20,000 Stories Under the Sea
Four years after the release of his blockbuster epic, James Cameron is returning to the Titanic--literally.
The Oscar-winning director of the all-time box-office champion has been in the North Atlantic, diving from the Russian research vessel Keldysh to the wreckage of the Titanic once again. This time, he’s collecting footage for a 3-D, Imax-style documentary titled “Ghosts of the Abyss.” Hoping to answer questions about the doomed ocean liner that have haunted him since his initial dive to the site in 1995, Cameron has sent cameras into parts of the ship that have not been seen since its wreck in 1912.
The documentary won’t be released in theaters until sometime late in 2002, but the director’s younger brother is making it possible now for those with high-speed Web connections to see exactly what happened on the expedition. Earthship.TV (https://www.earthship.tv) is John David Cameron’s ambitious Internet venture, which launched its first broadcasts from the North Atlantic set of “Ghosts of the Abyss.”
Earthship brought 10 cameras aboard the Keldysh to observe both the filming of the documentary and the scientific expedition. Hosted segments with on-camera personalities, along with long, unnarrated shots of the crew performing its duties, were broadcast over the Internet live and unedited throughout the course of the expedition in September.
Those live broadcasts are currently being rerun on the Web site, but starting Thursday, Earthship will post weekly half-hour programs, editing and recapping the events of the expedition and airing new footage. For John David Cameron, the journey to the Titanic is the first step in making Earthship a truly interactive educational-entertainment experience, one that he hopes in the near future will be able to capture scientific adventures around the globe.
“The overall goal is to get out of the passive audience of the television interface of the TV and film world and to really get into the interactive, where the audience participates in what they’re watching, which to date is still done very tepidly,” he says at Earthship’s headquarters, in a small office building in El Segundo, near LAX.
The technology to allow a wide audience to sit in front of home computers and control the actions of a camera crew miles or continents away is still a year or so in the future, by Cameron’s estimate. Many of the discoveries James Cameron made in the depths of the Titanic during the course of the two-month expedition will be held back until the release of the documentary. What viewers can see now is the daily activity of one of the director’s film crews in action, something that’s close to a military operation in its precision.
John David Cameron is reluctant to discuss Earthship’s upcoming adventures, although possible projects reveal an eclectic if unfocused view of the site’s potential. A future slate could include an animated show and several possible projects with NASA, including an exploration of Mars. One thing is guaranteed: James Cameron’s continued involvement.
“It’s a James Cameron company,” says John David of his brother, who’s currently producing the Fox TV series “Dark Angel.” “Over the next couple of years, Jim will continue to spearhead what Earthship is doing. When he does his next film, I guarantee you’ll find Earthship on the set.”
Needing an environment to demonstrate this interactive form of Internet entertainment, John David Cameron and Earthship executive producer and techno-guru John Skeel approached James Cameron in 1998 to enlist his help. Yet when Earthship began its move forward, the Internet marketplace began its collapse. Even a content-driven site like Pop.com--with Hollywood backing from directors Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard--failed before its launch.
The environment was more hostile, but the Earthship founders were not deterred. “It imposed a discipline on us,” explains Skeel. “We looked around at what wasn’t working and found another way to do it. And that way was lean and mean and guerrilla-style.”
Earthship will have a presence on the set of James Cameron’s future films, capturing day-to-day, behind-the-scenes activity in great detail. But John David Cameron is adamant that the Earthship site will remain a strictly visual, immersive environment, without the editorial viewpoint. “All we’re trying to do is open an eye to the world and put it in a place that you can’t be,” he says.
One unforeseen benefit of the site’s unedited content was the ability to capture the crew’s reactions to a history-making moment: the attacks on Sept. 11. Archived on the site is the moment when actor Bill Paxton, an expedition crew member and star of several of James Cameron’s films, including “Titanic,” informs the director of the news. Cameron directed Paxton in 1994’s “True Lies,” which dealt with the possibility of terrorist attacks on U.S. soil.
It’s an eerie experience to see Cameron, who has just resurfaced from a 12-hour dive, react to a world dramatically changed from the one he left.
With the Earthship cameras (roughly the size of a remote control) placed at a discreet distance from the action, the playing-to-the-camera type of behavior seen in such reality programs as “Survivor” is absent. The director’s response to the news is simple: “You’re joking.”
John David Cameron, 32, is a former Marine who fought in the Gulf War. After leaving the service in ’92, he floated between various industries, starting an art dealership, a production company and writing computer games before embarking on Earthship. Soft-spoken and mild-mannered, John David Cameron is a sharp contrast to the reportedly abrasive manner of his oldest brother. This is the first time he worked with James in a formal capacity, but even his status as brother did not spare him from the director’s demanding nature.
“Jim deals direct,” John David Cameron says. “It doesn’t matter if you’re mom, pop, brother, sister, best friend or his most trusted cameraman. If you’re making a mistake, he’ll tell you.” Making Earthship a true family affair, middle brother Mike Cameron was also present on the expedition. Using his training as an engineer, Mike designed the ROVs that were used to plumb Titanic’s inner reaches. He has designed equipment for use on several of James Cameron’s films, so he is able to empathize with John David’s experience.
"[John] David was getting his first real exposure to what it’s like to work directly with the director,” Mike says. “It’s not always easy. As a matter of fact, I think he’s much harder on us as family members than he is on other folks that work directly with him.”
Mike and John David found the experience ultimately rewarding, but both agree that the family name can be intimidating to outsiders.
“Three Camerons on the same boat?” says Mike. “It’s a frightening proposition.”