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January 2005
Aliens of the Deep: An Interview with James Cameron


Aliens of the Deep: An Interview with James Cameron

Todd Gilchrist

After the record-breaking success of "Titanic", James Cameron could make any film he wanted. Instead of pursuing an even bigger project, however, he retreated to the comfort of world he already explored- namely under the sea. His first expedition was captured in the 2002 documentary "Ghosts of the Abyss", which flirted with 3-D technology while revisiting the wreckage of the actual Titanic. With the release of "Aliens of the Deep", he comes full circle, maximizes the possibilities of the technology he helped create, and makes a riveting documentary in the process. In this recent interview with blackfilm.com, Cameron discusses his latest return to the sea, the future of 3-D filmmaking, and his next project, the fictional film "Battle Angel".


Did you go straight from Ghosts of the Abyss to Aliens of the Deep?

"No, actually there was a step in between. Ghosts of the Abyss was originally supposed to be [about] the Titanic and the Bismarck, and we were out on the Titanic site, September 11th happened and because of traveling problems and everything else we decided to just stay and focus on Titanic site and not go south to the Bismarck site. We spun Bismarck off as a separate project. Then when we were out on Bismarck, when we finished that, I sent the crew home and I stayed on board the Russian ship and just made some dives myself on these hydrothermal vents because that's what they were doing. They had a six week program they were doing on the mid-Atlantic reefs, so I stayed on board and did some imaging and when I saw the vents, I thought, 'this is incredible- this is the most amazing thing I've ever personally slapped eyes on' so I thought this has got to be a film. That was the origin of this; that was in June of 2002, so then for the next year we prepped the expedition. That wasn't the only thing I was doing, but it really took about six months of hard prep to get the expedition together, to pull in all of the science people, get all of our new equipment together, get the deep rover submersibles ready to dive because we had bought those in the meantime. Literally while I was out at Bismarck, the opportunity came up to buy the deep rovers. I bought them while I was still on the ship, and then got them revamped and got them ready to go. So it was about a one year cycle, then we went out in July and August of '03, then back into port and out again in October to November of '03, so it was two separate legs, one in the Atlantic and one in the Pacific."


Was NASA involved in the financing of this?

"No. It's an interesting model because we actually got film financing from Walden Media and from Disney and then went to the research community, including all of the NASA centers and so on and said, 'is there something you guys can do? We're going out, we've got a ship, actually, we're going to have a couple of ships, we're going to have four submersibles, we're going to have robotics, we're going to have lights... there's so much science that theoretically could be done, what can you do with us?' Because we wanted to have people actually doing investigation to tell part of the story, and I thought it would just be criminal to go out there with all of these assets and not actually learn something. So we got a huge groundswell of support from the science community, equally from NASA and the oceanographic community, so we wound up doing all kinds of stuff. We were jam packed with both scientists, instrumentation and all sorts of research programs. You can see briefly in the film we're putting those yellow things over the side and sinking them; we had a bunch of those from the National Science Foundation. Those are called ocean-bottom seismometers and we actually did a big distributive sensor ray at the north site to study earthquake swarms at that location."


Do you feel like a movie director down there, or a scientist?

"When I'm doing this type of work, I'm not thinking as much like a director as I normally would be on the set of a movie. I'm thinking more like a, well, I wear a lot of hats. I'm a camera operator, an expedition leader, coordinator- I have to coordinate between the submersible guides and the science people- but when I'm on the dive and I'm operating the camera, I'm definitely thinking like a filmmaker. I'm lighting the shots, I'm moving the subs around, and we have a checklist like this that has all of the science goals on it, but I'm also there to get the shot. So I'm definitely thinking like a filmmaker at that point, but it's very different than the experience of being on a movie set. You've got a script, the actors are going to say their lines, you know you're doing scene 23 and then you're going to do scene 64. It's a very different day, because we have days where we don't shoot at all. If we're tired, we don't shoot. It's like we have a meeting every morning, everybody comes in, they don't know what we are going to do, are we going to dive, is the weather against us, and we don't have a Monday through Friday kind of schedule. We just go- we go until we get tired- and I say 'you know what? I don't know if I'm tired. Are you guys tired? Let's take a day off.' It's crazy. The reality of an expedition is very, very different than the reality of a film set."


Since you won your Oscar, do you still feel like you have something left to accomplish or prove?

"No, no. I mean, I did promise myself when I found out how hard filmmaking was, back on Terminator in '84, I said 'alright, I'm going to do this for a while until I have a successful film, and then I'm going to take some time and I'm going to do the other things that I consider to be also very important. Titanic was a good opportunity to do that, because I could afford to develop some of this technology, camera systems and so on to do this. I could take some time off. It's not like people were not going to hire me again after that, but it wasn't a conscious decision to not make a theatrical feature until now. We developed something that didn't work out for a number of reasons and frankly I found this to be a lot more interesting, a lot more fascinating and consuming than I expected. But also, a few years ago I started down this path of creating this 3D camera system and once I started working in that, I couldn't imagine myself going back and shooting with the camera stuff that I used before. It just seemed like going back from a car to a bicycle, and I don't want to ride a bicycle again, so the question is, at what point can I use the kind of imaging that we're able to do now for a feature film? That's taken a few years to put together and has the pacing item on that is digital cinema, the changeover to d-cinema, which is going to be happening throughout North America and eventually Europe and so-on, where they are literally going to replace every projector in North America in the next five or six years, however long it takes, because in order to display the stereo, the 3D, you need to have those digital projectors. I need those theaters, so I've sort of been waiting until the right moment to make a big movie and we believe that moment is now. So we're in pre-production now on a movie called Battle Angel, which is based on a Japanese manga series of graphic novels by an artist named Yukito Kishiro. It's not in the sort of top ten of graphic novels in Japan; it's a lesser known one, and we're going to make Battle Angel over the next couple of years and release it in '07. By early summer of '07 we expect to have somewhere around a thousand digital 3D theaters that will be able to show an image that looks more or less like what you saw in the IMAX theater but the IMAX theater was film, and this is going to be digital projection."


This will be shown in actual multiplexes?

"Multiplexes everywhere. All regions, all cities, all territories. And yeah, you'll wear glasses, obviously."


Is the style of the comic going to be in the movie? Was Dark Angel a test run for this?

"Sure. Dark Angel was really unrelated to Battle Angel other than the fact that it's got Angel in the title, which is really coincidental."


Which timeline do you intend to focus on?

"It's a bit of a melange of the first three books, which means that it pulls forward the motorball story into the Ido, Alita, Hugo story, if you will."


Will it be live action?

"Live action and CG mixed, meaning we will build sets, we'll shoot with actors and we'll have CG characters. Alita will be CG; she'll be performed by an actress but what you see in the film will be CG."


Like Gollum in Lord of the Rings?

"That's a very good example."


Do you have any casting choices?

"No. We have some stuff we're working on, but it's kind of premature to talk about it."


Do you think you will cast marquee names or just unknowns?

"They won't be unknown. They'll be very recognizable names, but I don't see this as a star vehicle per se."


Is this the future of cinema?

"Uh, TBD. I don't know yet. It's the future of cinema for me, if I can make this work with these digital theaters. And I'm working with [people] now who are trying to establish standards and to integrate with... I don't know, are you familiar with DCI, and what's going on with the digital cinema initiative? All of the studios, they put together technical working groups to work together on a standard specification for digital cinema. So I've gotten involved with a lot of stuff that I really didn't want to be involved in, but these are enabling technologies that will allow us to bring high quality (tape interrupted) whether they want a lot of it, or if they just want to continue to think of it as a more exotic experience."


Are you happy to see movies like The Polar Express succeed on IMAX screens?

"There are a couple of pretty positive data points for the last couple of years. We've got Spy Kids 3-D, which was a fairly modestly budgeted film that made 120 million dollars. There was a lot of excitement around the 3-D, and I don't consider, Rodriguez actually used my cameras and some other stuff that he developed with the guy that I co-developed my cameras with, so there's a little group of people who are working in the stereo stuff. Unfortunately, he released it in red-blue 3-D, which I consider to be a setback because it's not great stereo. It's not a great experience. It goes to your question about can you watch this stuff for an hour and a half. Anybody over ten years old can't watch it for more than fifteen minutes. So that's bad- we don't want people having a bad experience in the cinema with 3-D, so people have to remember that the way you capture your 3-D is completely uncouple from the way you display your 3-D. And there's a lot of aesthetic issues as well. You have to shoot good 3-D. Like in Aliens of the Deep, the 3-D experience is a little more challenging in the theater that I would expect it to be for an actual feature where we can control it. But when you're two miles down and a giant squid swims in front of you, you don't have a lot of control. You're just shooting what's there, and if it's a good enough shot you're going to use it even if it's not the best stereo. But for something like Battle Angel we'll be able to control it and make it a very, very smooth and easy on the eyes kind of experience and a very rich experience as well."


Were there more animals discovered than the feature indicates?

"For the DVD, we will put out the IMAX version, the 47 minute film, on one side, and on the other side we have a 90 minute version which includes a lot more dive footage, a lot more of the sort of logistics stuff of the expedition: how do you do an expedition? What's like experientially to be on an expedition? I mean, we had stuff happen- we went out there with this ship that was selected because it has this big A-frame to launch the green subs, the deep rovers. We got out there and we were all set to dive and the A-frame broke. Now, we were at sea, we were 500 miles from the nearest land, so we took a blowtorch and cut the side out of the ship- we cut a 30 foot long piece out of the side of the ship, ten feet high, and launched the subs out of the side using one of the ship's cranes, right in the middle of the ocean. The Russians thought we were crazy; they were watching through binoculars from their ship about a mile away going 'they're cutting their ship up in the middle of the ocean 500 miles from shore!' I mean, there was crazy stuff that happens on an expedition, but you do what you need to do to solve the problem so there's a lot of that story. And I think the human story of what it takes to get the images and to do the science is part of the fun. But we also connect the dots a lot better and with more detail on the science story as well, so as an educational tool, the 90 minute is going to be a lot better. Put that in high schools, let them get the sense of wonder from the images, from the animals and that sort of thing but there will be a lot more information there."


Was there a particular reason you weren't specific about the location of the dives?

"We give you a little print out on some of the dives that tells you exactly where we were on which date, but frankly nobody looks at it. I don't even look at it. There's a limitation on an IMAX film when you're so absorbed by what you're seeing, you don't want to watch extraneous information. We found the film was getting a little bit talky and we pulled back a little bit, but in fact we did like forty dives; it's a tremendous amount. And some dives are a synthesis of multiple dives at the same site, but we make it a single representative dive for the purposes of the film narrative. We never misrepresent anything, but sometimes you kind of collapse out of time."


Did you want to have an actor among the divers like you did on Ghosts of the Abyss?

"Bill was on Ghosts of the Abyss not because he was an actor but because he was a friend of mine and he'd already been on a few dive trips with me and I knew that he was a guy that could verbalize what he was seeing, and since Titanic was really a human story, you didn't need to be a historian necessarily to appreciate the kind of gravitas you were seeing when you were at the wreck site. This is a science story, and I felt I needed scientists. I didn't want somebody trying to break it down for us, you know, and I also felt that having somebody there as an actor- like if it wasn't Bill, who would it be?- well, now it's finding an actor to be an actor. That felt wrong to me. It felt like I was creating a kind of Hollywood boundary between the audience's direct experience of what it's like to be a science expedition, so we cast it, literally, with scientists. We cast a very broad net, we had a lot of applicants who wanted to participate, and we looked for the ones we felt could communicate the best. You know, not only do the research, but communicate what they were doing and why it mattered to them. So Kevin Hand, Shoshanna, Maya Tolstoy and Loretta were all cast essentially because we felt they would be not only good researchers to be part of the team, but to communicate and be good role models. That's why they are not world experts in their fifties and sixties, old farts like me. I wanted kids in high school to say 'hey, that's somebody cool doing something cool- I might think about doing that.' I'm not saying every kid that sees it is going to think like that, but you get one in fifty and you've done something great at a time when we're really slipping as a nation in terms of people who are going into a science and technology and engineering track in college. We're really slipping behind China dn India and all of these other countries are going to launch past us."


So future films will be more advanced than even this one?

"Exactly the same camera system that we used on Ghosts of the Abyss. In post-production, the entire film from end to end was digitally processed to increase the resolution. We worked with a company called Lowry digital and they used some post-processing algorithms, and we believe that the image that we're showing on this film is about twice as sharp as what we had on Ghosts of the Abyss. Same camera, exactly the same camera, but we had different lenses- we had some other stuff because we could zoom underwater and do macro photography. Now the next time we shoot, we're going to use the new generation of the camera system, which is the new Sony SR compression, so it's inherently got a little more dynamic range and a little better resolution, and we'll do the Lowry processing, or Lowry-type processing on top of it, so we think we're getting to a level where we're basically the equivalent of capturing two side-by-side 4K images, and that's like so much more information than you need. It really allows us for a theatrical feature, I could blow the image up double and still have more resolution than a 35mm film."


Have you exhausted your interest in Titanic?

"It's not a strongly compelling thing for me, but I wouldn't rule it out- let me put it that way. Because we only did explore about 40 percent of the interior with our robots last time and we have a new generation of the robotic vehicles; four of them are being built for us right now, that we're going to use other wrecks for future expeditions, and they are about half of the size, so there are a lot of places we can get into. So I wouldn't rule it out. I just feel like if there's going to be a kind of systematic survey of the inside of the ship, I'd like to be part of that or at least have something to do with it, just because we have such a body of knowledge already of what we have explored and so we're coordinating with Noah right not to turn over all of our information to them so it can go into kind of a systematic archaeological database, because we had some of the top experts on Titanic working with us and going through that ROV footage and building computer graphics models of the interiors of the ship based on what it was then, which nobody really knew because it was never photographed. All of the pictures you see were actually from the sister ship. The Titanic itself was different, so now we're able to construct what it really looked like. Of course, now I have to go remake the movie because it's wrong (laughs). No, it looks pretty close to what we did in the movie. I wouldn't rule it out, let's put it that way."


With all of your opportunities is filmmaking for yourself more than an audience?

"If I'm making a feature film like when I'm doing Battle Angel or some of the other projects I have planned for after Battle Angel, I know I'm making a film for an audience. I can't just please myself. When I do this stuff, I'm doing it just because I love the subject. I'm just following my heart, but because it's so cool, I know people are going to be interested to some degree or other, and then when we gather all of these images together and we have a bunch of- you know, cutting a documentary for me is a very collaborative process. It's not the single auteur trying to make some statement. I'll sit in a room with an editing team of two or three people and we'll go through something and we'll all respond to it, and what inspires us all is what goes into the film. So either way, you're making a film for others; you don't make a film for yourself. I mean, some people do, lets' face it."


What's the basic plot of Battle Angel?

"26th century, the story takes place 300 years after a societal collapse caused by a major war, but in that society, it's a technological dark age following a pinnacle of achievement far, far beyond where we are right now. So in a sense it's post-apocalyptic, but it's post-apocalyptic from a very high level. So now, you've got cyborg technology as just a way of life. People are augmented a lot as workers and so on, so being a cyborg is not unusual. The main character is a cyborg. She has an organic human brain, and she looks like she's about fourteen years old. She has a completely artificial body and she's lost her memory- she's found in this wreckage and she's reconstituted by this guy who is a cyber-surgeon who becomes her kind of surrogate father. It's a father-daughter relationship story that just has the most insane action that you can imagine. It will be PG-13- lots of blood, but it's all blue."




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