James Cameron is internationally acclaimed for his film industry career during which, among many other things, he has produced the two highest grossing box office films in history: Titanic and Avatar. He has channelled his passion for diving into several works, and was awarded the 2004 Hans Hass Award for his contributions to science and technology. Leslie Leaney introduces our Pioneer of the Week:

Receiving the Scripps Institution of Oceanography Nierenberg Prize for Science in the Public Interest in 2013.

Receiving the Scripps Institution of Oceanography Nierenberg Prize for Science in the Public Interest in 2013.

James moved from his native Canada to California during his teens and pursued a career in the film industry, during which he has often incorporated his passion for diving. After making his international mark with 1984’s The Terminator, which he wrote and directed, he wrote and directed Aliens, which became a huge box office hit.

Aliens gave James serious Hollywood clout and he embraced the challenges of underwater movie making with The Abyss, released in 1989. One technical highlight, which interested divers around the world, was his depiction of a diver in a helmet breathing oxygenated liquids.

This was not just science fiction: A successful American research programme actually existed, funded by the USA’s Office of Naval Research, with Dr. Johannes Kylstra as its lead scientist. Kylstra had successfully tested the theory on rodents and dogs, following which commercial diver Frank Falejczyk became the first person to breathe oxygenated liquid. James was so impressed by a subsequent presentation by Falejczyk, he included the concept in his Abyss script. Several senior HDSUSA members, such as Bob Kirby, Pete Romano, Al Giddings, Ralph White and Emory Kristof were involved in the film, and The Abyss brought James to the attention of divers worldwide.

As filmmaking moved into the 1990s, HDSUSA Advisory Board member Andreas Rechnitzer consulted with James on an upcoming project that would make box-office history: Titanic.

James wrote, produced, and directed Titanic, and the production again included several HDSUSA members. Titanic received 11 Academy awards including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Film Editing, and is at time of writing the second highest grossing movie in world history, with receipts of $2,186,800,000.

Passionate about diving, James accepted the invitation of his friend Andreas Rechnitzer to join the Society’s Advisory Board in 2002.

James Cameron emerging from the single-seat Deepsea Challenger

James Cameron emerging from the single-seat Deepsea Challenger

With the record-breaking success of Titanic behind him, James’ next diving-oriented production, with Andrew Wight, was Expedition: Bismarck, a 2002 documentary produced for the Discovery Channel. Leading a team of explorers, historians and Bismarck survivors, James examined the nearly five-kilometre-deep wreck. Using the Russian MIR submersibles and presenting revolutionary production techniques and high-tech remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), James provided the first glimpse inside the Bismarck in more than 60 years. The movie won an Emmy in 2003 for Outstanding Sound Editing for Non-Fiction Programming.

In 2003, James again hired the Russian MIR submersibles and journeyed back to the wreck of Titanic to film and direct Ghosts of the Abyss. Using state-of-the-art 3D technology developed expressly for the expedition, James and his crew could explore virtually all the wreck, inside and out, as never before. The movie was made especially for IMAX 3D theatres and specially outfitted 35mm 3D theatres.

In recognition of his superior body of deepsea exploratory work, the Hans Hass Award Committee selected James Cameron as their 2004 award recipient.

With his hectic Hollywood schedule, it proved very difficult for the Committee to co-ordinate both a venue and time for the presentation. Fortunately, the Committee’s Executive Director had arranged for Professor and Lotte Hass to attend New York’s Beneath the Sea show and arrangements were made with the management for the award to be presented there.

As the world’s most successful film director, James was in very high demand, and closely followed by the media. To ensure his presence was as low key as possible, the Beneath the Sea management agreed no publicity would be given to the award or James’ appearance at the show.

Beneath the Sea fully honoured this and it was an extremely surprised and thrilled audience that watched as James Cameron took to the stage on Saturday, March 25, 2006, to receive the 2004 Hans Hass Award from Professor Hans Hass himself. Speaking to the sold-out audience, James thanked Hans for recognising his career, and mentioned his heart was with the thousands of divers at the show, more so than the Hollywood crowd he spent time with.

James and Hans Hass, New York, 2006

James and Hans Hass, New York, 2006

Among the headline speakers at the event were Ernie Brooks, recipient of the first Hans Hass Award, Hans and Lotte’s long-time American friend Stanton Waterman, the award’s designer Wyland, author and technical diving experts Bret Gilliam and John Chatterton, and Richie Kohler of TV’s Wreck Detectives.

Later, James joined the speakers and staff at the after-party where he was able to discuss diving, not Hollywood, with those who had helped make the evening so special – particularly Maria Hults, Bob Rickie and Armand and JoAnn Zigahn of the Beneath the Sea management team. Back at his Los Angeles HQ, James reconfigured his office to centrally display the Hans Hass Award.

The Russian MIRs were deployed again in James’ 2004 film Aliens of the Deep. James journeyed to some of the Earth’s deepest, most extreme and little-known environments in search of strange creatures. It is worth observing the detail in this movie, because what he discovered appears in what would become the world’s biggest movie box office hit a few years later.

Aliens of the Deep was the result of expeditions to several hydrothermal vent sites in the Atlantic and the Pacific. These are violent volcanic regions where new topography is literally being born and where the interaction between ocean and molten rock creates plumes of super-heated, chemically-charged water that serve as oases for animals unlike anything ever seen before.

Always preparing for the next adventure, James then planned to visit the deepest place on Earth, the Mariana Trench. Working with some team members from earlier movie projects, he developed the single-seat Deepsea Challenger submersible. On March 26, 2012, he became only the third person in history to reach the bottom of the Challenger Deep, at nearly 11 kilometres. Deepsea Challenge 3D, a movie of the dive, was released in 2014.

James continues to push his career envelope and is presently working on a series of sequels to Avatar, which include developing an ocean for the planet Pandora.

On April 14, 2016, during CinemaCon, James announced four upcoming sequels to the Avatar franchise. James said each of the four sequels can stand alone, but will together create a saga. His goal is to release Avatar 2 during the holiday season of 2018, then new films in 2020, 2022 and 2023.

His adventure continues.


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This article featured in SD OCEAN PLANET “Islands & Liveaboards Edition”, by Leslie Leaney