Titanic Director Films Wreck in 3-D

Chad Cohen
National Geographic Today
April 9, 2003
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James Cameron has once again raised the Titanic.

For the hour-long IMAX documentary The Ghosts of the Abyss, the "best director" Oscar winner for the 1997 blockbuster Titanic, returned to the shipwreck via ingenious unmanned robots and deep-sea submersibles to explore individual staterooms and other interior spaces unseen since 1912.

Cameron had first visited the Titanic in the Russian deep-sea submersible Mir—one of only a handful of subs that can journey to these depths—in 1995. To capture the new undersea footage, Cameron and his brother Mike, whose company Dark Matter LLC specializes in deep-sea engineering and designer robots, spent more than three years developing the video-equipped, remotely-controlled "BOTS." Mike Cameron also designed a titanium housing that allows the custom-built 3-D large format digital video cameras—which were attached to the manned submersibles—to function deeper than any other camera system.

In the documentary, to help the audience visualize the Titanic in its glory, Cameron superimposed dramatic recreations of shipboard life over the haunting new footage of the ghostly remains.

For perspective on the challenges of adapting technology for undersea archaeology, National Geographic Today spoke with Cameron at his production company Lightstorm Entertainment in Los Angeles.

What was new about this expedition?

We had to create the technology from scratch because the remotely operated vehicles in 1995 couldn't explore [inside the shipwreck]. No one has done a definitive exploration room by room.

What is special about the ROVs [remotely operated vehicles] you used?

The ROVs [remotely operated vehicles] or "BOTS" are a miracle of miniaturization. Our BOTS, nicknamed Jake and Elwood, are battery powered and are controlled through about 2,000 feet [610 meters] of optic fiber, about the diameter of fishing line. The BOTS descend to the wreck site by hitching a ride with one of the manned Mir submersibles.

Most ROVs that function at that great depth are quite large, and it took three years of pretty revolutionary research and development to get them small enough to fit through Titanic B Deck window to be able to explore the different deck levels.

What is it like to operate the ROV?

The longest flight, and I call them flights cause it's like flying a helicopter, was seven and a half hours—and you are wrung out. If you don't fly this vehicle perfectly you'll hit rusticles, you'll silt out, you'll get lost, you'll never get the thing back. We spent some pretty hairy hours flying around inside Titanic.

How did you shoot at a depth of two and a half miles (four kilometers)?

Titanic is very challenging as a dive site because the ship is so big—over 880 feet long [270 meters] and impossible to see all at once. So we actually brought a second ship and used it to hover directly over the wreck and lower what was essentially a massive "chandelier"—with a 2.5 mile [4 kilometers] long cable—below the surface to light up the scene. This big three-ton vehicle was essentially a giant ROV carrying 12,000 watts of light.

What do we know now about the Titanic that we didn't before this expedition?

When Bob Ballard found the wreck in 1985, and when he first explored it in person in 1986, he sent their ROV down into the grand staircase and there was no woodwork left, it was just steel. It looked like all the wood had just rotted away. We now realize that an effect called buoyant lift had ripped loose the staircase while the ship was sinking. What we find as we explore deeper into the ship is that the paint is missing but the woodwork is still there. You can see the craftsmanship, the touch of the hands of the builders—the 14,000 Irish shipbuilders and fitters and carpenters who built this ship in Belfast back from 1910 to 1912.

Did you have a clear idea of what you wanted to see?

We [consulted] experts on the layout of the ship and built a 3-D database of the interior. But there was no way to prepare for what was going to be around the next corner. Our study is about documenting what the inside of the ship looked like really because it was never photographed—they didn't expect the ship to sink four and a half days into its operational life. All the photos are of the sister ship Olympic.

What relic stands out for you?

My personal favorite was a mirror, part of a wardrobe, and still intact after falling 2.5 miles [4 kilometers] to the ocean floor. The hull hit with enough force to warp steel and yet here's this mirror, unbroken. The mirror happened to be in the room of Edith Rosenbaum [better known as Edith Russell] who was notorious for traveling with all these trunks filled with clothes. In fact she didn't want to get in a lifeboat without saving some of her finery, so of course hers was the one whose mirror survived.

Did you find anything that adds to the historical record?

The Marconi room. The night before the sinking, the two Marconi operators were up all night repairing this equipment because there had been a transformer failure. According to the manual what they were supposed to do was just rebus it so that the backup transformer would carry the load. If they had [followed the ship's repair manual] they would have had half the signal strength and they wouldn't have been able to call for a rescue. Here at the bottom of the ocean is the forensic evidence that these guys did what they weren't supposed to do and that saved more than 600 lives.

How much creative license did you take in using undersea footage and the recreated scenes?

This is, to the best of our knowledge, what happened to these people. If a lifeboat was being launched in a certain position we had to make it fit because the wreck doesn't lie. And you know just seeing the davit for (the celebrated) Lifeboat One, it's there—it's like a monument to these heroic guys struggling at the last minute as the water swept over the ship. All of a sudden (the history) was real. First officer Murdoch stood right there. Second Officer Lightoller, when he was loading Boat Six, he was standing right there. Wallace Hartley led the band, which was playing light numbers to keep everybody happy, right there outside the first class entrance. It's almost like a strange kind of ghostly time machine. I feel like we're actually touching history.

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