By Madelyn Ritrosky
Rather than his high-grossing, high-tech Hollywood work, such as TITANIC and THE TERMINATOR, it was director James Cameron’s more recent deep-sea documentaries, ALIENS OF THE DEEP and GHOSTS OF THE ABYSS, which earned him the Santa Barbara Film Festival’s Attenborough Award for Excellence in Nature Filmmaking. As he quipped when he was actually handed the award, he was proud to be the first person not named David Attenborough to receive it.
James Cameron has a keen interest in the technological side of filmmaking, in discovering the unknown history of the Titanic at the bottom of the ocean, and in exploring the fantastic worlds around hydrothermal vents so deep that Cameron’s scientific/filmmaking explorations are truly cutting edge.
He said he “fell into a niche” when he first went down to the wreck of the Titanic in 1995. Then, after TITANIC’s release in late 1997, he took a five-year hiatus from directing in Hollywood because “we saw things at the limits of the lights” while making TITANIC that were too fascinating to ignore. His curiosity was piqued. Indeed. He has now made 33 dives to the famous wreck he joked that this was more than any other non-Russian. (His submersible navigators are Russian.)
But in terms of the technology, only so much could be done so deep underwater in 1995. “Once you imagine it and it doesn’t exist in the world, you have to build it.” So he and others did. Cameron is clearly a doer as well as a dreamer. I have to admire that kind of determination and imagination.
In 2001, he “made the leap” to documentary filmmaking with a 3-D IMAX film about the Titanic, GHOSTS OF THE ABYSS. Until then, no IMAX film had been shot electronically in High Definition. After that first effort, Cameron’s attitude was “Why not do another one?”
But he likened the experience of exploration in a submersible deep in the ocean to driving a cement truck on a completely darkened ice rink. He told the audience to imagine that the truck’s windows are blackened except for one roughly eight-inch hole and the only light is the truck’s headlights. Cameron said maneuvering in and around shipwrecks is trickier than hydrothermal vents spewing red-hot gases from the Earth’s core. A shipwreck like the Titanic is a giant, multi-layered labyrinth, teeming with jagged edges and unknown things behind every corner.
Cameron said Titanic experts are learning countless new things about the ship and how it went down because his investigations at the bottom of the ocean are revealing heretofore unknown details. He pointed out that very few photographs of its interior exist, and he estimates that 80% of the interior has now been seen through his submersible dives.
He is currently in pre-production on a new feature film, a futuristic adventure titled Battle Angel. How does he weigh his interest in storytelling versus his other technological, scientific, and historical interests? He answered my question without hesitation.
He said, “I’m a storyteller first,” and pointed out that filmmaking is the most technological art form. He said if he was interested only in telling a story and nothing else, “I’d be a novelist.” Conversely, if he was only interested in technological or scientific discovery, he’d be, say, an engineer. True to his continuing interests in these various areas, Battle Angel will utilize a new 3-D process.
When I originally looked at the festival’s line-up of award recipients, it was James Cameron who seemed the most intimidating. But when I met him and watched and listened to him on this special evening, he was unlike the persona the media have built up around him and on which he wryly commented by noting the media’s evolving focus through the whole TITANIC chapter of his career.
Cameron was friendly and accommodating. And his acceptance speech was aptly humble: he emphasized the team effort that the explorations and documentaries required. He also noted that shooting hours upon hours of deep-sea footage was humbling in another way: it was like 30 puzzles sans covers all mixed together yet “you’ve got to make it into something.” As he put it, he seems happy to only “sometimes inhabit” that “reality-free zone that is Hollywood.”
Top Photo: James Cameron and his wife, Suzy Amis. Photo by Madelyn Ritrosky.
2nd Photo: From the movie, "Aliens of the Deep"
L-R: Loretta Hildago (Space Generation Foundation President), James Cameron (Director/Producer), Kevin Peter Hand (Planetary Scientist, Stanford University SETI Institute). Courtesy of Disney Enterprises, Inc., Walden Media LLC.
3rd Photo: L-R ) James Cameron and Bill Paxton.