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Going below and beyond

Times Staff Writer

Ever since filmmaker James Cameron made the blockbuster “Titanic” six years ago, moviegoers and studio executives alike have eagerly awaited news of his next movie. The Oscar-winning director’s new film is finally ready, and it’s about, well ... the Titanic.

But before every teenage girl dusts off her Leonardo DiCaprio poster and Celine Dion soundtrack, she should bear in mind that Cameron’s new movie is hardly a sequel. In fact, it’s a ground-breaking documentary, and “Ghosts of the Abyss” actually represents something of a prequel -- a look not only into the future of nonfiction filmmaking, but also a glimpse of how Cameron intends to make his next feature film.

A one-hour exploration of Titanic’s rusting ruins, “Ghosts of the Abyss” is the first in a planned series of digital, three-dimensional documentaries from Cameron and producing partner Walden Media. Among other ideas in the works is a documentary based on Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth.”

The $13-million Titanic documentary, which Disney will open in Imax and other theaters Friday, marks the director’s first step into 3-D moviemaking, a format Cameron does not intend to abandon anytime soon.

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At the same time, “Ghosts of the Abyss” also stretches the rules of documentary filmmaking, including re-enacting unscripted events.

“For a century, we have been watching movies in an artificial, representational style,” says Cameron, who first filmed the shipwreck in 1995 as part of making the epic romance. “And just because the style has been the norm, we have accepted it. But in fact, our vision is stereoscopic. So in theory, our movies should reflect the way we see the world.”

It’s easy to understand the appeal of added depth and dimension. In addition to Cameron’s planned 3-D feature about an undisclosed topic, director Robert Rodriguez is currently filming segments of his next “Spy Kids” sequel, due in July, with 3-D cameras.

While “Ghosts of the Abyss” features a couple of 3-D’s mandatory something-pops-from-the-screen shots, the technique rarely calls attention to itself. Instead, 3-D makes “Ghosts of the Abyss” truly immersive; you may be comfortably seated in a theater, but you might feel as if you’re deep under the Atlantic.

Cameron and his team have not eliminated the clunky glasses necessary to watch 3-D movies, but they have refined the technology to take stereoscopic cameras where they have never gone.

In this new documentary, those cameras travel into the ship’s staterooms, through its radio room, past its engines -- sights unseen by anyone since passengers and crew boarded the doomed vessel for its maiden voyage in 1912.

When making the feature film about the ship’s demise, Cameron’s art directors painstakingly re-created the ship as realistically as possible. That research proved particularly helpful in filming “Ghosts of the Abyss,” when Cameron sent two small, remotely operated cameras into the ship’s hull and down its hallways.

“I would say to my co-pilot, ‘OK. We are going to come around the corner, and we should be at elevator No. 1, and there should be a bank of three elevators,’ ” Cameron says. “And we would come around the corner, and there it would be, exactly the way it would be on the set.

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“It was a very strange kind of deja vu experience. But there were places where there just wasn’t any reference at all. Titanic sank after four and a half days of operational life. They thought they were going to have plenty of time to photograph the ship inside and out. So they just did a cursory couple of shots, and then they sank the ship.”

No human remains of the 1,500 victims survive; bones have been erased over the decades by cold water under immense pressure (the wreck is 2 1/2 miles below the surface). Yet material relics of the ship and the people who sailed on it are amazingly well-preserved.

Among the film’s more chilling discoveries are an unbroken, and upright, drinking glass and decanter in one passenger’s nightstand.

“That was a ghostly thing to see,” says actor Bill Paxton, who co-starred in “Titanic” as an explorer, and accompanied Cameron on several of his 12 submersible dives to visit the wreck. “And there are thousands of teacups in the debris field, and they all landed upright. It almost seems there is this eternal, ghostly tea party.”

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Paxton serves as the film’s Everyman, and as his cramped submersible begins one descent, he nervously starts worrying aloud over the tiny craft’s oxygen supply and batteries. In an otherwise somber story, it’s one of the film’s rare light moments -- and yet it didn’t actually happen as it appears in the movie.

Paxton’s scenes were actually restaged after the fact with larger, 3-D cameras on the deck of the Keldysh, the research ship from which the submersibles were launched.

It’s a practice many documentary filmmakers would scorn, but one Cameron defends, saying it was more important during the dives to deploy the 3-D cameras outside the submersibles, rather than inside.

“It would have tied up the camera shooting human reactions when we really should be shooting what’s outside the window,” the director says. “The dive time on the bottom is precious and goes by very quickly. So when we did [that filming] afterward, we just said, ‘Let’s do a bit about what you said there, and let’s do a bit about what you said there.’ Everything was in everybody’s own words. There was nothing that was written down.”

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Cameron also uses real actors playing historical characters in some flashback sequences, but those scenes are obviously scripted events.

Combined with the outstanding “Titanic: The Artifact Exhibit” at the California Science Center through Sept. 1, “Ghosts of the Abyss” provides a wealth of new information about one of the 20th century’s most intriguing tragedies.

“As you move into it closer and closer to Titanic, the level of detail and the patterns continue to emerge,” Cameron says. “The more you learn about it, the more you realize how many mysteries there are. It’s endlessly fascinating.”

And equally disturbing, particularly for some of the film’s participants.

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“I went for a swim one day, which is a very bizarre experience,” Paxton says of plunging into the water in the exact spot where Titanic sunk. “I was surprised how warm the water was. And it was a creepy feeling to realize there was 2 1/2 miles of ocean below you. And, then, looking at the Keldysh from a couple hundred feet away, you’re thinking, ‘What must it have been like to be in the water watching this ship go down?’ ”


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