Photograph by Mark Thiessen, National Geographic

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On March 26, 2012, James Cameron piloted the second manned mission to the bottom of the Mariana Trench.

Photograph by Mark Thiessen, National Geographic

Q&A: James Cameron on How Filmmaking Drove His Ocean Exploration

The man behind The Abyss, Titanic, and Avatar talks about exploration and reaching the deepest part of the ocean.

The haunting creatures and alien seascapes in filmmaker James Cameron's latest 3-D movie aren't make-believe. They're part of his journey to the bottom of the Mariana Trench—the deepest part of the ocean—which the moviemaker-turned-explorer reached in 2012.

A film about his quest for the deep, James Cameron's Deepsea Challenge 3D, opens in select theaters August 8. It details details what drove Cameron to make the attempt, the obstacles his team encountered while working in remote parts of the world, and the cutting-edge submersible technology that took him nearly seven miles (11 kilometers) to the bottom of the ocean.

While in the Mariana Trench, Cameron filmed a seemingly barren landscape more reminiscent of an alien planet than of the teeming oceans of Earth. Cameron was also able to take a core sample of mud for scientists waiting at the surface before a leak in the submersible's hydraulics caused some equipment failures. (Read a firsthand account of his dive in National Geographic magazine.)

Previous test dives to the bottom of the New Britain Trench off of Papua New Guinea also yielded finds for researchers, including giant versions of shrimplike animals known as amphipods and potentially new species of sea cucumbers. (See "Scientific Results From Challenger Deep.")

The submersible Cameron used for his journey, the DEEPSEA CHALLENGER, now resides at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in Massachusetts. WHOI engineers transferred the cameras and lighting system to a remotely operated vehicle named Nereus in summer 2013 for use in the Cayman Trench in the Caribbean.

Cameron spoke with National Geographic last spring—in honor of the one-year anniversary of his dive—about his journey to the Mariana Trench and what drives him to explore.

Filmmakers explore fictional worlds on screen, yet you don't see many of them out exploring like you have done. Why are you different?

You have to go back to when I was a kid. I loved science fiction and exploring unknown worlds. I loved the things that were happening in the real world in terms of exploration at that time—this would have been in the '60s—the U.S. space program, the Russian space program, and all the various undersea stuff including Jacques Cousteau.

When I became a filmmaker, my third movie, The Abyss, allowed me to bring together my love of film and diving.

From making The Abyss, I came into contact with the real deep-ocean community, and I started to realize that this was something I could do.

When I started to make Titanic, we did our first expedition to film the wreck in 1995, and after that I was hooked.

Would you film The Abyss differently now that you've seen the actual abyss?

It's interesting—I made a lot of mistakes in terms of the accuracy in that film. I bent the facts to fit the story. I wouldn't do that now. I'd make it adhere more to how actual deep-sea work is done.

I was much more of a filmmaker then. I wanted to make a dive movie that looked like a space movie. I wouldn't do that now.

I've been to the real abyss, and it's much cooler than what we saw in that film. Abyssal depths only go down to about 6,000 meters [19,600 feet]. DEEPSEA CHALLENGER was designed to explore hadal depths, [which are deeper].

Why does the ocean fascinate you? Why not outer space?

They both do. I love space exploration as well. But the difference between space exploration and ocean exploration—whether it's the shallow diving on scuba or deep-diving stuff I do now—ocean exploration is something I can do.

There's not a firm line between science fiction and reality [for me]—it's a continuum. The more I can step over that line and see the alien world that we have on Earth, the more exciting it is.

Did you ever want to become a scientist or engineer when you were younger? Or has your interest in these fields come later in life?

When I was in college, I saw myself on a science track. I started out in marine biology, then switched to astrophysics—but my math wasn't strong enough. I eventually wound up drifting into storytelling.

As a filmmaker, it was a really technical medium, and it really satisfied my desires to work with technology. But the one thing it didn't satisfy was my desire to explore the natural world. Ultimately, that bubbled up to the surface in later years.

Do you want to do more dives in the sub yourself?

Very much so. Phase one was sea trials and proving the sub could dive to the deepest ocean depths. And we wanted to do some science along the way, and we enlisted several organizations to help us.

The second phase was to broaden the scope of our investigations—to bring on more instruments and capabilities. Phase two is still under discussion—we're looking for funding.

Will we see things based on deep-sea animals in forthcoming Avatar movies?

It's a possibility.