"It still gets me every time...to see the sad ruin of the great ship sitting here, where she landed at 2:30 in the morning, April 15, 1912, after her long fall from the world above."
----- Bill Paxton as "Brock Lovett" in "Titanic" -----
Making it clear that he would not consider going forward with the production unless he could film the actual remains of Titanic himself, Cameron's team got to work. The filmmakers chartered a Russian scientific vessel, the Keldysh, which housed two of only five manned submersibles (Mir 1 and Mir 2) capable of reaching the requisite depths. Cameron's brother Michael Cameron was enlisted to deal with the many daunting technological hurdles that stood between Jim and his vision.
"No one had ever taken a camera that deep before," Cameron says. "The crushing force of the water would implode any normal camera housing. I wanted to have it outside in the water, attached to the submersible, but able to pan and tilt naturally and be able to use wide-angle lenses to get the most out of the shots. So we had to create a camera system."
Michael Cameron played a key role in this engineering effort. Working with Panavision and several submergence technology companies, an off-the-shelf 35mm camera was modified to fit within custom-made titanium housings on a specially designed pan-and-tilt, remote-operated platform.
Because of the limited volume of the titanium camera housings, the camera could only hold one 500-foot roll of film, and reloading was obviously out of the question. Each sub's three-man crew would also have to endure a perilous two-and-a-half hour journey (each way) packed in a seven-foot diameter crew sphere to reach the Titanic wreckage at the bottom of the sea. Because of such time and space constraints as well as the 500-foot load limit, efficiency became a critical factor in shooting the wreckage properly and capturing the best images possible. "Anybody who's ever shot their kid's birthday party on a home video camera knows that a half-hour tape goes like that," Cameron says with a snap of his fingers. "When you're making a 16-hour dive and you have to rigidly discipline yourself to shoot 12 minutes of film, it's a little scary." Cameron and his team held several planning sessions aboard the Keldysh to devise the optimum camera strategy.
"We had a little pre-visualization bay set up where we would take a little video camera," Cameron explains, "and mount it on a miniature submersible with fiber-optic lights that corresponded to the actual light we'd be using. We would do dry test runs of the shot in smoke, and I would get the Russian sub-pilots to move their toy subs the way they were going to move their actual vehicles so that they would understand the shots."
Cameron recalls, "I went there as a director, so when we made our first dive, it was 'Shot one, shot two, shot three.' We had a schedule to make. 'I want Mir 1 here and Mir 2 there.' It wasn't until the third or fourth dive that I let it hit me emotionally -- the awe and mystery of being two-and-a-half miles down on the floor of the Atlantic, seeing the sad ruin of this great ship." Cameron continues. "We sent our remote vehicle inside and explored the interiors. We literally saw things that no one has seen since 1912, since the ship went down. We've integrated these images into the fabric of the film and that reality has a profound impact on the emotional power of the film."
Following the dives to the Titanic wreckage site, Cameron took the film reels to the art department to begin construction of the models that would be used in the film. Much of the ship's interior remained in a preserved state of ghostly elegance. The director asked production designer Peter Lamont to recreate some of the specifics he saw inside the ship. Visible in the motion picture are such items as a bronze fireplace box Cameron photographed inside a suite, both as he saw it in its current state and, later, restored to its pristine 1912 glory.
In July 1996, the second leg of the film's journey began in a shooting tank located in Escondido, California. It is here where Cameron filmed the wreck's recreated interiors -- window frames, doorjambs, a light fixture hanging on a wire, even a brass door plate he saw in the First Class Reception that read, "PULL." "When you see the interior and exterior of Titanic in this film," says Cameron, "it is absolutely accurate. It is as close as you can get to being in a time machine, going back and being on that ship." As Cameron's expedition came to a close, "Titanic" could set sail towards principal photography, bringing the past and present together on screen. Its first destination was Halifax, Nova Scotia in Canada -- near the watchful specter of the legendary wreckage.