James Cameron III: Space, the Reality Show

Space, the Reality Show
Interview with James Cameron, Part III

In this multi-part interview, Astrobiology Magazine’s Chief Editor and Executive Producer, Helen Matsos sat down with James Cameron –extreme explorer, writer, director, and Oscar-winning film-maker–to discuss his project slate. During their discussions, Cameron shared how he became interested in extreme environments, including how he came to operate his own fleet of world-class, deep-sea submersibles. The director also outlined how the frontiers of astrobiology make for great story-telling.


Helen Matsos (HM): Your development of the 3-D cameras is revolutionary, specifically as "reality" cameras, with two cameras set exactly eye-distance apart to give depth perception.

Extreme Explorers' Hall of Fame
The autonomous Antarctic meteor finder, Nomad, uses artificial intelligence to recognize and classify promising rocks
Credit: Carnegie Mellon, cmu.edu

James Cameron (JC): In fact, we call them the "reality camera system" for that reason.

HM: Why do you think this image quality is so important to draw in the viewer? What is the value of realism in the merging of science and technology? And what do we have to learn from you about this at NASA?

JC: (laughs) Well that’s another story– NASA is the tip of the spear for human imagination. That’s the way I look at it. It’s financed by the will of the American public to explore and to have its intellectual curiosity satisfied. Is the average guy driving around, eating pizza, and thinking about extraterrestrial life? Not likely, but if they are it’s usually in a science fiction context. But collectively, as a civilization, we are willing to spend money to have our questions answered, to have that burning curiosity dealt with.

NASA is doing that, and they are fantastic at it. They represent our hopes and dreams and our highest aspirations. The problem is that there’s a disconnect between NASA and its own constituency in terms of the images that it brings back and its ability to tell its own story. The problem is that scientists and engineers are not always the best at deciding what creatively should be being said at a given moment. I do think that there is a role for filmmaking, in the sense that people who are artists should be injected in at that level to tell the story in a way that’s engaging.

When I’m doing these documentaries, I’m trying to figure out ways to make it exciting and interesting, without making stuff up or being idiotic or silly. How do you capture the essence of what drives a scientist to devote their life to the pursuit of intellectual questions and trying to unravel the mysteries of the nature of matter, reality, and life? How do you convey that passion to the average person, who doesn’t think about those things very often? And how do you do it in filmmaking terms? With music, with editing, with imaging?

I think that any kind of exploration should always try to acquire the highest level of imaging. That’s how you engage people — you can put them there, give them the sense that they’re standing there on the surface of Mars. Give them the sense that they are at the bottom of the ocean, in some way. It takes our entire collective consciousness and projects it there – to that point in time and space. That’s what the Sojourner Rover did.

Ice Probe
Missions beyond Europa orbiters, like a probe to drill into the Europan oceans, may not have to go far into the ice to find evidence of life.
Credit:NASA/JPL

The Sojourner Rover became a character to millions of people, a protagonist in a story. How long is it going to survive, could it perform its mission? It wasn’t anthropomorphic in any way, there was absolutely no emotion in a little solar powered machine that was being commanded from eighty million miles away, and yet people thought of it as a character. The reason we thought of it as a character is that it represented us in a way. It was our consciousness moving that vehicle around on the surface of Mars. It’s our collective consciousness — focused down to that little machine – that put it there. So it was a celebration of who and what we are.

Our little ROVs (remotely operated vehicles) do exactly the same thing. I think it’s a question of being able to capture the moment and bring it back so people can see it at the highest possible level. Fortunately, NASA is good at imaging. They’re not so great at storytelling, but they’re good at imaging because it has scientific value, so it’s usually done at a pretty high level.

HM: Is this idea of "sharing" the motivation behind your digital distribution arm called EarthShip.TV, which you run with your brother, John David? That is, taking real time unedited data and making it appealing to a remote audience?

JC: That is a future goal, and we are still trying to figure out what is the best way to do that. On our future expeditions we want to try to bring people into it, let them participate from home or from their PC, wherever they are, and have a sense of connection to the extreme edge of human experience. If you’ve got people in these remote places, seeing things never seen by human eyes before, why can’t millions of people be looking over their shoulders at the same time? We have the capacity to do that.

Pathfinder landing image
Artist conception of dramatic airbag landing Credit: NASA.

Getting there is the hard part, communicating is the easier part. Yet I think there is more emphasis placed on getting there and looking, than on recording and communicating and sharing. Sharing sounds like a "let’s all hold hands and sing Kumbaya" kind of concept, but really it’s about sharing the experience of the few with the many.

"NASA is the tip of the spear for human imagination."

That’s how I think you inspire people about science and exploration. You can inspire them when they’re 10 years old so they choose a career in science. And boy, how do you get a career in science? You better learn your math. People are always going on about the educational system, and how it’s so deficient in getting people interested in math and science. Well, they’re not interested because they don’t see the end result.

Where are the role models, and where is the adventure of science that is enticing them into it? We’ll always have the tiny percentage who have such an intellectual curiosity that it just overcomes everything else. But I think there are a lot more people who, if they saw a role model, could be inspired to go do that. Not just want to do it, but see that it’s possible to do.

HM: You have done some fairly detailed designs for Mars Rovers. Currently you are working with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory on technology for rovers soon to be launched. Have these technologies been integrated into your filmmaking?

James Cameron
As an artist and film-maker, James Cameron is credited on major Hollywood productions in virtually all roles: writer, director, producer, editor, visual effects, actor, art director, and even crew. His recent credits have made him the most demanded Hollywood talent, with a particular personal interest in space, NASA, and portraying both the frontiers of research and ground-breaking science fiction.
Credit: Lightstorm/Cameron

JC: Because I’m so interested in space travel — I’m interested in it in just about every way possible — I’ve gotten to know a lot of different people and been involved in a lot of different things. It all tends to get merged together.

I was involved in a private company that was going to try to land two rovers on the Moon. That collapsed in the dot com crash – they ran out of money. I’m loosely involved with people who are going to be doing future robotic missions to Mars. I’m involved in terms of imaging, and of how imaging might be improved in terms of story telling. I’ve been very interested in the Humans to Mars movement -the "Mars Underground" — and I’ve done a tremendous amount of personal research for a novel, a miniseries, and a 3-D film.

In doing this fictional story about the first humans to Mars — a subject that has been done in the movies, but never done very well, I think — people in the Hollywood community have no idea of what that means. The average person walking around has no idea of what’s involved. I called up NASA and said "who’s in charge of Mars?’ It turns out that NASA has (scientists studying Mars) everywhere, but there’s no one person in charge. It’s taken me years to ferret around and talk to everybody.

In the course of designing this project, we never got past the design stage, although we will eventually. Right now it’s just, "what’s everything going to look like?" What it looked like was determined by how it worked, and how it worked was determined by the mission architecture.

The thing I found about human mission architectures for going to Mars is that if you change one piece or one assumption, it has a ripple effect through the whole thing, and it looks different coming out the other end. You do things differently, your spacecraft are configured differently, your surface mission looks different, the time you spend on the planet looks different. So a certain set of fundamental assumptions had to be made and then we had to design everything for what it was going to look like.

I wanted it to be highly realistic. Obviously I don’t think we can predict now, twenty-some years before the fact, exactly how it is going to be done, but we can make a set of very plausible assumptions. We got involved in the design of it, and predicated it on a series of assumptions, and then I went to JSC (Johnson Space Center) to talk to some of the people in the human exploration and development group. I asked, "Does this look like what you guys thought?" They had created overall architectural guidelines in the DRM – the Design Reference Mission – but there were no pictures. Nobody knew what it was really going to look like.

I said, "Look, this is our proposal for what a Hab would look like, and what a pressurized rover would look like, and we made certain assumptions based on how we operate deep submersibles, for example, in terms of how the manipulators would work taking samples and so on." And they said, "Hey, this is neat! Thanks! If you ever want to get out of filmmaking, come here and hang with us."

Join us for Part IV of the Cameron interview: The ET Challenge