'Deepsea Challenge 3D': The Story Behind James Cameron's Dive to the Mariana Trench

James Cameron, National Geographic and Disruptive LA are releasing on Friday a 3D documentary about Cameron’s record-breaking solo dive to the deepest part of the ocean that took place on March 26, 2012.

Deepsea Challenge 3D traces the building of the submersible and the nearly 36,000 foot dive to the Mariana Trench’s Challenger Deep in the western Pacific Ocean—a very personal journey for the Academy Award winning filmmaker and National Georgraphic Explorer-in-Residence that made news around the world.

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Reactions to the successful dive shaped the documentary, according to John Bruno, who shared directing credits on the doc with Andrew Wight (also a writer and producer) and Ray Quint.  "When he set the record, we got emails that it was a stunt, and it made me mad," Bruno told The Hollywood Reporter. "I though, this is completely unfair. This was a lifetime goal for him. I started to change the [focus of the documentary]. It became more about Jim and the crew—the courage and tenacity it took to do this, and how Jim got to that point."

It shows how Cameron — a "science geek" as a child — was inspired by the one prior dive to the trench, by two men in a U.S. Navy submersible during 1960 (one of these divers, Lt. Don Walsh, was involved in Cameron's expedition and appears in the doc). Cameron continued to explore during a Hollywood career that involved making the two most successful films of all time — Titanic and Avatar.

Like Cameron, Bruno is both a filmmaker and explorer, having been on other expeditions with the director, including one in 1995 while making Titanic (Bruno actually took a voyage to the ship's resting place with actor Bill Paxton during filming), and again in 2001 for the making of Titanic doc Ghosts of the Abyss.

His involvement in Deepsea Challenge started one morning when Cameron phoned him at 2 a.m., following a tragic event during which expedition leader and director Andrew Wight and underwater cinematographer Mike deGruy were killed in a helicopter crash (the doc is dedicated to the pair) while on their way to film aerial footage during a test dive. "It was the worst day of life," Cameron later said in an interview. "Andrew and Mike were both very dear friends. I just felt like I’d been kicked in the stomach. And when I was there at the scene, I thought, 'The expedition’s over.' "

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Bruno related about his call with Cameron: "He asked if I could direct, since I had been on deep ocean expeditions with him. Two days later, I was on a plane."

The submersible used by Cameron, dubbed Deepsea Challenger, is 24 feet tall and weighs 11.5 tons. It’s the first submersible to be made of syntactic foam, and the first to have a vertical form. The doc does show things going wrong during test dives, along with how the crew worked to identify and address the troubles.

Cameron was also innovating in filmmaking during this time, as the submersible carries proprietary micro cameras to shoot 3D at the ocean's depth. They were created by Cameron Pace Group, which also supplied the 3D rigs used in the filmmaking, carrying both Arri Alexa and Red Epic cameras.

An estimated 200 hours of footage was shot in 3D during the expedition. There was also documentary footage such as helicopter shots that were lensed in 2D and converted to 3D by conversion company StereoD.

The specially designed micro cameras had to be able to film at the trench’s depth — meaning that, like every critical component of the sub, they needed to be able to withstand more than 16,000 pounds of pressure. (Incidentally, four Rolex watches designed to withstand the pressure also went on the journey.)

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“There no way to pressure-test it for [the trench's] depth," Bruno said. "The only way to do it, is to do it. There was concern. People tried not to show it."

Recalling when he reached the bottom of the ocean, Cameron said: "It got really quiet. Then, I saw a glow, and there was the bottom. … I just sat there and thought, 'Here I am. Seven years, and all that engineering, and all that struggle — and it worked.' "

"It looked like a parking lot covered with new fallen snow," Cameron said. "We’re talking pretty much the bleakest place that I had ever seen in the ocean." Other than tiny amphipods filing around in the water, there were no visible life forms. "Nature’s ability to adapt to this extreme pressure was so limited," he added.

His exploration was cut short by a series of mechanical failures, including the loss of the starboard horizontal thrusters and the hydraulics, and so he began his trip back to the surface.

"I promised Jim, personally, as a friend, we wouldn’t stop filming no matter what the outcome," Bruno recalled. "Jim told me his biggest fear was resurfacing in heavy seas if he could not be recovered. There was, I think, 100 hours of air in the sub for life support, but he didn’t want to need to be towed for recovery because there was nowhere to go."

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One scene in the film shows the crew trying to recover the sub in rough weather during a test dive. "It was out of control," Bruno said. "I was on a crane filming, and I was told the submersible came within three feet of me. The National Geographic photographer was ready to pull me away."

Unsurprisingly, Bruno related about the clips of when Cameron returns for the Trench dive: "There was nothing fake about that applause; it was a fantastic moment."

Looking back, he added, "I never realized the impact it would have worldwide. We were just happy he was back."

Later analysis of the sample Cameron collected from the trench contained the genomes of an estimated 20,000 microorganisms, of which more than 100 have been identified as new to science, the production reported. As well, one shrimplike amphipod was found to produce a compound that was already in clinical trials to treat Alzheimers disease.

An interview that I recently conducted with Cameron about the Deepsea Challenge, which was the keynote conversation at the 2014 3D Creative Summit in the UK, can be viewed above.

E-mail: Carolyn.Giardina@THR.com
Twitter: @CGinLA