Deeply Obsessed
Credit: Photograph by Chris Buck
After all the hullabaloo of making Titanic was over, the Cameron brothers, along with a few friends, went to the Bahamas on vacation, on a dive trip to feed sharks. It was there that Cameron began to talk about how he was going to be able to see more of the inside of the Titanic (which, it was already obvious to him and anybody who knew him, would have to involve making some kind of new film).

What they needed was a much smaller ROV that could be launched from the submersible, one that wouldn't stir up the 90 years of delicate silt "as fine as cigarette ash" that had collected in the Titanic, and would be able to avoid the five-foot-long stalactitelike rust formations that, with no more than a bump from the camera, could crumble into clouds of red and turn the whole experience into something "like diving inside a bowl of minestrone."

The breakthroughs came slowly: building the vehicle's frame out of something called syntactic foam, the only known solid that's buoyant at a depth of 12,000 feet; using battery power for the ROV; using a much thinner filament to deliver control instructions to the ROV and download footage; overcoming the microfractures caused in parallel fibers at that pressure by suspending them in a thixotropic gel ... Cameron gets so excited talking about this stuff that soon you're nodding with near-thrilled agreement at each new ingenious solution. It's only later that you realize you have not even the faintest idea what a thixotropic gel might be.

Cameron decided to use these new ROVs – they built two of them and named them Jake and Elwood – to make an Imax movie about not only the Titanic but also the Bismarck, which sank 400 miles southwest of Ireland during World War II. Though Cameron would become as passionate about the Bismarck as he is about the Titanic, at this stage it principally offered a nice counterbalance as another deep-water wreck that had been discovered but little explored. When it was launched, the Bismarck was the largest battleship on the world's seas, and, like the Titanic, was considered unsinkable. But on its first mission, it was engaged by British ships and planes, harried, and – after a chain of events much debated by historians – sunk. Of the estimated 2,200 men on board, 115 survived. The film based on Cameron's new footage of these two wrecks would be called Ghosts of the Abyss. Before visiting the wrecks, he interviewed Bismarck survivors in Hamburg.

Then, in August 2001, he finally returned to the Titanic and guided the ROVs inside. His fantasy was becoming a reality. "That was a strange experience for me," he says. He had been through these corridors before, on the set he had built in Mexico. "I would turn a corner, projecting my consciousness into the ROV, and I would know what was going to be around the corner – the number three elevator on D deck – and I'd come around the corner and there it would be. And I had been in that elevator. Or a simulation."

James Cameron was at the bottom of the ocean at the wreck of the Titanic, on the ninth of his team's planned 12 dives, when a message came from the surface that something very bad had happened. It was September 11. The Bismarck expedition was postponed. Ghosts of the Abyss (which is now due in Imax theaters around April 2003) would focus on only the Titanic.