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Science Technology

Interviews: James Cameron and John Bruno Answer Your Questions 24

Last week you had the chance to pose questions to James Cameron and director John Bruno about their film, Deepsea Challenge 3D. We included some of those questions when we sat down with them to talk about the submersible and the movie. Below you'll find that conversation.
Samzenpus: When you donated the Dee Sea Challenger to Woods Hole, they sent us copies of some of the sketches you made and I noticed that they were on lined paper. Is your normal design process a little more formal, or do you subscribe to the theory that some of the best ideas start out on napkins and scrap paper?

Cameron: Yeah, I like drawing on yellow legal pads because I can use the lines if I need a straight line in the drawing. That helps me kind of orient the drawing and lay it out spatially. It's just a habit I got into 20, 25 years ago. From a technical perspective, do I still pick up a pencil and draw on a pad. Most of the artists that work for me now as designers on the Avatar films they just start right off in Photoshop, or whatever their drawing program is, or their 3D programs. I can't do that. I got to put pen or pencil to paper first, and then go through the evolutionary steps.

Samzenpus: You're a successful guy with a enough resources at your disposal that you could pursue any hobby or interest. What made you decide that you would build your own submersible and dive seven miles beneath the surface of the ocean?

Cameron: Well, look, I think people are looking at the two most visible points of data that are kind of rising above the surface of the white noise out there. Right? And that's sort of "successful filmmaker" and "dove to the bottom of the Mariana Trench." What you have to do is look at what's beneath the surface, which is that, that was my eighth deep ocean expedition in 15 years, and that there was a long, causal series of steps going toward that where I was supervising other engineering projects, building deep ocean robotics, deep ocean 3D camera systems, 3D camera systems for motion pictures for other filmmakers, like Scorsese and Ang Lee, and things like that. Doing exploration, working with the science community, working to converge the astrobiology community and the deep ocean marine biology community, which we did with hydrothermal dense dives back in 2002 and 2003

You know, I've only made eight feature films. That's not much in a 30-plus year career. So what else was I doing? It was all this deep ocean exploration and technology development stuff, so all of that converged to this project. In fact, the interesting thing is that I really took my filmmaker hat off, on this project, and focused 100% on the technology and the science, which is why I needed a director to really take the reins of that for me. That's kind of a segue to you, John, if you want to pick up on how you basically got it all dumped on your doorstep.

Bruno: Yeah, I got the 2:00 a.m. phone call from Jim. I wasn't quite awake, and he basically explained to me that there was a situation with them in Australia, and would I be willing to direct this film. Three days later I was on a plane on my way to Australia, in Papua New Guinea, with no prep.

Cameron: It sounds very ad-hoc, which it was. But for several years before that, the film was being made, and the building of the sub was being documented by Andrew White, who'd been my producing partner and expedition partner for a decade, actually more than a decade at that point. Andrew and I started working together in 2000, and he died in a helicopter crash on the day that the expedition was supposed to leave. Obviously, it was a deeply distressing and horrible circumstance and very sadly, ironic because he had worked so hard to put this expedition together, to get the money, to get the sub built and so on. So John had to pick up the pieces and drop into it, kind of air-drop into a combat zone.

Samzenpus: You kept your cards pretty close to your chest while you were building the submersible. Why did you try to keep it so secret and not partner with other organizations or companies?

Cameron: I just felt that a lot of people come out with a lot of claims and things that they're going to do. I wanted to quietly develop some of the milestone technologies like the pilot-sphere, and things that we were doing that were cutting edge. I wanted to be sure before I announced anything that we were actually going to be able to do this. So when I was doing the mix on Avatar, I was literally sitting at the mix and monitoring on my laptop via Skype the pressure-testing of the sphere that was taking place at Penn State University. I was parallel-processing everything in the background of making Avatar, and nobody questioned it, it was a perfect cover story. But we did plan it pretty close to our vest, and we also thought that there were other people out there saying that they were building subs, and I didn't want the media to turn it into some race that it wasn't. My goal was to foster science. In fact, I worked with one of the other entities, who had taken over the Virgin Oceanic vehicle. I tried to be inclusive, and we shared technology, and so on because I just believed that there's so little money going into deep ocean research right now that we need to support each other, and not compete with each other. But I knew that the media would tend to want to turn it into a race to the bottom, and I didn't.

Samzenpus: There's certainly a lot of that with space exploration right now.

Cameron: Exactly. I do think it's interesting that Jeff Bezos and Elom Musk and some other private entrepreneurs are doing the most interesting work in human space flight. That's pretty cool. I grew up cognitively in the 60s, with these huge government programs doing amazing things, like landing men on the moon, and the Viking landers on Mars and all that sort of thing, being done by NASA. I grew up with that paradigm. Now we're in an age that's 'post' all that.

Samzenpus: Speaking of government-backed space exploration, there are a lot of parallels between deep-sea exploration and space exploration, but there doesn't seem to be as much push, or at least not visible government push, for ocean exploration. Do you think that should change or do you think that private organizations can do it on their own?

Cameron: I think it should absolutely change. If you look at what's happening in the oceans right now, we're systematically, and I would say, without any conscience whatsoever, ruthlessly destroying the ocean ecosystem as fast as it is humanly possible to do, and at the same time, intentionally or unintentionally, not funding research to understand that which we are destroying. It's literally out of sight, out of mind. It's happening off-shore, its happening underwater. We don't want to know about it, we don't want people to realize, the collective "we" as a civilization; we don't want people to realize what they're losing.

I know from my travels, my research, the colleagues that I run with, that we're destroying the living ocean. The water's not going anywhere, the world will still have plenty of salt water, there just won't be anything alive in it. That's not an exaggeration. When you think about the fact that we've literally eaten 90% of the fish, of the apex fish, and the coral reefs may not exist as living ecosystems beyond the middle of the century, due to warming and change in pH, so-called ocean acidification. That's pretty shocking. The government steps up once in a while and blows its own horn and says, "We just did a marine-protected area in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands, that's going to protect coral reefs." No, you didn't because if you don't cap carbon emissions, temperature goes up, coral reefs die, even inside that little line that you drew on a map that says it's protected.

Samzenpus: From what it looks like, there's not very much space inside the submersible. Did you do any sort of physical training to get ready to sit in a tiny space for the seven hours?

Cameron: Well, part of it was sitting in it, which is a mental discipline, and part of it was getting into it. As we populated the inside of the sphere with the final configuration of all the instrumentation and electronics, it turned out that you couldn't get into it. It was a pretty funny thing because we built the sphere, we populated the inside of it on the test floor and the assembly floor and we oriented the hatch in the diving position, where the hatch is kind of down-looking. It was possible to crawl up into the thing to get into it, but when we put the sub on the ship you had to come into the hatch from above, now you're standing on the seat. It turned out not to be possible to transition from standing on the seat into getting your head underneath the control consoles.

John Garvin, The guy who fitted out the whole interior of the sphere, came to me, and he said, "Uh, Jim we have a problem. We just built this multi-million dollar sub and you can't get into it." So that's where the yoga paid off. Not that I'm that flexible, but I'm a lot more flexible than I would have been if I hadn't done a couple of years of yoga. I had to twist myself around, and get into a pretzel configuration to get... It's kind of like an upside-down crow pose. I had this fantasy that I was going to have this nice, cushy, gel-filled seat that was a nice, conformal padding. Of course, that fell off the bottom of the to-do list, and I ended up in utter agony for the last half of every dive. But that's just part of the mental discipline of it. Look, if you think about some of these long jet fighter sorties, where they're going out and they're refueling and doing these 10, 12 hour sorties in a cockpit that's smaller than that - there's a lot of people out there who just learned to discipline themselves to do that sort of thing.

How rigorous was the training, and was it enough?
by Anonymous Coward

Mr. Cameron:
I know you've had a long-time interest in undersea exploration, but you've been busy doing things like making films for much of your life, rather than (say) being a full-time submersible pilot. Could you please talk a bit about the training you undertook to control the craft? (It's all one *big* question, but it comes with some small ones -- Did you use a simulator beforehand? Are there differences in the control mechanisms between this and other underwater vessels you've used? How many hours did you practice either on-land or at easier depths first? Did the vessel react in the deepest parts as you expected it to, or were there hairy moments?)

Thanks for your insight!

Cameron: I was never really scared. I was more excited. I think it was appreciation before some of the big dives, in the day or two leading up to it. But that would manifest itself as a kind of real attention to detail with all the departments, launch and recovery, electronics and communications, all that. In terms of the prep, we built a simulator and we put the simulator sphere in a freezer, and we had a bio-medical monitoring booth where the expedition doctor would monitor all my vitals. John Garvin, who I mentioned before, was the leader of what we call the Sphere Internal Team, which was life-support, all the electronics and control systems, he's a cave diver, he personally would get into the simulator, and he did up to an 18-hour run inside the sub. So he actually has the record for being bolted inside the sub in a simulator run. We put it inside a freezer so we could study the heat flux, and what that would do to you, as the pilot. Hypothermia is one of the things that you fight in this deep diving.

The sub didn't have a heater. What it had was a lot of electronics, and they would dump waste heat and keep the sphere somewhat warm. But if you ever had a power failure where you lost all those electronics, you'd be sitting, essentially at about one degree Celsius. So we had to study the ways in which we would stay warm enough to survive, if we got stuck on the bottom. He did all that work for me, and then I would get in and do pilot training for a couple of hours at a time in a closed-in environment, on life-support. That training continued, when we were on the expedition. It's not apparent from the film, but a dive would take anywhere from 8 to 12 hours bolted into the sub. That would include time on deck, time floating in the water, then descent, bottom time, ascent, and then a recovery period, where they're out there looking for you and then getting you back on the ship. Then they unbolt you and let you out. In addition to that, I would spend two to three hours in the sub, doing run-up checks, where we would essentially like an astronaut, run through all the systems in the cockpit go through every single fuse, every breaker, every emergency system, power it all up, shut it back down, check all the computers, the gas analyzers, all that sort of thing.

I could geek-out on the technical stuff all day long because I love it. I was basically perceiving the world outside the sub, through four separate HD view screens, one of which was a touch-screen that was my control interface, and I had exterior cameras. So I'm getting all these video feeds on the inside of the sub. It was a very tight little cockpit, but I had really good spatial awareness from inside. But the accident, the helicopter crash, changed our schedule so much, and I spent so... Getting John up to speed on the film, getting the expedition rebooted, dealing with flying around the world, going to funerals, and just all kinds of crazy stuff. I lost a big chunk of my training period. I was training on the fly while we were on the ship, out in Papua New Guinea. I was taking that two-hour run-up check period to actually do some of my training. That turned out to be invaluable because the original plan was for John to get in, do the three-hour checkout, then I take his place and go dive, to minimize wear and tear on the pilot. But it turned out to be valuable on the job training for me to actually do the pre-flight myself.

Camera tech
by excelsior_gr

Was there any innovation in the camera equipment involved in the filming? Are there any special considerations that one has to make for filming at such depths?

Bruno: I had my 72 hours on my flight, trying to bone up on what the sub looked like. I knew the systems, the 3D cameras that were on the sub were basically designed by Jim and his team, and he was the DP. So I wasn't worried about .

Cameron: There was no film crew down there. It was a solo operation. I was like a one-man band playing the harmonica and the drums at the same time.

Bruno: Vince Pace was Jim's partner. Cameron-Pace systems had made lighter weight 3D cameras, beams for the red cameras. So they were easier. 3D cameras systems are fairly large. But these were a little smaller, and had to be moved around quite a bit. We had two rigs, one of those red systems was designed with an underwater housing. Then we had a couple of shoulder-configured rigs. And then we had a lot of little cameras that we would stick around, where we couldn't physically go because it was kind of dangerous on-deck. The Mermaid Sapphire was a survey ship, very large, but it had an open deck that was pretty packed with gear. The sub took up most of the space. And on that deck was a crane and winches to help lift and move the sub. So there were cables and wires crisscrossing the whole deck, plus the deck crew itself that had to move and guide the sub, once it was up, once it was lifted off its cradle over the edge; there was almost no space for us to be. Our launch-control officer, and my DP, quickly became my best friends because we had to figure out where we could go to film.

Cameron: Yeah, you've got to picture that you're on a ship at sea, and sometimes at a high sea state. You're picking up a 12-ton load, which becomes a wrecking ball if it gets out of control. It's stabilized by a bunch of tag lines going to wenches and so on. The sweep of where those cables, if they break, how they could sweep the deck clear of camera systems. But the story that you're trying to tell is about getting this sub into the water, pulling it back out of the water, and so on. John had the un-enviable task of trying to tell that story visually. I got knocked down once, when we were doing testing. I got slammed. I had a big bruise across my chest for about a month. So I had good respect for it. The thing is, on all the actual launches and recoveries, I was inside the sub. I was probably in the safest place on the whole ship.

Any surprises?
by amanaplanacanalpanam

What were you surprised by most in the course of this entire project, and in the environment at the trench floor?

Cameron: The thing is, we were dealing with a prototype vehicle. I went one meter below the surface. The second dive, I went down, I guess, it was 20 meters. The third dive, I went down 1000 meters. The fourth dive, I went down 5000 meters, something like that. The dive after that, I was trying to go down 8000 meters and I wound up having all kinds of problems, and you'll see that in the film. I wound up stuck down there for a while, then came back up and we fixed that. The next dive after that, I was going to the target depth, which was 11,000 meters. So it was a fairly rapid program of sea trials with a proto-type vehicle with 120 electronic systems on board. So you've got to expect failures.

The sub was designed with a lot of redundancy, and a lot of safety. So on the Challenger Deep Dive, a couple of things were happening. We were going deeper, so we were squeezing the systems harder, and also I had already dived 10 times. So certain things on the sub were already starting to wear out, like the seals on the thrusters, for example. There's always that balance between under-testing and over-testing. If you don't test enough, then you're unprepared. If you test too much, you wear out the machine. It's not like we had a whole other sub.

On that dive, what happened is about three hours into the bottom time, which was five and a half hours into the dive, I got saltwater into a couple of my thrusters. At that point, I wasn't able to maneuver properly, so I couldn't continue my horizontal exploration across the bottom. We had also been plagued by some hydraulic problems, and we had gone through our spares on our hydraulic valve packs, and that was on earlier dives. Then I had a problem with the manipulator arm where I lost function. Now, that wasn't in any way threatening to me, there was no safety issue with that. It just meant that my ability to grasp samples outside the sub just dropped to zero. So here I am, three hours into the bottom time with no ability to proceed forward and image new terrain and no ability to pick up a sample.I was basically pretty much useless as a doorstopper at that point. I was faced with a choice. I could sit down there and have my lunch and write my memoirs and run out my planned bottom-time of five hours, but that didn't make sense. I figured, let me get back on the ship. The sooner I get back on the ship, the sooner the guys can start the repair process.

I needed to go to London to a red-carpet premier of Titanic 3D, but then I was going to be back the next day. I figured I'd be back in three days and I'd just dive again. That's what was going through my mind. I wasn't down there going, "Whew, I'm glad I survived that. Thank God. Now I'm done, I can retire." I was thinking, "How am I going to continue this dive program, and get the science value that we came out here to do?"

Well, by the time I got back from London, I was back on the ship. The guys had pulled everything apart and they said, "All right. We're out of spares on the hydraulics, we've got these leaking seals. We need to get back into the shop and go through the entire thruster system." They said, "You can dive again, but you'll be plagued by the same types of problems." So at that point, I started to weigh the risk/benefit analysis. It didn't look that good because every dive is risky. It's risky for the crew on-deck, it's risky for the divers in the water, and it's risky for me in the sub. I thought, well, there's no point diving if I'm not going to get the science return out of it versus getting back into the shop, redesigning the thrusters, and coming back out. Do you see what I mean? That's kind of where we are right now.

What's next?
by Nidi62

First of all, you have done some amazing work and brought back incredibly interesting and, at times, (in the case of Titanic) haunting images. That being said, having reached the Challenger Deep-what do you plan to do next: do you want to return to the deepest part of the ocean, or do you find yourself drawn to a new destination(and what challenges do you expect to face in reaching that destination)?

Cameron: I assumed that once we showed everybody we could do it that the academic community would want to put together a program. That was our phase two plan. But at that point, I get back, and the next thing that happens is we're in sequestration, and all the discretionary funds for marine science get slashed and with all the budget cuts across the board, all the institutes and the national science foundations and so on, we didn't get that "big love" from the science community.

Now the sub is at Woods Hole Oceanographic. It's still functional. We could go dive in it at any point. It's the only existing vehicle that is functional that can reach those depths because the Nereus imploded a couple of months ago. But I think what's more likely to happen because manned vehicle systems are more costly to support, is that technology from the Deep Sea Challenge program will get incorporated into other vehicles, new-gen vehicles that are un-piloted, like AUVs, underwater autonomous vehicles, ROVs or some combination of the two, which they call an HROV, or Hybrid ROV. A lot of the technologies that we developed will get incorporated into some new-gen system. That's what I think will happen, but I haven't been briefed by what Woods Hole is currently planning.

I can always go back and dive the sub again, when I'm done with the Avatar films. Because my relationship with Woods Hole is, if I bring funding and we jointly set up a program, we can go operate the vehicle. At that point, I would be one of a number of pilots. We would train Woods Hole submersible pilots as well. We'd go through the same training program, and then we'd probably go on some kind of round robin roster to get our bottom time.
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Interviews: James Cameron and John Bruno Answer Your Questions

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