Titanic Revisited
Ghosts of the Abyss
Review by Ross Anthony

Though the title echoes of an earlier film by Cameron, make no mistake -- this is not a feature film. Rather, this mildly amusing documentary has been made especially for 3D IMAX theatres and specially outfitted 35mm 3-D theaters. Film czar "I'm on top of the world" James Cameron, is, in fact, one of film directors I revere most. "Titanic," "Terminator 2," "True Lies" these are some awesome motion pictures. T2 being one of my favorite films of all time.

That said, "Ghosts of the Abyss" comes nowhere near the thrill and drama of the aforementioned films. It feels like a hobby, a fun trip for Jim who has a justified fascination with Titanic. As he says, "When I first went to Titanic, I was so in awe of just being there that I couldn't really think beyond that. Having had a few years to think about it I knew that if I ever went back it would be with a specific purpose in mind. That purpose was to do the most beautiful imaging that we could of the ship, and to do the most thorough investigation of that ship that was possible." (Click here for my interview with James Cameron.)

However, what his expedition finds is much less interesting to me than how he finds it. The tiny submarines, the 6 foot model, the video robots (affectionately named Jake & Elwood) and lighting apparatus -- these are all innovative, curious and fascinating. But an old rusted boat... Well, I could find better things to watch with my theater going buck.

Ghosts of the Abyss Bill Paxton introduces the picture and then takes us down into the depths along with Jim and crew. Bill's contributions bring a welcome personal touch. His nervousness and nauseousness demonstrate the human element of the dive. And though a small group of specialists are introduced, any further input from them is awkwardly brief.

As for the images inside the wreck -- it's a rusted boat. Maybe if I was actually there in the sub guiding Jake or Elwood with the video joystick, maybe I'd be more amused.

The two most dramatic scenes: 1) A night shot of the submarines surfacing and a diver braving some choppy ocean waves in order to secure them. 2) A climatic reenactment of the ship going down hosting a scrapbook of superimposed passenger images.

In fact, the last moment felt so much like an ending sequence, that the 10 minutes or so following seemed tacked on to a finished piece.

As for the image on the screen? After all, this is digital video tape, not big film that has been the standard for large format. Well, it looked pretty good on the smaller IMAX screen at our presentation. The resolution was not strikingly poor, but the images were not noticeably beautiful either. Jake and Elwood's resolution was poor. Though this is to be expected given the limitations of their mission, theatergoers nonetheless anticipate beautiful images from this format. As for the 3D -- less than impressive as well. Not horrible, just rather bland. I personally was having some ghosting problems; this may have been the result of how those plastic glasses rest on top of my own prescription glasses.

It'd make a pretty good PBS special ... but as a big screener?

Interesting bits about the taping eq (from the production notes):
"Movies are artificial," says Cameron. "We all see in 3-D. We're used to seeing the world that way. With movies in 2-D, flat on a screen, that's an artificial experience. That's not how we experience life. With 3-D, we're taking away the screen. You are looking through a window into a reality. That's why we call the camera the 'Reality Camera System' - we're trying to share the reality we had, when we were on the expedition, with an audience." The Reality Camera System begins with two custom-designed Sony HD-950 cameras in which the core imaging electronics have been de-coupled from the rest of the circuitry (which now trails behind the camera via cable or fiber). This reduces the size of the actual camera to the point that two of them can be mounted side by side so that their lenses are separated the same distance as the space between a pair of human eyes (roughly 70 millimeters). This is the first large-format capable camera system to place the focal planes in exactly the same location as that of human eyes. The results are stunning. To further the camera system's ability to mimic human vision, Cameron and Pace devised an "active convergence" system that would allow the lenses to cross and uncross much as our own eyes do when tracking objects moving closer or far away. This creates 3-D images that are much more natural and greatly reduces the eyestrain associated with previous 3-D motion picture imaging systems, allowing for longer presentations. When the film is played back, the two images are projected onto the screen at the same time while polarizing filters or active liquid crystal shutter devices keep each eye from seeing the alternate eye's image. The human visual cortex then "fuses" the image into "reality." "I would encourage filmmakers to tell stories - dramatic films, fictional films, as well as any kind of filmmaking, including sporting events - with this format," Cameron says. "There have been many problems with 3-D photography, but we've really solved all of them."

According to Cameron, the fact that the camera could shoot 3-D images lent itself perfectly to the expedition. "Underwater and 3-D are naturals for each other," he says. "It's a perfect choice, because you feel like you're really there. Ultimately, I wanted to give audiences the same experience that was such a life-changing one for me - to plunge down 2 1/2 miles of water, to experience something as strange and exotic as the wreck of Titanic, to really feel it and see it. The 3-D high-definition system would be the way to do that. "We can't get hundreds of thousands of people to go jump on the ship with us and go out on an expedition and go down in a sub," says Cameron. "But you can feel like you've been there. You can feel like you've made that dive. That's what this camera can do."

Ghosts of the Abyss The water pressure at Titanic's depth is approximately 6,000 pounds per square inch and any camera system mounted outside the crew sphere of the submersible had to be small to minimize the risk of implosion. In fact, the only large-format photography of the Titanic previously was limited to propping a bulky camera up to the porthole of the submersible and shooting through the tiny opening. Panning and tilting wasn't possible and the angle of view was severely limited.

"We needed an entirely new underwater camera housing," says Mike Cameron - James Cameron's brother - whose company, Dark Matter LLC, specializes in deep-sea engineering and design. Mike, who built the deep ocean camera housing for his brother in 1995, was called upon to create an entirely new titanium housing for the twin cameras. This required a special optical dome port and a corrective "contact lens" which would allow twin lenses to shoot off-center through a single dome port without introducing distortion that could destroy the 3-D effect. The whole system was then mounted on a Dark Matter LLC designed pan and tilt system and integrated with existing controlling mechanisms from the 1995 expedition, also designed by Mike. "Even making the system as small as possible," says Mike, "the 3-D camera system still required packaging one of the largest implodable volumes ever mounted outside of a manned deep submergence vehicle. The energy that could be released, if that was to suddenly implode, would very certainly result in instant death for the people inside. You would die faster than a sound recording device could record the event. So I'm pretty proud of the engineering work that went into that housing. You'd actually have to go to the bottom of the Mariannas Trench - which is almost five miles deeper than the Titanic wreck - and dig a hole 5,000 feet deeper than that before the housing would start to have problems. So I think that the deepwater housing will be around for a long time." Mike Cameron's housing stands alone as the deepest underwater system to date. The design worked so impressively that the U.S. Navy has come to him for advice.

To image the interior of the wreck and to explore places not seen by human eyes since the night of April 14th, 1912, would require yet another technological leap on behalf of Mike Cameron and his Dark Matter team. Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) had explored the wreck before, but these were limited by their design. "Typically, you're sending power and control commands to the vehicle through a fat cable, or tether. The power limits how long this tether can be and also dictates that you choose your path very carefully going in because you have to come out the very same way," says James Cameron. "We made the decision very early on to design a vehicle with a self-contained, high-density battery onboard, so that the only link we needed to the vehicle was for information. We needed to send control commands to it and it needed to send back video. We could accomplish that with fiber optics inside a very thin sheath, almost like a fishing line. That fiber was then fed from a two thousand foot spool inside the vehicle itself. This allowed us unprecedented freedom to explore. We could send the ROV wherever we wanted throughout the entire wreck. We could go in one door on one level and pop out of a window on another level. It didn't matter. As long as the ROV could make it back to the sub and dock in its garage, we could simply cut the fiber optic and go home. Naturally, we'd also recover as much of the fiber as possible." The fiber left behind is completely biodegradable and dissolves into the sea.

[Interview with James Cameron and Bill Paxton]

  • Ghosts of the Abyss. Copyright © 2003.
  • Starring Bill Paxton and James Cameron, Ken Marschall, Don Lynch, Charles Pellegrino, Lori Johnston.
  • Directed by James Cameron. Produced by James Cameron, Chuck Comisky, Janace Tashjian at Disney.


Copyright © 2001. Ross Anthony, currently based in Los Angeles, has scripted and shot documentaries, music videos, and shorts in 35 countries across North America, Europe, Africa and Asia. For more reviews visit: RossAnthony.com

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Last Modified: Saturday, 16-Sep-2006 08:09:56 PDT