Into the abyss: James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge 3D

Director James Cameron’s dive to Challenger Deep in the Marina Trench, the deepest known location on Earth, was itself a monumental exercise in aquatic engineering. A purpose built submersible called the Deepsea Challenger was designed by Cameron and Ron Allum and constructed in Australia, and outfitted with specialized on-board dive systems, lighting and 3D cameras. But a further major effort took place in documenting the journey, culminating in James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge 3D, directed by John Bruno, Ray Quint and Andrew Wight. We talk to John Bruno – a frequent Cameron collaborator as visual effects supervisor on Avatar, True Lies and The Abyss – about the daunting task of directing the documentary.

– Above: watch the film’s trailer.

fxg: Something that struck me about this film is that, because of the coverage of the dive at the time and the National Geographic special, we know that James Cameron was successful in reaching the bottom of Challenger Deep. Did that make it difficult to work out how to tell this story and make sure audiences would keep watching?

Bruno: Well, no. For example, we know that the Titanic was also successful in reaching the bottom. And with Deepsea Challenge, we knew we had a good story to tell about how Jim and his Deepsea Challenger crew were able to do what they did. But there was an incident that changed the direction of the story for when we were still filming. It was during the time when Jim made the dive to 27,000m, where he made it to the bottom of the New Britain Trench and set a new depth record for a manned submersible.

The Mermaid Sapphire had satellite communications with the outside world and we could read people’s tweets and responses to that event. One of the online responses was that someone thought it was just a stunt. That made me angry. I’d known Jim for 25+ years and knew his passion for the sea and exploration. He had made seven deep ocean expeditions with 77 deep dives in various submersibles over the last 17 years before starting this expedition. He just loves to go diving. My first production with him was The Abyss. If you didn’t dive you couldn’t work on the film. That entire movie was shot pretty much entirely underwater.

Whenever filming on one his projects was complete. Jim would set up a trip to somewhere exotic that was basically more diving! In 1995 and again in 2001 I was participated on two Titanic expeditions with him, where I made a total of 4 submersible dives to the ship. So for Jim, by no means was this a stunt. Pissed me off.

The pilot capsule for Cameron’s sub was forged from gun-barrel steel and designed to withstand the extreme water pressure of the Mariana Trench.
The pilot capsule for Cameron’s sub was forged from gun-barrel steel and designed to withstand the extreme water pressure of the Mariana Trench.

fxg: This is clearly a dangerous expedition – was that something on your mind as a filmmaker in terms of capturing the event?

Bruno: Well, the Mir submersibles (used to dive to the Titanic) are the safest diving system around today. Each dive involves, two subs Mir 1 and Mir 2. At depth they can rescue each other or guide one another out of a tough spot. But for the Deep Challenger submersible, anywhere past the 5,000 foot recovery zone of the Quazar ROV that was aboard the Mermaid Sapphire, Jim was on his own. There was nobody coming to save him. And knowing that possibility, the story became, for me, about courage and the strength of character to commit to such a dive.

But it did seem to make more and more sense to make it about Jim – to make it about a young James Cameron’s drive from the time of seeing Lieutenant Don Walsh in 1960 on the cover of Life magazine (Walsh completed a dive along Jacques Piccard to the Challenger Deep in 1960).

We contacted Jim’s family to get some early photographs. Jim’s mom sent us a few that were great! Jim doing science projects as a boy. Lowering a bottle from a bridge into a river in Canada with a white rat in a jar – that clearly, to me, influenced the white rat in The Abyss. It was decided at sea to re-enact this part of his history in addition to the Trieste, when we returned to Melbourne at the completion of the expedition. With the help of producer Brett PopplewelI, Ray Quint, who oversaw Ausralian-based post production, was assigned to direct and edit the historical re-enactment scenes.

The sub is launched from the Mermaid Sapphire.
The sub is launched from the Mermaid Sapphire.

fxg: When you first started on the production, what was your approach in covering the dive?

Bruno: I met my camera crew for the first time in Cairns (in northern Australia) at the airport and I remember Jules O’Loughlin and Glenn Singleman were taller than me, which was good because they would be hauling around some big-ass cameras! We had to spend some time getting to know each other and each other’s work habits too (relating to filming). A documentary crew doesn’t get to go to sleep when everyone else on the crew does. You need to be available 24 hours a day to cover any situation that may arise.

The first thing we did once aboard (the Mermaid Sapphire) was to set up permanent lighting and camera positions in the communication room, the bridge and on the aft deck.

If there was an issue with the sub, say, repair of the electrical or hydraulic systems we would draw straws to see who got to stay up all night to cover that – shoot tonight sleep tomorrow – it just never stopped.

We didn’t have a call sheet that outlined the day. I just had my shot list that was a list of shots that we could get at any time which I distributed each day to the cameramen. If we had downtime we’d put the underwater cameras together and go dive a nearby reef. Filming reef fish and corals or other things of beauty – there was always something going on.

Cameron enters the sub.
Cameron enters the sub.

fxg: How did you work out what shots to get?

Bruno: The Deepsea Challenger was the star of the film. And we wanted to treat it as such. Finding strong angles to shoot it from with dramatic lighting. It was Kawasaki racing green and looked like a spaceship. I loved it. For launch and recoveries we started with the basics of 3 sided coverage. In 3D a shot is always better if the camera is moving. It provides better dimensionality and depth for shots. There was also a great angle from the crane where the sub would swing past going into the water.

So for the first sub launch at Jacquino Bay, I wanted to establish a master shot of a launch and move with the sub as it swung out over the railing. But there was a safety issue on deck. We needed to know where it would be safe to film. David “DW” Wotherspoon, the launch control officer, and my DOP Jules O’Loughlin became my closest friends and allies because shooting on an open-decked ship, at sea, is difficult and dangerous at best. There were so many cables and ropes criss-crossing the deck in all directions that it was clearly a dangerous place to be. And it was obvious that DW didn’t need the pressure of worrying about our safety added to his plate.

So at first it was a bit tense between the Camera crew and DW. We had to get these shots. In the end I thought our launch coverage was quite good. Especially the first 1,000 meter launch at the beginning of the movie. From there we had to get other complimentary angles. We established safety zones and were allowed three positions per launch to get the shots and in the end we tied them altogether so we had a complete launch from any direction.

The vertically positioned sub included a hydraulically operated boom and hydraulic manipulator arm.
The vertically positioned sub included a hydraulic and boom arm.

fxg: What equipment did you have for the shoot?

Bruno: We had a total of five 3D camera systems and then a lot of LED lighting. Two beam-splitter systems using REDs. One shoulder mounted for on deck filming and another built for underwater shooting. We also had a Sony P1 and P3. These systems were purpose-built by Cameron Pace Group for the expedition.

On the exterior of the sub were two specially built 3D cameras designed by Jim’s engineers for full-ocean depth. One camera was placed at the end of 6 foot hydraulically operated boom that was controlled by Jim. Fully mechanized that camera could pan and tilt in any direction. And the other was mounted on the manipulator arm and set up for macro imaging. Inside the sub was a 5K RED Epic camera that Jim could operate through the view port and a small 3D camera placed to record Jim’s every thought.

fxg: So the dive has taken place, and you’ve got a mountain of footage – how do you start to piece it together?

Bruno: Gwillym Hewetson was our on board editor while we were at sea. He spent hours putting dailies together. Jim would review and approve images that he wanted used by NatGeo. Once filming was completed, our producer, Brett Popplewell set up editing at Digital Pictures in Melbourne – Jane Moran was the editor. She informed me that we had shot 1,200 hours of footage. That’s the equivalent of 6 million feet of film.

I think it took 6 to 8 weeks with her to review it all. Pare it down just to get our heads around it. It was organized by dives, 1 through 11 so that we had a sense of where everything went. Dives and recoveries. Sub footage. Lander launch and recoveries. Lander footage. Interviews. Helicopter footage. Baining fire dance. All catagorized around the 11 official sub dives. In post, two more editors were brought on to help at that point and Ray Quint was brought on to supervise all post-production, including visual effects work by Iloura.

Cameron inside the sub.
Cameron inside the sub.

fxg: You mentioned working out the story of the film based on Jim’s own story, but did some of the drama also come from things going wrong on the dive at all?

Bruno: Although the main thrust of the expedition was Jim and the dive, we were always looking for the drama. Were any of the crew members really fearful of the inherent danger. Would they say that on camera? is there an inherent sense of fear when Jim dives the sub? What if Jim didn’t come back?

On any dive we did not know the outcome. Were people afraid or nervous? If they were they tended not to show it. At least not to me. Our ships doctor and 2nd unit director Glenn Singleman asked that I let him interview some of the guys because he new them well and frankly he was Australian. When I joined the expedition in the beginning, I was an outsider. I thought that was a great Idea. And Glenn recorded some very personal moments that are in the film.

As far as the drama goes, we were waiting for something to happen. And finally it did – dive 5 something imploded. Some batteries went dead and on dive 6, I think, the sub was drawn perilously close to the ship’s propellers. There were electronics problems that caused the first 8,000m dive attempt to abort. That’s a dangerous scenario. If the sub’s electronics failed, the toggle switch that drops the weights won’t work – and at that depth there is no way to rescue him.

When things did go wrong during a dive, we’d rush to the COMS room and we’d immediately stick a camera in somebody’s face. At times that wouldn’t go over well and it would anger some of the crew members. But some of those moments made it into the film and after a few weeks people didn’t notice us anymore. They got used to us being around.

Deepsea Challenger returns to the surface.
Deepsea Challenger on the water surface.

At one point I talked to Jim about bringing his wife Suzy out for the final dive. I thought it would make the story more personal. He was unsure. But I finally managed to convince him it would be good for the human side of the story. It took some time to get her in front of the camera. She was hesitant, but finally agreed. I ask if she was a little frightened by the idea of the dive. Or fearful. She said no, I’m not. Jim is a really smart guy, he’s shown her how all the systems and backup systems and safety systems work. Nothing was going to happen to him.’ I kept thinking, I can’t break her! On the final 11,000m dive though, I had a camera follow her the entire time, which paid off for the film.

For Jim, he later told me that his biggest fear was rough seas at the surface. He worried that at the end of a dive he would return to the surface to find the sea state too rough to recover him – because of surface turbulence and wave height. Remember, he was bolted in – he was literally sealed in there. He had 100 hours of life support, and if the sea started kicking up and he couldn’t be retrieved, there was a plan in place where divers would somehow roll the sub upside down, unscrew the hatch bolts and the hatch would drop open. The interior of the sub would flood and Jim would have to swim out. He’d be 30 or 40 feet underwater. He’d be given a breathing apparatus and would be led to the surface. That would destroy the interior of sub of course. But luckily that scenario never occurred.

It was decided to do a test. An unoccupied launch and recovery of the Deepsea Challenger on a day when conditions were rough. And, of course, the sub did get away from the deck crew. It started swinging and crashing into things, which is in the movie. Though there was a lot of screaming during that test, the deck crew regained control of the situation. Put the sub back in the water and retrieved it from the 3 meter waves and finally returning it undamaged onto the deck. After that incident I felt my feeling about the through-line of the story was correct. The movie was about ‘character’. The character of individuals and the strength of will these individuals had to do this, and to do it continuously until the job was completed. They were not going to let anything happen to Jim. That became abundantly clear. And I just found it really uplifting. And that goes for my camera crew too.

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