A titanic effort in 3-D moviemaking

James Cameron, producer and director of "Ghosts of the Abyss," shares a submersible with narrator Bill Paxton, at right, during a filming expedition to the wreckage of the Titanic in 2001.
James Cameron, producer and director of "Ghosts of the Abyss," shares a submersible with narrator Bill Paxton, at right, during a filming expedition to the wreckage of the Titanic in 2001.
/ Source: msnbc.com

James Cameron is trying to bring 3-D movies back into the mainstream with his latest Titanic tale, “Ghosts of the Abyss.” But this isn’t your father’s 3-D, with gimmicky plots and headache-inducing perspectives. Rather than reviving 1950s technology, “Ghosts of the Abyss” introduces 21st-century tricks that Cameron believes could well save Hollywood from its Internet nightmares.

The hourlong film, opening Friday, chronicles a series of dives to the long-sunken luxury liner, two and a half miles beneath the surface of the North Atlantic. Cameron has been there before, both literally and figuratively, during production of “Titanic,” the 1997 movie that earned him three Oscars. But this time around, the trip involves a whole new dimension.

“I got to go back and do all the things I really wanted to do,” he said.

To go where no filmmaker has gone before, Cameron and his colleagues developed a new digital twin-camera system, weighing a tenth as much as the old 300-pound 3-D cameras and equipped with a reinforced underwater housing. In addition, Cameron’s brother Mike designed two remotely piloted underwater cameras, nicknamed “Jake” and “Elwood,” that could drift through the hallways and staterooms of the ship and send 2-D video back through a fiber-optic cable as fine as a fishing line.

Sweetening the stereo
Filming the deep-sea adventure was just the start: The filmmakers fiddled with the digital footage, to add spectral special effects and sweeten the stereo imagery. In 3-D moviemaking, you have to worry about where the stereo images converge as well as where the images are in focus — and that requires more complicated image processing.

“You can change the convergence,” Cameron explained. “You can sometimes do little digital spatial warps to make it better.”

The final piece of the puzzle relates to projection in the theaters. “Ghosts of the Abyss” is being released not only to Imax 70mm theaters, where 3-D movies are nothing new, but also to standard 35mm cinema houses where 3-D films haven’t been shown since the ’60s.

“The 35-millimeter in a funny way is more historically significant, because it’s the first push from a major studio in a long time to put in major infrastructure,” Cameron told MSNBC.com. “Disney’s paying for it.”

The result? When you put on the polarized viewing glasses, it’s like opening a window into the Atlantic: Waves slosh out at you. The Titanic’s famous sunken bow juts out from the deep. Thanks to digital trickery, ghostly actors (the “Ghosts of the Abyss”) scramble through the wreckage toward you, just as passengers might have done 91 years ago in real-life 3-D.

Cameron isn’t above stealing a couple of tricks from the old 3-D playbook as well: Early in the movie, a clawed robotic arm is thrust in your direction, and a rope is thrown down from the upper deck of a Russian research ship in such a way that it virtually hits you in the eye.

At times, the effect can be a bit eye-straining, particularly if you look someplace other than where the camera wants you to be looking. But it’s a far sight better than the old-style 3-D movies.

“The one thing that I get asked a lot is, ‘Do I have to wear the glasses?’ ” Cameron said.

For now at least, there’s no way around the eyeglasses — although they’ve evolved from the ’50s-style cardboard cutouts into high-tech headsets. Cameron insists that the glasses have gotten a bad rap.

“The glasses in and of themselves are not the problem,” he said. Cameron contends that the headaches some people experienced in the past were the result of what they were seeing through the glasses, what Cameron calls “the eyestrain factor of the bad stereo photography.”

Cameron said digital image processing smoothes over many of the problems that sank 3-D movies the first time around.

“I think that it’s all doable right now,” he said. “I’m not sure it’s easy, but it’s doable.”

Beyond technology
Cameron insists that 3-D technology should serve the story, and not vice versa.

“Don’t do a movie that needs to be in 3-D,” he said. “Do a movie you were going to do anyway. The 3-D is a bonus.”

Portions of the upcoming film “Spy Kids 3D” are being filmed using the same camera system, and Cameron hints that Disney might be considering 3-D for future computer-generated animated features.

The director plans to take his own advice next year, when he shoots his next feature film using the same digital 3-D camera system. He’s keeping mum about the subject, although it’s rumored to be either a science-fiction tale or a historical drama.

“I can’t imagine going back,” he said. “I’m certainly not going to shoot on film again [as opposed to digital]. The question is, is it going to all be in 3-D? Is it even possible for us to create a broad enough base of projection infrastructure?”

Cameron clearly hopes so, and not just because he had a hand in developing 3-D technology.

“When you’ve got a camera that almost perfectly simulates human vision, and you’ve got a way to display that image on a wide screen in real time, now you have a way of utilizing the existing theatrical infrastructure in a completely new way,” he said. “Broadcast sports, pay-per-view ... think of the possibilities.”

The first time around, the film industry started making 3-D movies as a response to the perceived threat of television. This time, 3-D could rise again as a theatrical experience that home videos, DVDs and Internet file-sharing can’t match, Cameron said.

“You’ve got to get people to the theater based on having a spectacular experience,” he observed, “and I think that 3-D can help with that.”