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James Cameron explains science of Deepsea Challenge 3D

Film strives to balance demands of extreme ocean research with entertainment.

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Mark Schrope

Film director and explorer James Cameron leans into a simulator he used to train for his submersible dives in the Mariana Trench.

Only three people have ever made it to Challenger Deep, the deepest known point under the sea. The feat was most recently achieved in 2012 by the film director James Cameron. The rest of the world can now learn what one of the planet’s most extreme environments is like from Cameron’s latest film project, Deepsea Challenge 3D, which National Geographic Entertainment released in US cinemas on 8 August. They can also catch glimpses of what science looks like in a place so little explored that the potential for discovery is akin to that enjoyed by scientists a century or more ago on land.

“A general goal for the film is to inspire exploration, to inspire innovation, to make people realize we’re not done exploring planet Earth,” Cameron told Nature (see full interview below).

The focus for Deepsea Challenge 3D — which Cameron co-produced but did not direct — is the quest to build a submarine that can safely take a human nearly 11,000 metres down to the Challenger Deep, in the Mariana Trench southeast of Guam.

The film uses Cameron’s celebrity and personal story as a thread to pull viewers into the depths, but the endeavour also included a substantial science component. Cameron’s team deployed autonomous landers carrying cameras, baited animal traps and other equipment, in conjunction with submersible dives. They also fitted sample collection equipment to the sub itself. “He had a tremendous enthusiasm for the science,” says Erika Montague, an independent science and technology consultant in Alameda, California, who helped to operate the landers and to analyze video data.

The film chronicles several lander deployments and submersible dives at test sites near Papua New Guinea in unexplored portions of the 9,140-metre-deep New Britain Trench, in preparation for the dive to Challenger Deep (see 'James Cameron returns from the deep').

Cameron says that he would have liked to see more science in the film. But he says that although National Geographic was very supportive of the research aspects, bringing that science to a commercial market is challenging. “There’s a real danger when doing a movie you’re putting in theatres that it can become a little too much like an educational show and you’ve got to avoid that as much as possible.”

But the film’s makers did find artful ways to bring in pieces of science. In one scene, Cameron uses a conversation with a resident of Papua New Guinea who lost his home to volcanic eruptions as an occasion to explain the tectonic processes that lead to the formation of deep trenches. The goal was to make an emotional connection with viewers by showing the link between trench formation and events that have more direct bearing on people’s lives, such as tsunamis and volcanic eruptions.

“Trenches are so remote that people say, ‘I’ll never go, they won’t affect me’,” says Cameron. ”Except they do — when their effects start killing a quarter of a million people like they did in Indonesia.”

More science comes through in a scene in which the project’s chief scientist, marine microbiologist Doug Bartlett at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, is stunned by an unexpected load of huge crustaceans recovered from a trap deployed on a lander. Cameron explains in voice-over narration that the haul was later found to include four species that were probably new to science.

Sample-collection plans for the mission’s deepest dive were cut short by a hydraulic failure on the sub that plays out in the film, but Cameron managed to collect a small sediment sample that has enabled substantial microbial DNA analyses by Bartlett.

Science and exploration come together throughout the film with spectacular views of the deep-sea world. Little life is visible in the Challenger Deep, but during test dives at New Britain, Cameron focuses on deep dwellers such as an octopus, a free-swimming sea cucumber and a rattail fish that, seen in its environment, looks more attractive than its name would imply.

Deepsea Challenge 3D transports viewers to the depths, using three-dimensional cinematography as a tool to recreate as closely as possible the feeling of being there.

“He’s done a great service to the ocean community and to the public, by bringing all of this to light,” says Montague.

“Very few people on the planet think about the deep sea,” says Cindy Van Dover, a deep-sea biologist and director of the Duke University Marine Laboratory in Beaufort, North Carolina. “What James Cameron can do like no one else is make people aware that the deep sea is an extraordinary place.”

Titanic director talks to Nature

What kind of reaction have you seen so far to Deepsea Challenge 3D?

It’s been well received. At the press screenings it was well reviewed and there has been a lot of enthusiasm during the interview process, so that’s good. I’ve tried to steer the conversations sort of away from record setting and push the science research and technology.

What do you hope will come from the movie?

We’re already seeing it. Kids really seem to enjoy the film, and they’re enjoying touring the sub. It’s nice to see that spark among elementary students and high school classes. If even a handful of them go on to become engineers or oceanographic scientists — that’s a good thing. If the film does penetrate the public consciousness, I think the lay public will hopefully understand that we need to spend more money exploring this vast frontier. One message of the film that’s unspoken is that we need to understand the oceans before we destroy them — which we’re doing about as systematically and relentlessly as we can.

What was the loud sound during the 4,000-metre dive at New Britain?

I was 3 to 4 hours into my bottom time, doing a macro [a close-up shot] of an octopus. I was very absorbed in the task, and then bang, something sounded like a 22-calibre starter pistol next to my ear. You can see in the video I jump about 2 inches. I did a quick scan and there didn’t seem to be anything wrong. When we disassembled the sub later, we found the cause was an imploding airspace. It didn’t do damage to any active system. If the engineering really fails, it’ll happen at supersonic speed. Your brain won’t be there.

How did you first get interested in ocean exploration?

This goes way back to when I was a kid in the 1960s. On every front, we were exploring — we were going into space and heading to the moon, Jacques Cousteau was exploring the ocean deep. At the same time, I love science fiction and I thought I was living in a science-fiction world of infinite possibility. I wanted to be an ocean explorer and I wanted to be a space explorer.

At the age of 16, I had this epiphany that I might not become an astronaut, but I could certainly scuba dive. So I learned to scuba dive even though I was living 350 miles from the nearest ocean, in a little village in Canada. I spent as much free time and energy as I could, diving all over the world in parallel with my emerging career as a filmmaker. I closed the loop when I made a film about the deep with [the 1989 science-fiction film] The Abyss. Then Titanic was the transition point where I started doing actual deep diving. I really got bitten by the bugs of exploration and deep-ocean engineering. After the success of Titanic I had a little disposable income and I started to make documentaries. From my perspective, it was a very natural continuum. What I’ve tried to do with every documentary is make it a platform for scientists to participate.

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