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Hollywood is abuzz about James Cameron’s groundbreaking movie Avatar: The Way of Water, but don’t forget the Oscar-winning filmmaker is also an avid explorer and innovator who is committed to protecting our oceans.
From his work as an explorer and a filmmaker — and now with a new multimedia experience Pressure: James Cameron into the Abyss that opened Monday at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County — Cameron aims to share a vital message that we need to protect the planet’s oceans. “We need to become guardians for the ocean, warriors for the ocean — all of us in our society,” he said.
Described by museum president Lori Bettison-Varga as a “celebration of exploration,” the new exhibit offers a fascinating look behind Cameron’s 2012 record-breaking, solo dive to Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench — the deepest place on the planet — and the centerpiece of the exhibit is the 12-ton, 24-foot-tall submersible that Cameron piloted on that dive. His was also the first crewed dive to film the seafloor and collect specimens at Challenger Deep, and sitting behind the vessel in the exhibition is a large screen that displays an 11-minute program incorporating images lensed by Cameron and his team on his expeditions, including 3D images from the Mariana Trench. (3D firm Liminal provides the screen and 3D glasses for guests.)
Additional portions of the exhibit delve further into the logistics and challenges of the dive — at nearly seven miles down, water pressure at Challenger Deep is about 1,000 times standard atmospheric pressure at sea level, and temperatures are just a few degrees above freezing.
Speaking at the exhibit’s opening ceremony Sunday night, Avatar producer Jon Landau described how Cameron’s work as an explorer is also reflected in their movie. “We are very excited to finally get to share Avatar: The Way of Water with the world, not just because we think it’s great entertainment, but because of the message that we believe the movie holds — the message about our oceans, the need to preserve them, the need to preserve the life that exists in them.”
He related that in the movie, the Sully family is “forced to be refugees and they go to the Reef Clan. The Sullys don’t really know about the ocean. So the audience gets to go on the journey with the Sullys to discover the oceans. … And they hear this poem (written by Cameron) about the way of water. And at the end of the movie, one of the teenage boys who’s struggling to find his own identity has learned the way of water and recites it, and just signifies the importance of water.”
Pointing out that 2009’s Avatar begins and ends with a close up of Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) opening his eyes, Landau added, “I view all of the Avatar films as a challenge to people to open their eyes and to understand that our actions have an impact on both people around us and the world around us. And there’s no more important part of that world around us than our oceans.” He said of Cameron’s exploration work, “If he can inspire one other person to explore the unknown, to learn more about our oceans, to preserve them for future generations. That’s more important than what we can do with any one movie.”
Speaking of their work at Challenger Deep, Cameron (who spoke at the opening reception via Zoom, explaining that he had tested positive for COVID-19) noted, “A big part of our responsibility is as storytellers, not just to do the exploration, but when we come back, to tell the story of the science and what we discovered, what we saw with our own eyes. Because of the human occupied vehicle, we actually get to physically go down there and bear witness. Of course as a filmmaker, I love the opportunity to light the place up … and photograph what’s there and find new life forms and bring samples back and do real science. For me, it’s not just about setting records, it’s not just about my own curiosity. It’s about enabling the curiosity for science. And that’s always been my goal.”
The presentation also provided a glimpse at next steps. Also in attendance were several participants from the Challenger Deep dive, including Ray Dalio, Maria Wilhelm and Patrick Lahey, CEO of Triton Submarines, the company that worked with Cameron to develop the submersible. Dalio revealed that he and Cameron have become investors in Triton.
They also talked about further education through the upcoming six-part National Geographic ocean exploration series, currently titled OceanXplorers, that was filmed last summer and will come to Disney+ next year. It’s co-produced by OceanX (Dalio’s ocean exploration nonprofit) and BBC Studios’ Natural History Unit. Exec producers along with Cameron include Ray Dalio, Wilhelm and Mark Dalio, who was also in attendance Sunday at the Museum.
“It’s an amazing program. We can’t wait bring to bring that to you on TV,” Cameron said of the series, adding that to make the series, “Ray basically enabled us to put together the very best ocean science and exploration platform, the ship the OceanXplorer, which is fantastic. It’s the Starship Enterprise of ocean exploration.” A model of the vessel is featured in the Museum exhibit. Cameron noted that this reflects the team’s “commitment to exploration, to understanding the oceans, to bringing back those images, to exciting people about what’s out there in the oceans. And all of that is a stepping stone to having people love the ocean … because you won’t protect what you don’t love.”
The 1,700-square-foot exhibit about Cameron’s dive will be on public view at the Natural History Museum through Feb. 20, and is free with general admission and to museum members.
When the exhibit closes, plans are to house Cameron’s sub in a new complex that will be built by AltaSea at the Port of Los Angeles, which CEO Terry Tarrinen described as a “modern blue technology center where we will educate and build the workforce of the future.”
Pressure: James Cameron into the Abyss was organized by the Natural History Museum and made possible by the Avatar Alliance Foundation, with support from Dalio Philanthropies and Rolex. Partners included National Geographic, OceanX and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
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