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Sunday, September 19, 2010

Wild Blue Yonder

James Cameron is preparing to dive to the deepest point of the oceans as part of research for a sequel to Avatar, his 3-D epic. He has commissioned Australian engineers to build a deep sea submersible which can reach the bottom of the Mariana Trench - 11,000m down in the western Pacific - after deciding to set the film in the turbulent waters of Pandora, an alien moon.
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The vessel will be fitted with 3-D cameras designed by Cameron so that he can take unprecedented footage of such depths and, if he wants to, fill it with digitally created monsters for Avatar 2.
The muddy, rocky Mariana Trench, which could swallow Mount Everest, has been visited by man only once.
In May 1960, a submersible called the Trieste took nearly five hours to descend to its floor. Its passengers, Jacques Piccard, a Swiss scientist, and Don Walsh, a US navy lieutenant, were able to spend 20 minutes at the bottom of the world. In the cold and darkness, eating chocolate bars, they were joined by flounder, sole and shrimp, proving that some vertebrate life can exist at such extraordinary depths.
Although remote-controlled vessels have gone back to the Challenger Deep, a valley at the bottom of the trench, no humans have been so deep again. However, Cameron, who reportedly earned $375 million from Avatar, has the money and passion to return. His obsession with the waters that cover two-thirds of the world's surface has been manifested not only in his blockbuster Titanic and a spin-off documentary, but also in his 1989 film The Abyss. Last month, Cameron spent his 56th birthday in a Russian deep sea submersible called the Mir-1, descending more than 1500m into Lake Baikal in Siberia, the deepest freshwater lake in the world.
Some 15 years ago he employed the Mir-1, one of only a handful of state-owned deep sea submersibles still in service, when shooting Titanic in the North Atlantic. Cameron told Russian journalists that he had come to the Siberian lake to draw attention to its pollution problems. He says his descent into the Mariana Trench would be a similar environmental mission.
“We are building a vehicle to do the dive,” he said. “It's about half-completed in Australia.” He hopes to start preparing for the dive later this year. Australian scientists believed to be working for Cameron have visited the San Francisco headquarters of Hawkes Ocean Technologies, which has been building a submersible capable of settling at the bottom of the trench.
The vessel was commissioned by adventurer Steve Fossett shortly before he died in a plane crash in 2007. He had hoped to launch it from his yacht, navigate to the bottom of the trench in two hours and spend at least another two hours there. The vessel could later have been used for salvage and further exploration.
Last week, Graham Hawkes, the London-born founder of the company, said Fossett's estate had sold the submersible to another deep sea enthusiast - not Cameron - so the original mission was not yet over. Hawkes said they were “six weeks away” from full tests.
“We are using lightweight but very strong carbon composite materials and other advanced technologies very different from the Trieste, which was a hollowed-out cannonball,” he said.
“We believe we have solved most of the technological challenges to returning to the Mariana Trench. The real trick now is to make such vessels lighter, cheaper and more attractive to industry.”

Cameron's new vessel is expected to be a two-seater, finned cylinder fitted with the latest 3-D cameras and a heating system largely missing from the Trieste.
Some of his footage from the depths may end up in Avatar 2 - which is not expected to reach cinemas before 2014 - or possibly in two other deep-sea adventures that the director is considering turning into movies.
Last month, when promoting an extended version of Avatar, he told the Los Angeles Times that in its sequel he would go beneath the waves.
“I'm going to be focusing on the ocean on Pandora,” he said. “The seas will be equally rich and diverse and crazy and imaginative, but it just won't be a rain forest.
“I think making another Avatar, or probably two, will not just be good business but also good for the environment because we want to get out the message about protecting what we have and making our world sustainable.”

(via The Australian: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/world/james-cameron-commissions-deep-sea-sub-to-film-footage-for-avatar-sequel/story-e6frg6so-1225919474515)

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