Revisiting Cinefex (39): The Abyss

Cinefex 39It’s a shame there are no books about the making of The Abyss. I hear the behind-the-scenes stories are as enthralling as the movie itself. Wait a second … here’s issue #39 of the popular visual effects journal Cinefex and – what do you know – all 80 pages of it are devoted entirely to James Cameron’s seminal 1989 underwater science fiction film. The front cover shows actors Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio inside Cab One, a fully functional prop vehicle built around a commercial Aquarius submersible. On the back cover is a close-up of one of the ethereal NTI puppets created by Steve Johnson. The two images sum up the extraordinary blend of heavy engineering and soaring imagination that is The Abyss. Hold your breath, it’s time for the dive to begin.

  • Dancing on the Edge of the Abyss (article by Don Shay)

Nowadays, it’s normal for big-budget films to farm out their visual effects to a number of different vendors. Back in the 1980s, this practice was unusual … until James Cameron made The Abyss. The film’s hugely ambitious effects roster prompted what Cameron describes as ‘the most intensely competitive effects bidding ever’, with ILM and Dream Quest winning the lion’s share, ably supported by Fantasy II and Robert and Dennis Skotak.

The beginning of a trend? Perhaps. For Cameron, it was the only way he was ever going to get The Abyss up on screen. Are we glad he did? Of course we are. While I’m one of the many who missed The Abyss on its theatrical release (partly thanks to poor marketing, at least here in the UK), I made up for it later, devouring the film on home video and elevating it first to the status of ‘hidden gem’ and soon after to the ranks of ‘one of my all-time favourites’.

The Abyss

The first 30 pages of Don Shay’s substantial article on The Abyss are concerned less with visual effects and more with the myriad hurdles director James Cameron had to leap just to get his production up and running. This was filmmaking at the bleeding edge, with Cameron’s ambition to make the ultimate underwater adventure prompting conceptual and technical advances in practically every area of the production.

rc39abFirst and foremost, he needed a filming tank capable of holding 7.5 million gallons of fresh water and equipped with filtration and heating systems. When no such tank was found to exist, Cameron came up with the idea of converting the containment vessel at an abandoned nuclear power plant in Gaffney, SC. Then came his need for diving helmets with on-demand breathing, built in microphones and earphones and big faceplates to make the most of the actors’ performances. No such helmets existed. So Cameron had them made.

The list of innovations goes on: full-scale submersibles, underwater filling stations for the divers’ oxygen tanks and, not least, a decision to unite experienced cinematographers Al Giddings and Mikael Salomon to create a team responsible for ‘upgrading underwater photography to a level comparable with studio work.’ Part of their work involved the deployment of underwater HMI lights, yet another industry first.

As you’d expect, Shay plunges into all this with gusto. He also a number of stories that illustrate just how far out on the frontier Cameron was when he made The Abyss. Like the way the tremendous water pressure in the main filming tank regularly caused parts of the inadequate plumbing system would explode like bombs, causing ‘a monster leak that sounded like Niagara Falls.’ Innovation? Yes. Adversity? Well, this is a James Cameron movie. What did you expect?

In general terms, the effects for The Abyss comprise conventional miniatures, dry-for-wet miniatures (enormous model vessels photographed on a smoke-filled stage), wet-for-wet (equally big models shot underwater), CG (an alien pseudopod made entirely of sea water) and puppetry (cable-controlled NTI creatures capable of manta-like swimming strokes and internally lit with fibre-optics). Highlights from each of these specialist areas include:

  • The dynamic down-angle of a submersible plunging into its launch well on the surface vessel Benthic Explorer, achieved in-camera by the Skotak brothers using a hanging miniature
  • The repurposing of the Krzanowski rig (a computerised marionette system created for Batteries Not Included) to steer miniature submersibles past a wrecked smoke-shrouded submarine under motion control)
  • The creation of radio-controlled, quarter-scale submersibles, each blazing with 3,000 watts of light (more than the average home) and so powerful that model shop supervisor Pat McClung describes them as ‘little underwater hotrods’
  • John Knoll using the very first iteration of Photoshop to stitch together his photographs of the Deepcore set, in order to create a reflection map for the computer-generated model pseudopod
  • Steve Johnson’s triumph in creating convincing alien creatures he describes as: ‘Clear and glowing and underwater – three of the hardest things you can possibly do!’

Shay’s introduction states that ‘virtually no effect technique was left untapped’ and it’s true. As well as the extensive miniature work, The Abyss also features optical effects using both rear projection process and bluescreen – some of it underwater. ‘No one had ever done underwater bluescreen,’ Cameron notes, ‘at least to my knowledge.’ He adds, ‘Some of the shots were hideously complicated to boot.’

‘Hideously complicated’ just about sums it up. Take those little hotrod submarines. The need to have the RC operators underwater meant waterproof joysticks (another first). Cameron’s need for speed led to the development of bespoke thrusters each capable of an astonishing 150lb of thrust. All those lights needed 120lb of onboard nicad batteries. No wonder each vehicle weighed in at a hefty 450lb. Yet, according to McClung, ‘they could practically breach themselves out of the water.’

Part of the story of 1980s visual effects is the emergence of digital imagery. The Abyss is widely regarded as one of the milestones in the field. Happily, Cinefex gives us a good insight into the process involved in creating the famous pseudopod sequence. Compared to previous articles about CG, there’s a sense here that the technology is more or less up and running, and that it was just waiting for someone like Cameron to come along and give it a reason to do something amazing.

That’s not to say Dennis Muren’s team at ILM didn’t break new ground in bringing the water tentacle to life. As important as writing new code and advancing the art of both animation and rendering was the need to convince Cameron they could respond to his direction in a timely fashion. According to ILM’s CG department cosupervisor Douglas Kay, an initial proof-of-concept sequence produced by Muren ‘s team at short notice helped the director ‘relieve his concerns over the reputation computer graphics has for being slow and noninteractive.’

Given the technology of the day, ‘interaction’ meant ILM sending rough videotape composites back and forth between ILM’s Marin County base and Los Angeles. ‘[Cameron] had a videoprinter,’ says CG supervisor Jay Riddle, ‘and could take a picture off the tape and then draw a modification … and fax it back up to us.’

How quaint.

Shay’s article concludes by breaking down a key deleted sequence in which a series of 2,000-foot waves threaten coastal population centres around the world. The sequence (which has since been restored in the Special Edition) was cut from the theatrical release in order to keep the running length down, but I agree with Cameron when he argues that ‘the film works fine without it’. By that point in the story, we the audience are so invested in the characters that we don’t really care about the rest of the world. We just want to know if Bud’s going to make it back to the surface alive.

Even more than the film’s technical achievements, it’s this focus on character relationships that marks The Abyss as a major step in Cameron’s growing maturity as a filmmaker. Throughout his career, Cameron has never been content with simply making a film. Whether it’s turning a nuclear reactor into the world’s largest filming tank, constructing a full-scale replica of the RMS Titanic and then sinking it, or pushing motion capture and 3D to the point where he’s made an entire alien world feel believable, he just can’t help making waves.

Usually big ones.

The pictures

Shay’s article includes many, many behind-the-scenes photos of the film’s miniature effects, including submersibles, surface vessels and the Deepcore drilling rig itself. I like the wide shot of the stage on which the Skotak brothers are preparing to shoot the Benthic Explorer‘s crane being dragged off the deck and into a stormy sea. It’s an classic backstage image of a miniature shoot, with the beautifully detailed ten-foot model surrounded by lights, ladders, wires, wind machines and a diligent crew labouriously tending to every last detail.

Other good shots show fibre optics being threaded into intricate models of the NTIs and their other-worldly vessels. Best of all are the pictures of the Wonderworks Deepcore model being photographed underwater in the effects tank. The lighting is so gorgeous it’s easy to forget it’s a miniature.

Next … the final retrospective

This is the penultimate review in my Revisiting Cinefex series. When I reach issue #40 I’ll have covered the entire first decade of the journal’s publication, which neatly spans the 1980s, a period considered by many people to be a golden age for visual effects. I’ll be publishing  my last review – which will look at Ghostbusters II and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade – a few weeks from now. After that, I’ll post a final article to round the whole thing off. Kind of a brief look back at, well, looking back.

After that, well, I’ve no plans to hang up my VFX gloves just yet, but I do think I’ve earned myself a little lie down. As for what comes next … you’ll just have to wait and see.

Did you enjoy this Cinefex retrospective? If so, click here to read the others in the series.

3 thoughts on “Revisiting Cinefex (39): The Abyss

  1. Steve Johnson made a mini-doc on his YouTube channel about designing the NTI creature effects.
    [To watch this video go to YouTube and search for “Back Into The Abyss” – GE]

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