"When you have the feeling that anything's possible, sometimes you wind up acting on it," said James Cameron in a wide-reaching interview with me a few weeks ago. We talked about childhood ambitions, his journey to the bottom of the ocean, how he applied his skill-set as a director to leading a world-class expedition and scientific team, where we still need more research on the effects of climate change, leadership lessons on guiding teams into the unknown, and much more.
On March 26, 2012, Cameron became the only individual in history to reach the Challenger Deep in a single-pilot vehicle, and the first person since 1960 to descend to the deepest place on the planet in a manned submersible. Achieving a depth of 35,787 feet in the Mariana Trench, Cameron's dive was part of the DEEPSEA CHALLENGE expedition, which was funded in part by Rolex and National Geographic and will also be the subject of a 3-D feature film releasing later this year, was the first scientific exploration of the Challenger Deep. Cameron documented the expedition in stunning 3D while piloting the uniquely-designed DEEPSEA CHALLENGER submersible, which he spent seven years co-designing and building.
Seeking to combine his two great passions—diving and filmmaking—Cameron, who is also an Explorer-in-Residence at National Geographic, has directed numerous feature films and documentaries that have broken new ground in underwater cinematography, beginning with The Abyss in 1989. In 1995, he made 12 manned-submersible dives to the Titanic wreck for his feature film of the same name, which won 11 Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, and broke the record for global box office. Titanic’s earnings have only been surpassed by Cameron’s 2009 film, Avatar, which garnered an unprecedented $2.8 billion worldwide.
Where did the idea to go seven miles under the earth actually come from?
When I was a kid, everybody was exploring in all directions—going to the moon, Cousteau under the ocean, all the humans-in-the-sea projects that were being done in the 60s. We were all going to live under water, apparently. It was like growing up in a science fiction world. So, as a kid, I felt that everything was possible. And then came my growing disappointment as an adult that we weren't going to Mars, and that we weren't living under water. It's like all those science fiction dreams didn't come true. "2001: A Space Odyssey" didn't happen, and won't happen for another couple hundred years.
Then there was a sense of "Well, I guess I'm going to have to do something about that." So I wound up building my own equipment, doing my own deep ocean expeditions—seven prior expeditions in all—and the obvious culmination of that was, "Let's see how deep we can go."
I was out diving the Bismarck wreck in 2002 with a small team of engineers, and we had just dived to 16,000 feet in the Russian "Mir" subs, and we thought we were big shots, you know. We didn't build those subs, but we had built our own equipment, our own small robotic vehicles that could work at that depth. We were building cameras, lights and robotic vehicles to dive to 16,000 feet successfully. We were just a bunch of Hollywood pukes. But it was working, right? We thought "Well, how would we go more than twice that depth, to the deepest spot in the ocean? Is it even possible? And, should it be possible in the abstract, could we do it?"
And when you have the feeling that anything's possible, sometimes you wind up acting on it. There was a small group of engineers there, and we batted around the concepts. I drew up a vehicle that had a vertical form-factor, that could go fast through the water column so that you'd have more time to explore at the bottom. And once an idea like that gets stuck in my head, I can't get rid of it. Especially if I actually think we can do it.
It's a bit of a curse. It's this idea that once you know how to solve the problem technically, you have to build it for no other reason than to prove that you were right. That started the whole thing in motion.
Once you convinced yourself it was possible, did those around you feel the same way?
Nope. Ron Allum, the sub's co-designer was game. But in the engineering and science community at large we knew we didn't have that kind of credibility. My thinking on that was, "We're not going to convince anybody of anything in the science community. They won't take us seriously unless we make some significant strides or hit a certain milestone." So I didn't talk to anybody in the research community until we had already built the pressure sphere, which is the hardest part of the whole vehicle, and until we had proven it in a pressure chamber at Penn State University at 16,000 pounds per square inch. When we could show the results of our pressure test—that we had a human-occupied vehicle or "pilot-sphere" that was capable of going to full-ocean depth—then they started to take us seriously. At that point, we were able to enlist Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Scripps Institute of Oceanography as science partners, and eventually we brought in the University of Hawaii and even planetary scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Clearly this was an extremely complicated effort. Did you yourself have to learn hard science to move the project forward?
There are two aspects to it. There's the building of the sub, in which case we were pioneering new advances in several areas: pressure balanced electronics, structural materials, fiber optics, cameras, lighting, propulsion, composite materials, and fluid dynamics. None of this stuff existed off the shelf. We had to develop everything from scratch to withstand the pressure, almost double what the other operational human-occupied vehicles were capable of withstanding. There was the issue of the material science—of what we were actually going to build the vehicle out of structurally—which is called syntactic foam. We had to develop new generations of materials that didn't exist before. So there was a material science aspect to it. So, yeah, I had to go to school on all sorts of new disciplines. But that to me was a given, it was the challenge, and in the challenge is the fun.
Then there's the scientific research aspect, which didn’t kick in until we were nearer to having an operational vehicle. At that point, we just got the best people in the world. Patricia Fryer, for example, from the University of Hawaii, leads a team that knows more about the deep trenches through acoustic bathymetry than anybody else on the planet. And she was on the ship with us, guiding where we dove, how we dove, what we would look for—that sort of thing. And we had Doug Bartlett, from Scripps Institution, who led the biology team, who ultimately identified 68 new species from our expedition's samples. And Kevin Hand, from JPL, who was looking at chemical energy sources for bacterial life that might shed light on the types of biological systems we might find on Europa or other icy moons in the outer solar system. We had a very solid science team, and our initial results were presented at the American Geophysical Union last December, and they were very well received.
I don't profess to be a scientist. I get the best people and then, of course, a lot of it just kind of rubs off osmotically as we go along. Not that I can speak with great authority, but I can give you the high level view of the research that was done.
Throughout this whole process, did you find that your skill set as a director was transferrable to leading this new kind of endeavor?
Absolutely. It's very interesting because the aspects of leadership on an expedition or in small team tech development are not that different from running the kinds of movies that I make. Especially Avatar, being an excellent example. Because Avatar was a small group of engineers, software people, animators and so on, forging our way through a new frontier where there was no rule book. There were no look-up tables for what we were doing. It was very similar to building the sub because we were so far off the map on that project as well. And, in fact, they were both going on simultaneously. I was building the vehicle in the background of making Avatar. So I would just take one hat off, my film-director's hat where I'm working all day long with a bunch of software engineers and animators, and I'd go home and I'd get on a video conference call with my engineering team down in Australia, and I'd be doing the same thing. It's all problem solving. From my perspective, it really boils down to project management—charting a path through all the variables to reach the right answer, and then building it and testing it, making it happen.
I also think there's an aspect of leadership having to do with leading a small group of people into the unknown where they look to you for a sense of "can we really do this?"
I think there's a part of it that's psychological, where you have to empower people. And the way you empower them is you have milestones of results, and when you can point to something that they've already done, and that’s unique and groundbreaking, it fortifies their confidence to go on. So I always believe in building in makeable milestones along the way, because there will be a point of deep despair. There always is, and possibly several of them, and that was also true of both projects—of Avatar and of the expedition.
What were some of the makeable milestones you had charted out that empowered everyone to keep going?
Every time they would do a pressure test of a new electronic system, or let’s say a thruster or the syntactic foam itself, and they saw that it worked, that it passed the test and that the results were good, you could point to that and say, "That's never been done before." And then of course on the expedition itself, there was the moment when we actually dove the sub, for example the first "deep dive," which was to 1000 meters. That's less than one tenth the depth that the vehicle was designed to go to, but it was an important milestone because it proved we could build a deep diving submersible in a class at least with the Deep Rover subs I used to own, which were rated to 1000 meters. Whatever hardships we faced after that, I could say, "Look, we've got a working vehicle. We're already players in the big leagues. Now we just have to solve the specific problems that are right in front of us." You go step by step. You break it up into small pieces. And you celebrate everybody's contributions to the small milestones along the way. Otherwise, the ambitiousness of the whole enterprise becomes overwhelming, and people lose hope.
I think you learn the psychology of leadership as you go along. I don't think I was born to it. I think it was a learned art for me. I think I was born to be an artist and an engineer, but I don't think I was born to leadership. That I had to learn the hard way.
It’s been just over a year since you dove into the deepest part of the known earth. Do you look back and think, was I really 7 miles below the ocean? Does it feel as surreal now as it did then?
I think there's an aspect of unreality to it because it's not part of your daily life and it seems so improbable, even to me sometimes. And so being able to walk over and tap on the sub and realize that it's physically real, that I didn't just dream that we did that, it's helpful. But on the other hand, I also remember in excruciating detail every step that it took for us to build the vehicle, get it operational, get it out there to the site, get it in the water against very bad sea conditions and actually do the dives. So, it's not like it feels that unreal. A year later, there's just this glow of pride, in a sense, on behalf of the team. It's not like I scaled some mountain or I whipped my dog sled across the Antarctic waste land—some heroic feat. I just got in the thing and dove it. There were some challenges in piloting it, of course, but the major challenge here was the engineering challenge—building the thing. My pride is not in my accomplishment. My pride is in the team’s accomplishment.
You talk about the engineering challenge being the backbone of the project. Can the new technologies built for this sub, and the research that surfaced because of the venture, be applied to other areas of exploration?
Oh, absolutely. That’s the whole point of donating the sub, and its constituent technology, to Woods Hole Oceanographic. I didn't want the technology to languish while I was making more Avatar films.
I wanted it to be injected into the marine engineering community because we're on the cusp of exploring this new frontier. So our breakthroughs in imaging, deep electronics, propulsion, battery systems and the syntactic foam—those are all things that people could use right away. Woods Hole, being the premier deep ocean exploration vehicle-builders and designers in the country, were the logical people to receive the technology. They are pioneers in both human-occupied and robotic deep ocean vehicles, so they were the right choice from my perspective. Now, that said, they then had to think about it: "Do we have the bandwidth, do we have the resources internally to bring all this technology into our system?". And I said, "Look, I can solve that. I'll just give you guys some money as a donation alongside the technology. That way you can fund the resources to absorb it, publish it, and essentially make it open source to the marine community," which was my goal. That was an attractive idea to them because they have a number of new vehicle programs that they can inject this technology straight into if it's appropriate. They're not dummies at Woods Hole. They've got their own engineering solutions, but this gives them more arrows in their quiver to solve problems.
The second you go below 6,000 meters and you get into the "hadal" realm, which is between 6,000 and 11,000 meters, all of your engineering problems are doubled. To withstand these crushing pressures, your wall thickness goes up and flotation densities increase so the vehicle can get very big and massive very quickly—on a log curve. Our engineering thrust was towards miniaturization: very small HD 3D cameras, lightweight lights, battery systems that were close to neutrally buoyant, among other things.
They can take all of that now and build small agile vehicles, a fleet of them, to go out and explore this continent-sized unexplored terrain down there at the extreme depths. If you think about it, you take all the deep ocean trenches in the world and they add up to a combined area the size of North America. It's an unexplored continent. And science has not been able to look there at all. I mean, literally not at all because the equipment didn't exist to do it, and what little has been done has all been at the Challenger Deep, because that's the spot that captures the most public interest. It's like the Mount Everest of the deep sea. But the hadal zone on Earth is vast. Only a thousandth of a percent of this dark continent has been seen.
We think we live in a post-exploration age, right? We've checked out everything. You can go on Google maps and see every square foot from orbit. I could call up a satellite photo of a place in the Amazon. That's true, except when you get to the ocean, which is two thirds of the earth's surface area. It's a vast volume, thousands of meters deep, and you can't see into it from a satellite in orbit for more than a handful of meters below the surface. You can look at surface currents and the surface temperature distribution and all that sort of thing, but you don't know what's going on down in that water column unless you put instruments in the water.
This motivation or ambition to conquer the unknown—to go to the deepest point in the ocean or to explore the vast territories of space—lies in yourself, Richard Branson, Elon Musk and others. But where does it come from?
You've just cited three individuals who have completely different motivations. Elon Musk, for example, very simple: he wants to colonize Mars. He's not screwing around. While he's interested in pure research, he has a grand vision for the human future in space. And he's acting on it. And man, he is amazing. It’s amazing that he's accomplished what he's accomplished. And nobody can say he can't do it, not now, because he's already done things that are so profoundly difficult, and that only governments have ever done in the past. He's already done the impossible, so who can put boundaries on what he might do in the future? So to me, he's the poster child of the private-public partnership. Because now he's got billions in NASA contracts, so he's actually doing it in a business model that's profitable, or potentially profitable.
Branson's doing something else. He's basically just catering to a bunch of rich people who want to go to space. And they're not really even going to space. It's suborbital. Suborbital flight requires only a tenth of the energy and velocity of what Elon's doing, which is orbiting spacecraft and bringing them back safely. And there's no research component. Branson's not interested in research at all. I've talked to him about this. He's just not interested. For him it's about a lifestyle and fun and all that. That couldn't interest me less.
The difference between me and Elon is even though I've gone out and developed my own stuff on a much smaller scale to what his investment is and his team size is—the difference is that I don't have a business model. There is no business model for this kind of development because there's no money in deep ocean exploration, like there is in space exploration. Space is funded orders of magnitude more than ocean exploration, which is appalling to me considering that the most important spaceship is Spaceship Earth, on which we're all crew. Our life support system, of which the ocean is an enormous part, is malfunctioning, and we don't know how to fix it. I'm just doing this exploration because I love it. There is no logical business model to this whatsoever from my perspective. It's not like there's suddenly going to be a market for hadal depth vehicles that's big enough to justify the expense.
But, on the other hand, our expedition had a huge inspirational dividend to the nation and to the world in terms of stimulating STEM education, for example. And it may stimulate government funding at a time when, with sequestration, everybody's pulling back on every front. We can't pull back from ocean research. Not in an age imperiled by climate change because the ocean is a huge driver of climate. We need to know how much of the heat goes into the ocean, how fast it goes into the ocean, how fast that heat flux down to the bottom goes into the bottom sediments and starts to possibly liberate methane from the clathrate formations down there. Methane is a huge and potentially very dangerous variable that could trigger a runaway climate scenario. We really need to understand that, right? Where's the carbon going? We know it goes into the ocean, but does it go into the water? Does it go into the bottom? Is it absorbed into the food chain? What happens to it? How quickly does it come back out?
The ocean drives or buffers all of these processes, and our climate models need to be informed by greater ground truthing. So this is the wrong time to be pulling back from oceanographic research. Of course there's been an enormous amount of good work done on these problems, but there's so much more to do and never enough money to do it.