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Deep-Dive Docs: Cameron's and MacGillivray's New Underwater Films Go Where No Camera Has Gone Before

By Elizabeth Blozan

Academy Award-winning director James Cameron (left), accompanied by actor Bill Paxton, goes under the sea for a never-before-seen 3-D look at one of the most captivating wrecks in history: the Titanic in Ghosts of the Abyss.

This spring, two new documentaries bring to large format screens some of the most remarkable underwater images ever captured. On February 14, IMAX releases Coral Reef Adventure, the most expensive production to date from the man who took us to Everest, director Greg MacGillivray. On April 11, Disney releases Ghosts of the Abyss, a tour to the wreck of the Titanic from director James Cameron. Although Cameron is a nascent documentary director, he shares with veteran MacGillivray the passion to bring audiences up close to things few human beings ever see. And both men relied heavily on world-class underwater specialists to create the camera systems that got their vision in the can.

For Cameron the mission was to capture the thrill of dropping down to the wreck of Titanic by creating the next best thing to going with him, a large format 3-D movie. His mission started six years ago when he made history as the first director to use footage of the actual Titanic wreck in a narrative feature. When Cameron was producing the film, the only existing footage was shot by Stephen Low for his IMAX documentary Titanica. But the sheer size of an IMAX camera forced Low to shoot from inside a sub. Cameron wanted more. Working with Panavision he mounted a 35mm system outside the sub and took his own Titanic dive. He surfaced from each 10-hour dive with only 12 minutes of film, then waited three days for dailies.

Five years later, High Definition (HD) technology gave Cameron a digital option he felt could deliver the resolution needed for a large format print. His only problem was that he wanted to make a 3-D movie, and no 3-D HD camera existed. He decided to invent one. He turned to one of the world's leading designers of underwater camera systems, Vince Pace. Through a joint venture, they embarked on the design of the "Reality Camera." Says Pace, "Jim's intention was to create a Holy Grail camera to shoot a feature-length movie with two eyes."

Cameron met Pace while making the 1988 narrative feature The Abyss. Pace helped design the revolutionary underwater lighting system that earned the film a Technical Academy Award. He credits Cameron with single-handedly moving that technology forward: "Cameron is so smart technically and so good creatively that he's not afraid to say, ‘Hey, I'm going to set a new standard in the industry.' To pull off something like The Abyss, which is really the standard for filming underwater, it took a director who knew how to push the studios to create a budget; who said, ‘I know how to make this happen,' then knew how to tap into the industry."

Pace Technology is a leading designer of camera systems used in and around water. Pace began his career at an early age when he met underwater film pioneer Al Giddings, who became his mentor and eventually teamed up with him to design underwater housings. Pace describes the tiny fraternity of underwater experts as a "rare breed" of creative engineers willing to take on the break-neck pace of production. Pace sees Cameron as the kind of director best suited to work with this breed, capable of holding his own with engineers, scientists and artists, fueling his collaborators with his curiosity and love for calculated risks.

To create a 3-D camera system, Pace and Cameron had to resolve seven optical steps: two lenses, two irises, two sets of foci and successful convergence. To take that system two-and-a- half miles below sea level, the smallest possible package of components had to fit in an exterior housing and optics had to resolve the influence of an acrylic porthole three inches thick and dramatically curved.

Pace and Cameron began by separating out the train of equipment used for electronic image acquisition and asked several vendors to step up to the plate with custom repackages. Sony modified its 950 HD camera by separating the Charge Coupled Device (CCD) from the processor, so a pair of CineAlta heads and optical blocks—repackaged to squeeze tightly side by side—could sit in the exterior housing. Panavision designed a pair of prime HD lenses and Fujinon made several custom pairs of zooms. This part of the optical train would feed data to the 950 processor, a monitor and a recording deck on board via an optic cable. Using pan and tilt wheels and a control panel, Cameron could direct the camera and make iris and focus adjustments.

Convergence became the big challenge. Initially while resolving the influence of the acrylic port Pace and Cameron tested right- and left-eye optics independently. "We thought we were doing a great job," says Pace. "No one had ever done this before. But we had a false sense of security." When the elements arrived from Sony, Panasonic and Fujinon, Pace retested his optics and discovered the right and left eyes were diverging. Optics consultants assured them the problem could be solved in about eight months. But based on their earlier success, Pace and Cameron had given the green light to production, which was already booking boats. Says Pace, "The entire production depended on us coming up with a system that worked."  Their only choice was to solve the problem themselves. They began brainstorming, studying binoculars, telescopes, image stabilizers—"anything we could think of to understand how we could correct our problems," says Pace. They eventually designed a proprietary solution: an intermediate lens to smooth the optics prior to convergence.

The next step was to choreograph how each lens set would move in unison. Like human eyes, the lens would track closer or farther apart, depending on the distance of the subject. Each lens set required a different ballet, dictated by a software program Pace had written for an onboard computer. Next, Evertz Microsystems designed a custom board to generate proper time code and A-frame reference. 

The final step came from Cameron's brother, Mike, who designed a titanium housing that became the largest implodable volume ever taken that deep on a manned sub. The housing was carefully tested, but Pace insists the first dive was unnerving. "The bigger the air space, the more catastrophic the effect," says Pace. "Jim and I were the first ones who went down there and physically took it to the limit. In the back of my mind I was thinking, ‘I don't want to be there the first time!' But you've come this far and, darn it, you're going to be the one to get to use it."

Cameron's final wish was a massive, mobile underwater lighting rig. Says Pace, "Jim envisioned handling the Titanic the way you would a set piece." To strategically light the wreck, Cameron wanted an array of ten 1.2 HMI lights (metal halide arc lamps) steered by a Remote Operated Vehicle (ROV) plugged into the ship. The manned subs would carry seven additional HMIs. Says Pace, "We were bringing more lighting to the table than had ever been done."

On the first descent the rig worked like magic. Sitting in the sub with Cameron, Pace describes lifting up off the ocean floor: "It's incredible to see that far in the water column in that detail. And we got that on film. But that experience was short lived." The ROV behaved erratically, suffering thrust and lighting failures, becoming a danger to the subs. The failure was eventually traced to minute water seepage, but not in time. "This was my most disappointing experience as DP," Pace recalls. "Had I never seen it work I would have felt better. The potential of the design was enormous, but short-lived." 

Nonetheless, Pace and Cameron shot more footage on that first dive—900 hours—than on the entire 1996 Titanic expedition. In addition to the underwater HD system, two more HD 3-D rigs shot events topside with a system Cameron and Pace designed for hand-held, steadicam, jib arm and dolly use. On board, DV cameras taped the crew in the sub, while ROVs carried DV cameras deep within the wreck. 

Production was a full two days from port, so everything necessary to keep the cameras working was brought to sea, including onboard technicians like Mark Robinson. Says Robinson, "The salt water and salt air are not friendly to that kind of equipment."  One morning Robinson found himself pulling focus for Cameron when a new camera assistant who joined the production became seasick. "Usually when you pull focus you have something rehearsed," Robinson maintains. "But this is documentary shooting; the director can point the camera anywhere he wants, and I'm supposed to figure out where the focus is."

Pace says working with people like Robinson is the reason he loves his profession. "In this industry the people you work with tend to be much more professional and wear a lot of hats. You're just so much of a smaller team, an elite unit. Your dependency is much greater. It's almost like a military unit going out on a mission."

One of the most respected members of this fraternity is Howard Hall, a world-class diver who, with his wife Michelle, has produced numerous underwater documentaries. Director MacGillivray hired Hall to shoot Coral Reef Adventure.

Like Pace, Hall is often forced to design his own equipment. "Underwater film work is so esoteric that, for the most part, we have to build the gear we use. We build our tripods, our movie lights, our camera housings, the housing for our light meters—you name it, we have to build it," he says.  To venture 350 feet below sea level (200 feet below the maximum depth of sport diving), Hall modified his underwater housings for the IMAX Mark II and IMAX IW-14 with a rig that pressurize the housings during descent, using gas. No one knew if the cameras could properly move 70mm film in the dense gas. But the deep dives were only part of the Coral Reef production, so Hall had the luxury of testing his theory during principal photography. 

The cameras did work, but mysteriously failed about half the time once they went below 150 feet. Each dive took a day, so if the camera failed the day was shot. "There's two ways you can look at that," says Hall. "You can say it's a disaster, or you can say, ‘Here we are at 350 feet at great expense, with the chance to look around.' Making the dives was a huge adventure for everyone on the crew. We were seeing wildlife habitats no one ever gets to see. So when the camera malfunctioned it was kind of nice. We would sit the camera down and explore a bit before we headed back up." The problem, a cork clutch that compressed under pressure, was discovered on the very last dive. 

At that depth, the five-man team faced serious risks. Nitrogen becomes a narcotic, and even oxygen becomes poisonous. Divers are much more vulnerable to decompression sickness after even a short dive. According to Hall, "The worst part is that physically, your body is extremely sensitive to over-exertion"-like handling lights, 65-pound tripods, 60-pound ballasts and 250-pound IMAX cameras in currents. Deep divers use "re-breathers" that recycle their air and "trimix" air supplies that use helium to slow the absorption of oxygen. Both systems require hundreds of hours of practice. "What was most disquieting was that even breathing the proper gas mixtures we still always felt a bit strange down there," says Hall. "Some people call it ‘helium jitters.' You feel shaky and light-headed and unstable." Further, with only 30 safe minutes of work time, the crew had to cut down the 90 minutes usually needed for prep and rehearsal. "We had to get down there and find the scene to shoot as quickly as possible in places we'd never been before. That was rattling."

The unusual exertion caused Hall to make an error with his air supply on one of his dives; after surfacing, he experienced symptoms of decompression sickness, or "the bends." He spent a day in a hyperbaric chamber and a month in recovery. Hall was now vulnerable to even more severe damage on future dives, but he elected to keep shooting. On his next dive, he took the IMAX camera  to a record depth of 370 feet to film ichthyologist Richard Pyle's discovery of a new species, "a beautiful purple, yellow and blue fish; an exceptional discovery." 

For Hall, the rewards of his profession far outweigh the risks. "Underwater is still one of the places you can go where you don't see the trampling of human feet. When you dive below 250 feet, almost everywhere is unexplored. You see animals no one has ever seen before." Hall counts among his greatest thrills on Coral Reef the rare sighting of a 12-foot thresher shark. "There's a lot of things I've been able to see that I only had a chance to do because the film contract paid the bills. That's what underwater filmmaking has done for me."


Elizabeth Blozan is a freelance entertainment writer and publicist based in Santa Monica, California.