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James Cameron has just made his first 3D movie, on the wreck of the Titanic, following his fictional film with an IMAX documentary on the real thing. But now heís hooked and ready to make the first ever feature film in 3D. Jenny Cooney Carrillo reports.

The latest IMAX release, Ghosts of the Abyss, is a ground-breaking US$13 million Titanic documentary that marks Oscar-winning director James Cameronís first step into 3D moviemaking, also stretching the rules of documentary filmmaking including re-enacting unscripted events. Cameron helped his brother Mike, an aeronautical engineer, develop submersible remote operated vehicles (ROVs) that allowed him to shoot inside the wreck of the Titanic, two and a half miles beneath the surface of the Atlantic. He invited actor Bill Paxton to serve as a kind of Everyman during cramped stints in the submersible.

What did the documentary mean to you after making the movie?
I was at the wreck of the Titanic in 1995 when we were filming for the movie. I only made the movie because I wanted to go dive the shipwreck! (laughs) I was a diver before I was a director so I thought Ďhow can I get somebody to pay for an expedition to the Titanic?í and decided to talk 20th Century Fox into making the movie. I donít think they realized that my primary motivation was to go dive the Mount Everest of shipwrecks. But in 1995 we werenít able to go inside the ship because that technology didnít exist. We had to create it ourselves and I knew I wanted to go back at some point because there was a great deal of curiosity. But it took us three years to build those robots to be able to look inside the shipwreck room by room.

Were you able to use your movie sets or any of your original film in this film?
The movie Titanic was beneficial to this film in two ways; there was a lot of material left over from the making of that film, like the lifeboats and some of the costumes and the shipís wheel, which was in my office because Iíd kept it as a souvenir. But most of what looks like scenes from the film are all re-shot because we were shooting in 3D format, and this used new digital cameras built just for this film. So there were about three or four shots that were actually from the movie in the background, like when the ship is sinking at the end. But we shot a new foreground in 3D and that made it work.

How many dives did it take to shoot the documentary?
Twelve dives on this expedition in 2001 and I have done twelve in 1995 previously, but we got more done in our first dive on this expedition than on all twelve in 1995 because our technology was so much better and our 3D cameras could shoot ten hours of material on a dive, as long as we kept changing tapes. We had 900 hours of footage and that included all the 3D stuff , which was about 300 hours of IMAX-compatible plus the other 600 hours is all 2D standard definition video that was shot inside the subs or that the ROVs shot. Then we had to find a way to tell the story, which was one of the biggest challenges on this film. My respect for documentaries has now gone to where I think they deserve to be right up at the top because theyíre hard to do.

Do you think 3D is the way weíll see all movies in the future?
My next film will be a big theatrical feature in 3D. I think it only takes one to prove the point and so even though this film was made for its own sake, itís also functioning as a pilot program for a way of viewing and a way of doing photography that Iím very interested in and I want to bring that same kind of experience you have watching this one-hour documentary to a two hour theatrical feature. Here in America we can spend about $10,000 per theatre to upgrade it to a 3D screen so letís say for a feature I went to 500 screens throughout North America, thatís $5 million. Itís proportionate to the sort of budget I would be doing on a $100 million film as itís 5% of the budget so thatís viable from a business standpoint. Our next challenge is that the international market will come on board with the idea of exhibiting stereo or 3D and Iím hoping this documentary will reach people and help them understand whatís cool about experiencing a movie in 3D. I could go on for 100 hours about 3D because weíve been watching 100 years of movies in 2D but we have two eyes so we see stereoscopically and every bird, every fish, every reptile all has two eyes for a reason. Thatís how we perceive the world, so Iím thinking that thereís a dimension to movies that hasnít really been tapped yet. Itís always been a kind of gimmick but itís never been done at the highest level so weíre going to take a run at that.

What can you tell us about the feature movie youíre planning in 3D?
Iím sorry I canít tell you anything yet! I can tell you itís going to be really cool. After having shot with this camera system that was developed for this film, I canít wait to use it next time out. This camera weighs 22 pounds and is very light and easy to use. You can put it on a Steadicam, you can do anything you would normally do and it produces images of amazing quality and realism. I canít go back. When I look at 35mm film now, it just feels so crude to me by comparison so Iíve got to try to work in the best medium there is. I would have shot Titanic and True Lies and T2 using this system if it had been around then.

Did you have any hesitations using re-enactments in a documentary?
It was an area where we had long debate Ö whether we were stepping over the line of what a documentary should do, but we felt we had the opportunity to show people the real wreck and we wanted to bring it to life as long as it was done with a kind of forensic accuracy, which it was. We had a panel of historians saying this is who was standing where and what they said and how they interacted and when we brought it to life, it wasnít done whimsically. It was done almost as if you were looking through a time window. The irony on this film is we couldnít afford to build a cool set of the Titanic so we used the real ship!

Do you see the documentary as a companion piece to the film?
Iím going to talk to Disney and Fox down the line in maybe five years and see if we can bundle the two titles together into some kind of special edition, because they certainly work well with each other. I think when people saw the movie they didnít necessarily know what was real because they were following the story and the romance. But when you watch the documentary, I think thereís a certain contract between a film and the audience because they know youíre going to show them something that isnít true, but this is an opportunity for people to see the real stories, not the fictional story. And I think theyíre just as compelling. The thing about history that constantly amazes me is most of the best stories have really happened. They just need to be told and we try to.

What still fascinates you about the Titanic?
Thinly veiled within your question is, Ďwhy donít you get a life, Mr. Cameroní and I AM doing other things as well! This is more of a hobby that I come back to occasionally but itís an expensive hobby so I basically make movies to pay for it!

Published September 4, 2003

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James Cameron and Bill Paxton


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