Director/producer James Cameron knows a lot about making movies that revolve around water after winning an Oscar for directing Titanic. He also understands the rapidly growing world of 3D filmmaking better than anyone else around, thanks to the technology that he helped create for his 3D masterpiece, Avatar. Those two credentials alone make Cameron the perfect person to help bring the new 3D film, Sanctum, to the big screen. The film, which opens on February 4th, is co-written by Andrew Wight, who based the story on his own near-death experience diving. Director Alister Grierson pitched the idea to Cameron on the set of Avatar and he agreed to produce the film, which used the Fusion Camera System that Cameron created for Avatar.
Richard Roxburgh (Legend of The Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole) stars in the film as Frank McGuire, a professional cave diver exploring the South Pacific's Esaala Caves. When his exit is cut off in a flash flood, Frank's team, which includes his 17-year-old son (Rhys Wakefield) and financier (Ioan Gruffudd), are forced to change their exit strategy. Now the crew must navigate an underwater labyrinth if they have any hope of survival and getting out alive.
Yesterday we were invited to Universal Studios in Hollywood to speak with the filmmakers and watch several scenes from the new 3D movie. We sat down in what can only be described as a "tour bus" and viewed the trailer as well as some additional scenes in 3D. The 3D looked good, especially against the practical backgrounds and in the underwater sequences. There is one scene in particular that is really cool, where you can actually see water bubbles pop off of the screen. After the screening we were introduced to the film's director, Alister Grierson, writer Andrew Wight and producer James Cameron. We had a chance to speak with the filmmakers about Sanctum, its cast, 3D and the true story that inspired the film. Here is what they had to say:
To begin with, can you discuss the 3D technology that you used on the film and how you were able to operate the large 3D cameras in the small underwater caverns?
James Cameron: The technology is exactly the same camera system that was used on Avatar, so it was 2007 technology. We hadn't had a chance yet to update it, but it was literally the same camera. Alister can speak more to how they managed working with the camera in such a small space.
Alister Grierson: It became clear very quickly, that it was very, very tricky. The cameras themselves were, for me mainly, business as usual. We asked people to stand in certain spaces and certain places. The trickiest part was how to handle the heat, water, and cold. Most of the time we had an A-camera. We moved the crane and B-camera, which could be used as a mobile camera or a steady cam. Essentially its business as usual, what slows you down is the number of people. There are more people on your team when shooting in 3D.
Andrew Wight: We just did what we needed to deal with so when we were designing sets and designing the production of the film we combined everything together. It isn't like we set out to do anything for 3D. We are making a story and we are making the best story on film we can. The camera just became part of it. At the end of it, if you are asking what cameras we were shooting with, it wasn't like, "Oh it's a 3D camera," it was just a camera and so you kind of get to a point where it is a part of the process.
James Cameron: 3D should be transparent from the actor's standpoint and ideally from the director's stand point. The camera team is working with a different set of tools than they are use to if they were shooting on film. So to shoot 3D you have to make the transition of shooting digital, HD or some higher format of 2K or 4K. There are no film cameras that fit in a 3D range in a meaningful way. Some DP's have an issue with that part of the learning curve separate from the stereo portion of it, but our DP made both jumps quite expeditiously. Alister came down and watched us work on Avatar for almost a week just to see what the problems were. I think they went into it with their eyes wide open about what the problems might be. They were very careful with designing the sets so they could have camera access. The handheld rig probably weighed 33 lbs. It is the range of standard tools but the issue is that because there are two cameras in it they tend to be somewhat bulkier so all the claustrophobics have a hard time being in tight spaces.
Andrew Wight: We actually did a lot of handheld work and we had a bungee system.
James Cameron: It seems to me, looking into the production from outside, the physical excides of the production was much more their concern than the 3D. You know, moving that much water around and doing it safely. Having actors that are climbing in harnesses because they are appearing in the movie to be climbing without a harness, but they are actually cabled in. But you know Andrew being a hard-core diver, he wanted to put the actors on for real and they all trained for it. So it seems there were twenty other things that were more difficult before you even get to the 3D.
Alister Grierson: 3D was really the least of our worries.
Andrew Wight: Very much so. We really had to go through weeks and weeks of learning, diving, climbing and all these other skills. Standing on the waterfall set having the water just being thrown at you all day. For the actor, I kept calling it "no acting required".
Can you talk about why you chose to make this film in 3D and where you see the future of 3D filmmaking going?
James Cameron: They knew if they wanted to make this movie it was going to have to be in 3D, that was a given. So once you get past those givens, it was up to them to solve the problem of how to do it. Truthfully one of the things that attracted me to this production was the challenge of shooting high quality 3D, live 3D, not converted after the fact, but doing high quality 3D on a relatively modest budgeted film. I mean, compared to Avatar, all movies are modestly budgeted. I mean this movie was made for $15 million compared to what Avatar cost. We didn't need that much on it. But the point was we are using the same methodology, same technology, and same aesthetic approach to stereo space and to how you manage stereo space. We created a good viewer experience, but now we're doing it on a more modestly budgeted film and one that had technical challenges that Avatar didn't. We didn't shoot one scene that had water or climbing or any of that stuff. In terms of where we are going with it, I believe there are going to be certain thresholds to it like when consumer electronic manufacturers bring to the market sets that don't require glasses. Right now you are seeing a steady increase. The market is growing in the number of networks, broadcast companies, cable companies and satellite companies that are investing tentatively or aggressively in 3D. It is increasing all the time. What we know is sports play very well in 3D. Obviously, cinematic, theatrical features play very well in 3D, but that is not going to be enough to feed the home market. The cameras are going to continue to get lighter and smaller and easier to use, more plug and play. They are going to continue to be more people doing it. Like, right now, we're seeing an explosive almost vertical curve in the number of people learning to do it and working with it. Like, I have a small company partnered with Vince Pace and we developed fusion cameras. All of our rigs are out all the time and we have to expand much more rapidly than we thought we were going to have to. We will literally be building hundreds of camera systems in the next year to service the demand. The number of screens has doubled in America. It has more than doubled worldwide since Avatar was released. I mean look there have been a lot of naysayers, people love to grumble and be negative about 3D. They like to say, "Oh well conversions hurt it and it's just a flash in the pan," but markets are trading on it so that's all bull. There were some dips, but they were dips in the growth curve. They never stopped growing. They continued to grow. I am excited about the possibilities of new technologies, higher frame rates in the theaters, better camera systems and higher resolution cameras. But I am also very concerned about the possibilities of bad 3D being done because people get into it and they don't know what they are doing. They are under the gun financially and they are going with the wrong camera gear. Then there is the possibility of seeing some bad movies come to market. I think these fast conversions that are done during post-production are still a problem. Some studios are still going to have them out, although most people have started to gear toward native 3D.
Andrew Wight: What we just demonstrated is that you can do it on a modestly budgeted film and do it well. It's not a compromise on the quality of 3D. Back to your point about where it is all going, when you look at cinema, there are lots of incremental steps. You got silent movies, black and white, they introduced sound, then stereo, then color, so they are all incremental steps and then we got 3D. If you start peeling the steps back, you start to understand how 3D is going to make a difference because I think you start to see things that are well executed side by side as we have done when we made the movie. We watched a lot of stuff in 3D and then we watched the same screen again in 2D and its like you turned the color off or you turned the sound off. So once you get use to it I think the audiences and the public will want more of it.
Andrew, the film is actually based on true events that you lived through, can you talk about that experience and how it inspired you to write this film?
Andrew Wight: I was leading a cave diving expedition in Western Australia a few years ago now, and we were exploring the under water cave system. On the last day of the expedition it was pouring rain on all of our equipment and most of the people were engaged in that activity. I was on an edge filling tanks up. A freak storm hit the area and what started as a trickle of water into the cave turned into a torrent, which then started to collapse the entrance of the cave. Literally a boulder the size of an SUV was rolling down into the cave. You could hear the clatter of scuba tanks banging against the walls and it trapped initially fifteen of us below, myself included. I managed to escape through the torrent after about five hours of just waiting. It got to the point where I thought, either we make a run and get killed in the avalanche or we stay here and get flattened like a pancake. So obviously the first option was a better one. Then it took another two days to get the rest of the crew out by exploring. So that was really the inspiration for this movie. Then to use that story, the real life drama of that, and put it with a fictional story that plays out so people can react to what it's like to be trapped. I can tell you, even if you enjoy the activity of exploring caves, to be trapped and not know if you are going to get out alive is terrifying.
James, "Avatar" was such a large scale film in so many ways, what have been some of the challenges for you producing a smaller movie with similar equipment and technology?
James Cameron: Here is the interesting thing; Avatar had so many broad visuals, if you will, that the difference in watching the movie in 2D and 3D is not that great. Because the more expansive the image, the less you feel in close contact with the objects and characters. So it is the intimate scenes in Avatar, where just a couple of people are taking, that was the most effective in 3D. Not the wide flying shots, the wide canvas scenes or the big battle scenes, so we knew that going in. The difference in experiencing Sanctum in 2D and 3D would actually be great because the 3D would constantly be informing you in the experience of watching the movie with the sense of claustrophobia. 3D works best in small spaces. If it is any more than twenty or thirty feet away it has very little impact up on a movie screen. So we knew the claustrophobia of the film and the medium in which we were working would work together really well to constantly give the audience that feeling. We have done test screenings and we have seen there is a pliable, kind of white-knuckle sense of anxiety watching the movie, which is exactly what we wanted to create. Usually when you watch a movie your conscious kind of floats about the film. 3D kind of sucks you in and makes it a visceral experience. I think 3D and this type of film go perfectly well together. The other thing about a survival story, you want the audience to project themselves into the characters and really feel physically present and then you just ratchet it up with tension.
Was it difficult to create the 3D effect of water drops falling in the caves?
James Cameron: You guys had to jump through some real hoops to keep the cameras dry and to keep the splashes from affecting the cameras. If you splash one lens and not the other it creates problems in the 3D, so they had to go to school on a steep learning curve to learn how to work in water, below water, and above water. I think the above water, just above the interface, you have a lot of water splashing and it is actually harder than under water, which is much more controlled. It is slow, but much more controlled.
Finally, Alister and Andrew, can you talk about the casting process and how you discovered the actors that you use in the film?
Alister Grierson: Well this is an Australian film and we have an Australian cast. We have a lot of the actors we really liked and in the end we settled with Richard Roxburgh. He is probably Australia's best known actor and probably known as Australia's best actor as well. Andrew and I cast the film in Australia. Jim at that time was involved in Avatar. We tried to send Jim our ideas and say, "Have a look at this guy's test, we think he is good at this role." We sent him Rhys, and Rhys was almost instantaneous. He was great. For the young boy role, we looked at almost every young boy actor in Australia and almost anywhere else. Really we looked at anyone around the world.
Andrew Wight: It was a tough one to cast because we wanted someone who had that youthful appearance, which could transform into becoming a man in the film, but old enough and had enough acting experience to give us the performance. So you kind of end up at a guy in his twenties who you want to look seventeen or eighteen.
Alister Grierson: Who ultimately is going to get to a spot where you believe he's a mature man. It was a tricky thing to find. It is a fascinating thing when you are casting, sometimes you just turn it on and the people are like, "That's the guy!" He was one of those guys. He was also really good in terms of ... it was really a physical film, a lot of stuff in binding and underwater. He had never scuba dived or rock dived before, and he learned how to do all that with our stunt department. There were scenes in the movie, where you would think this would normally be a stunt guy, but it is all Rhys. In fact, I was underwater one night and the understudy did the same thing and I said, "Hey, that's pretty average." Then Rhys did it. He got to a point where he was so much better than the trained people.