James Cameron I: The Titanic Explorer

Categories: Extreme Life Interview

The Titanic Explorer
Interview with James Cameron, Part I

As Titanic survivor, Jack Thayer, Jr. wrote in his family memoir about the change that the disaster brought to the world: "It seems to me that the disaster about to occur was the event, which not only made the world rub its eyes and awake, but woke it with a start. To my mind the world of today awoke April 15th, 1912."
– Jack B. Thayer, Jr., Titanic Survivor Preface to the memoir pamphlet for his family "The Sinking of the S.S. ‘Titanic’ "
Credit: Paramount/Lightstorm

As an artist and filmmaker, James Cameron is credited on major Hollywood productions in virtually all roles: writer, director, producer, editor, visual effects, actor, art director, and even crew. Cameron wrote and directed such science fiction classics as "Terminator 2: Judgement Day" (1991), "The Abyss" (1989), and "Aliens" (1986). He received an Academy Award for Best Director for 1997’s "Titanic," which was also the largest grossing film in history.

While these credits have made him one of the most in-demand of Hollywood talents, currently he is investigating matters related to space, NASA, and the frontiers of scientific research. His brother, John David, described this fascination stretching back to Apollo: "When [Jim] was a boy he skipped school to stay home to view the first landing on the Moon. When our parents came home they found him with camera in hand taking pictures of the event on TV."

James Cameron was born in Kapuskasing, Ontario, Canada on August 16, 1954. He moved to the United Sates in 1971. The son of an engineer, he majored in physics at the California State University. His current production company is "Lightstorm Entertainment," and he founded the visual-effects company "Digital Domain."

His recent Titanic documentary, "Ghosts of the Abyss," employed technology for a 3-D digital experience, using two cameras separated by left and right human eye distances. To visit the Titanic wreck, Cameron joined a crew of divers 12,000 feet beneath the sea, using the latest in robotic lighting and camera technology to capture the underwater world at pressures that would crush a bank vault. Only four submersibles can go to this depth, and Cameron’s production team works with two them.

The Cameron team’s remarkable submersibles- MIR-1 and MIR-2 -were built in 1987 and are operated by the Shirshov Institute of Oceanology in Russia. Each vehicle has an iron-nickel battery with a capacity of 100 kilowatts, which is twice as much as is available for other submersibles in the same dive range (to 19,800 feet). The Mirs’ high power capacity allows them to undertake underwater work schedules of 17 to 20 hours. Both submersibles carry up to eight 1,200-watt halogen-mercury-iodine lights, which helped them film scenes of the Titanic at depth. The Mirs have also been used to explore hydrothermal vents and observe the wreck of the Russian nuclear submarine Komsomolets. Credit: Shirshov Institute

In this multi-part interview, Astrobiology Magazine’s Chief Editor and Executive Producer, Helen Matsos, sat down with James Cameron and discussed 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 and writer also outlined how the frontiers of astrobiology make for great story-telling.

Helen Matsos (HM): James Cameron, you have such a wonderful and unique hybrid of talents — global communicator, innovator of new technology for both cinema and exploration, and a modern day Magellan in terms of your expeditionary work.

James Cameron (JC): Well except I think Magellan was a lot braver – they used much smaller ships in those days. (laughs)

HM: What is it about your past that led to the development of all these different talents?

JC: In my mind it all relates. I was a science fiction fanatic when I was a kid, and loved the idea of space exploration, both in fiction and in fact. This was in the sixties, and I was riveted by the Gemini and Apollo programs. I knew that I was never going to get to go to another planet, but it seemed that ocean exploration was a good alternative for that. So I learned to scuba dive, which at the time was unusual in my city and my age group. I think I was the only kid in Niagara Falls, Canada who could scuba dive in 1969.

HM: Your brother told me that, as a youngster, you would jump in the water with your gear on, and your father would hold on to you from above with a rope. Pretty brave for a kid

JC: And I was diving without a buddy – there was no one to dive with because there was nobody in my city that scuba dive. When I came to California, people dived here. I lived down in Orange County, a coastal region here in Los Angeles. But in Niagara Falls, Canada, we were six or seven hundred miles from the nearest ocean. It was like diving in a creek! (laughs)

HM: So, you showed an early disposition to expose yourself to risk and danger. How does this disposition figure in to your underwater exploration and filmmaking?

Lurking at depths only reachable with hardened submersibles, the common name of this Anoplogaster cornuta is "fangtooth." (It has also been dubbed "ogrefish.") Fangtooths are found in tropical and temperate waters down to 16,000 feet. Image Credit: PBS.org/NOVA

JC: I don’t know if it was risk, as much as exoticism of that which is seldom seen. You can wander around in a park all day long and see a hundred other people – there’s not a whole lot of risk in that, because anybody can go there. If you want to see something people haven’t seen, you have to go someplace off the path. You go off the path and the risk factor inherently goes up.

In my particular case, I don’t do it for the risk. If I were just interested in the risk, I’d be jumping out of airplanes, or bungee-jumping off cliffs – all those "risky" things where that’s all you get out of it. You’re not exploring, you’re not seeing something new.

I’m not interested in jumping out of a perfectly good aircraft. I would go through parachute training in the service of, say, flying in the Soyuz spacecraft, but I wouldn’t do it just for fun – to me that’s silly. A lot of people assume that there’s this, "You like to tempt fate and you like the risk," and I think people think that of astronauts as well — that there are bragging rights that come from having done something risky. But it’s not about that at all. I don’t think it is in their case, and certainly not in mine.

HM: So it’s more about the need to explore?

"If you want to see something people haven’t seen, you have to go someplace off the path."

JC: It’s about the need to physically project yourself into a place that is seldom seen or experienced, if ever, by human beings. And you can’t beat the bottom of the ocean for that!

The thing about ocean exploration is that so little of it has been explored. Not only are you experiencing something you’ve never experienced before personally, but experiencing something that nobody has ever experienced before – and that is very exciting. If you can be filming it in 3-D at the same time, so you can bring it back and share that experience with millions of people, then to me that’s the grand slam!

Join us for Part II of the Cameron interview: Extreme Life