went on a dive trip, which is what I always do to relax. On the trip, my brother Mike and I mapped out what the vehicle would need to be to do a proper and complete archaeological survey of the Titanic wreck -- and we always figured we'd go back someday when we had that machine. It took him from that point almost three years to complete the ROVs (remotely operated vehicles), of which we have three. They're a very advanced vehicle, in that there are no off-the-shelf components; everything inside it had to be designed from scratch.

THR: How were these vehicles equipped?

Cameron: There was a (standard-definition ) color camera and a black-and-white camera in each ROV. The camera could tilt, and the pan was provided by yawing the entire vehicle because it's so small (about 17 inches wide by 27 inches deep).

The 3-D imaging was done with a whole other set of design parameters that went into a 3-D system that was jointly developed by myself and Vince Pace as an engineering entity, and Sony and Panavision -- a four-way development program for a 3-D compatible 900 series HD camera.

Our early proof-of-concept test showed us that the 900 series cameras would be perfect for a parallel 3-D system, meaning we'd have two 900 series cameras side by side. But they had to figure out a way to repackage them so they could fit within the average interocular distance for a human being, which is about 69 millimeters. If you just stick two 900 cameras side by side, they wind up being about six inches apart (at) the lens center, which doesn't work. You need to get it down to about 2 1/2, 2.7 inches.

So they looked at it, and they moved some boards around and came up with a special housing, and they created a new camera, which they called the 3-DP camera. The stereo rig that mounts the cameras is very sophisticated, in that we've chosen to give it an active convergence capability and to slave that convergence to focus, which is, I think, a breakthrough concept. But nobody in stereo photography has ever done it that way; people have published books on why that shouldn't work, and they're wrong. Most stereo theory is wrong in practice; it may be right mathematically, but it's wrong in practice because it doesn't take into consideration how the mind views objects.

So we've created a way of shooting 3-D that is very, very low on eyestrain; you can watch it more or less indefinitely. Doing a 2 1/2-hour feature is perfectly possible using our system, (but) we haven't done that yet. "Ghosts of the Abyss" will be 45 minutes.

THR: So what were your setups like?

Cameron: We flew two ROVs simultaneously within the ship. One ROV photographed the other ROV while it photographed the subject, sort of thing, so you actually have images of the ROV working inside the ship, which is (unusual). We also had three standard-definition video cameras mounted inside each submersible -- three three-chip lipstick cams, essentially. So we have six image feeds from inside the submersibles, two image feeds from outside the submersibles -- all standard definition -- and there are sections of the film that will function in kind of a multiscreen sort of way, where you have these standard-definition video screens that are floating three-dimensionally on different image planes in the final 3-D film. Then you've got 3-D coverage of the expedition at the surface, immediately under the surface, throughout the depth of the dive -- and the entire Titanic wreck site is beautifully lit and beautifully photographed in 3-D from end to end.

THR: And you got to hang a light over the wreck, 2 1/2 miles beneath the ocean's surface, which you wanted to do during the 1995 dives but everyone said would be impossible, with currents and things like that.

Cameron: We had a new chandelier lighting system we designed called Medusa. It was a 12,000-watt, deep-submergence lighting system that hung on a high-tech, shielded cable carrying 2,000 volts down to what was basically a hydraulically activated ROV, about the size of a Volkswagen bus. It had 10 1,200-watt HMI deep-sea pars underneath it on a movable kind of array, and it was operated from the surface. So we parked that over the wreck at a height of about 100 feet and used that as a kind of ghostly fill light. Then the Mir submersibles were used to light the wreck locally within that, and then the whole thing was photographed on the 3-D HD system.

THR: You were operating the deep 3-D HD camera?

Cameron: I've been doing a lot of shooting. "Ghosts of the Abyss" has about 100 hours of hand-held work shot by me.

THR: How does the HD look blown up to 15-perf/70mm?

Cameron: It looks phenomenal. To say we're wildly enthusiastic would not be overstating it. One has to bear in mind, though, that it's a 16:9 aspect ratio, so it doesn't fill the entire height of the Imax screen. It chops off a bit at the top and bottom. But in a 3-D environment, you don't really notice that.

The amount of data available from a 35mm negative is much less than the amount of data available from an HD frame.

THR: Film purists argue the opposite.

Cameron: They're wrong. You can take an HD image and blow it up by double before you start to see the same amount of granularity you have with a 35mm negative. George Lucas did some tests that I flew up to see, and it corresponded to what we'd found. I'd say the Sony HD 900 series cameras are generating an image that's about equivalent to a 65mm original negative.

THR: So are you going to shoot your next feature project digitally?

Cameron: I'll probably use a combination of film and digital.

THR: Why did you choose to do this project in large format?

Cameron: I'm more interested in stereo (3-D) than in giant screens. In 3-D, the size of the screen becomes irrelevant. If you're looking at an object in front of you that's 5-feet high, why do you care that it's on an 80-foot screen? You don't. What's important is the aspect ratio between the width of the screen and the distance you're sitting from the screen. The more your peripheral field is filled, the better the experience. So large-format theaters tend to work better than standard theaters for 3-D presentation because the aspect ratio in standard theaters is not that good. Although in some of the new stadium theaters with raked seating, which gets you closer to the screen, it's better.

The 3-D format is much more immersive for audiences. I think that if you're going to go to these extraordinary places and shoot them, you should shoot them in a format that most closely approximates really being there. We think our 3-D camera system does that. That's why we call it the Reality Camera System. Panavision is making it available on a rental basis.

THR: You were out diving to the Titanic on Sept. 11. How did you hear about the tragedy?

Cameron: I was at the wreck, and I heard about it from above. We had really spotty surface contact -- acoustic, not radio, and it's very, very difficult to understand -- and they started saying something was going on. I asked them if I should abort the dive, and they said, "No, there's nothing you can do."

But it was as traumatic there as it was anywhere else. What was interesting, I think, and what made our story unique was that we were on a Russian ship. So here we are on a ship with all these Russians, who were our Cold War enemies and are now our friends, and these people gave such support and solidarity, realizing that the American contingent was all grieving. They were so great for the rest of the expedition; it was amazing. You know, here is a people who have known suffering in their time.

THR: The crew members of that research vessel -- the Akademik Mistlav Keldysh, which you took on your '95 dives for your "Titanic" feature -- are becoming a regular part of your camera crew.

Cameron: All they care about is science; they don't really care about making movies, but they need to keep their system current. Now they're taking some of the money they've earned from diving Titanic and Bismarck and some of these other things and self-funding a science expedition for a couple of months this summer, exploring hydrothermal vent sites. I might wind up tagging along for that, too.

THR: While you went out this time, did you encounter anything as harrowing as the storms on your first trip?

Cameron: We had one recovery of the subs in a very, very high sea state. We were out there bobbing around for about two hours just pitching and rolling -- what I call getting spin-cycled -- in a 15-foot swell. Because we had a camera crane hanging off the side of the ship, they were able to shoot that recovery in 3-D, and it's some of the most dramatic footage we shot.

THR: For "Ghosts," you also did some shooting at the Fox Studios in Baja California, didn't you?

Cameron: We went down and scraped together a bunch of old props and set pieces and costumes and stuff from the movie and recreated some historical moments, things with the captain, with the officers and some of the famous passengers and so on. We shot actors against green screen, and we will actually composite those in stereo space, onto our photography of the wreck; what it does is bring the wreck to life. So far, our tests look pretty promising on that. It should be a very interesting, emotional and elegiac way of evoking what happened on the ship using the real wreck.

I'd say the film divides itself about 50/50 between the story of our expedition -- and the people and technology of the expedition -- and the history and the story of the Titanic, all in 45 minutes.

THR: I've heard talk of alternative versions.

Cameron: We shot like 900 hours -- about 200 hours of HD 3-D and 700 hours of standard-def video -- so we have lots of material. My editor Ed Marsh, who is also a creative producer on the project, has been very busy. It looks like we'll be doing a 90-minute version for video/DVD release only.

The 45-minute, 3-D large-format film will be delivered in two formats: 35mm over-and-under 3-D and 15/70 Imax 3-D. And it will actually be delivered in a third format, which is HD 3-D, because the company that's financing the film, Walden, is owned by Phil Anschutz, who owns something like 20% or 25% of the theaters in North America, and they're going to be encouraging a number of their theater chains to install either 35mm over-and-under projection or digital projection to support this title. We're hoping to get somewhere in the neighborhood of 100-150 additional screens that way. So we should be in roughly double the number of theaters that a normal Imax release would be in, in 3-D.

THR: And you're producing "Ghosts" under a new banner, Earthship Prods.?

Cameron: Yes; Earthship is my nonfiction production entity. We're also doing a Bismarck expedition for the Discovery Channel. We're going to be shooting some 3-D; we're going to be using the ROVs; we're going to explore the inside of the biggest battleship ever built and tell the story of its history. I'd be happy doing an expedition a year. We have the technology -- technology that nobody else has. The Navy is actually interested in it because, quite frankly, they don't have it. I think we do it better than anybody, and we enjoy it, so why the hell wouldn't we? I may have to go make a movie from time to time to help pay for it. (Laughs)

THR: Someone might twist your arm at some point to do that.

Cameron: Well, I like making movies, too. In fact, I'm sitting here on the dubbing stage tight now; we're finishing up the "Dark Angel" episode that I directed, the 90-minute season finale.

THR: How does directing for TV compare to directing features?

Cameron: It was grueling, but it was fun. You know: TV, movies -- it's the same thing. You're there, you've got a bunch of actors, you've got some cameras, you do some lighting, and you shoot your ass off.

THR: TV has the time constraints, though.

Cameron: Yeah. You have to move like the wind. It's kind of liberating in a way because you know you can't do absolutely perfect world-class stuff, so the trick is how good can you be?

THR: What about your feature-film plans? There are a lot of people saying, "Jim has got to get moving and make another feature!" Of course, these are mainly people who are interested in employment opportunities on your upcoming films. (Laughs) But others, too.

Cameron: I've identified, for myself, the next three films I'm directing, and the current plan is to make four films over five years. The issue now is deciding in which order to make the films so that we optimize the pre- and post- overlaps of the different films correctly. Lightstorm (Cameron's production company) is also going to be producing a large number of films; we started, on Sunday, shooting "Solaris," the Steven Soderbergh film starring George Clooney.

THR: That's very ambitious for someone who typically takes two or three years between films.

Cameron: Yes, it is for me. The challenge for me is not finding a more challenging film; the challenge for me now is figuring out a way to do what I've always done, quicker and in a more streamlined and efficient manner. It's like, we know how to do it; now let's figure out how to do it better -- how to do it faster, how to do it cheaper.

THR: Is this a new, more responsible you?

Cameron: It's not a question of being responsible. I just want to get more stuff done! (Laughs)
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