Interview: John Bruno from "Deepsea Challenge 3D"
John Bruno has been one of James Cameron’s go to for special effects with movies like “Titanic” under his belt. John has even won the Academy Award in 1990 for Best Effects, Visual Effects for “The Abyss”. He has also worked on movies like “Avatar" and 2014‘s “Hercules". He has recently worked with James Cameron in a different way than he has in the past. John has directed the new film “James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge 3D” where he helps us follow James to the depths of the Mariana trench . The Movie Network had the wonderful opportunity to sit with John and talk all about this new film.
Nick Leyland from The Movie Network: One of my first questions for you is... I've been seeing that sometimes it's called Deepsea Challenge 3D and sometimes it's called James Cameron's Deepsea Challenge 3D. Which one is it?
John Bruno: The official title is James Cameron's Deepsea Challenge in 3D. It's a National Geographic film; it's not a James Cameron production.
TMN: I can't wait to see the film because I love these oceanic adventures. And one thing, I think, audiences and people like me wanna know is that, is it more of a story about the adventure to get to the bottom, or about the adventure of the diver, or more about views from the bottom and things like that?
John Bruno: All of those. Initially, I mean, I came on board to document the event. This is a historical event; once in a lifetime opportunity; something that hadn't been attempted in 52 years, and done by private individuals and not a government. The original Trieste dive was the United States Navy. So, this was Jim going down in a sub designed by him and Ron Allum and a bunch of crazy Australians. It was great. So for me, there was a bit of adventure, but the story, initially when we started, was to document this thing. And on a technical level, I had to learn everything about the sub; I had to learn the crew. Because the expedition was underway the day I was on it, the day I started. Was I gonna follow a script? I mean, the interesting thing about documentaries is you don't know the outcome. If you do a studio production, you know where it's going. You have the ending, it's written, it's been figured out, it's been plotted and planned. This is like, "I don't know the outcome." And all I did with Jim was say, "I'm gonna follow this no matter what happens, good or bad. And I'm gonna do it to the best of my ability, 'cause it's just a fantastic endeavor."
The story would show itself as we go, so it is sort of a real life adventure. It is about the construction of the sub. It is about the dive. But it also then became a personal story about Jim, and I had a 25-year plus relationship with Jim Cameron. We worked together a lot. We know each other really well. During this adventure or during this scientific attempt, because it was about science, there were scientists on board to, I knew the back story of his career and a lot of his life, and if need be, I could bring that into the story and I knew what to ask. I knew who to ask and what to ask.
So the film evolved into what it is now, which is kind of... I feel a story about character and achievement and drive, not only by Jim, but on the people who built this sub. The Australian crew were desperate to make sure that nothing happened to him, they worked endless hours. They would never stop working. And it just evolved into this really interesting story which turned out well, but we didn't know that. We didn't know the ending.
TMN: He was in grave danger really, and I guess, you guys probably just crossed your fingers the whole time, huh? If he didn't make it to the bottom, do you think you still would have made the documentary?
John Bruno: I promised him I'd do it. I said even if it ends up to be a forensic document of what happened... Of what went wrong. I mean, we would make it. Oh, yeah, we were committed.
And that's what a documentary crew is supposed to do. You're there to find the truth, and uncover the truth.
TMN: So, tell me about when you first saw the vessel. Was it like it was something out of a Jules Verne novel or something?
John Bruno: I have to tell you, it was painted. When I first saw this thing it was Kawasaki racing green. It looked like a spaceship. I fell in love with this thing. The sub had polymer clear panels on the side, so you could see all the batteries were exposed. And when they were working, all the lights were on. And so, it would give our launch control officer, Dave Witherspoon, in a quick glance, could see if everything was operational. But it looks fantastic and it operates differently than regular submarines. Regular submarines move horizontally through the water, and drop horizontally to depth. This sub was designed to be a vertical torpedo in this way. But it was spectacular in color, really odd in its makeup, and designed for the specific purpose of going to the bottom as quickly as possible.
We had a rider on board, Dr. Joe McGinniss. He referred to it as a gravity rocket. [chuckle] It just would drop. It was three times faster than, four times faster than the Mir subs. That I had the opportunity to experience diving the Titanic on two expeditions. They maybe descend at one and a half knots; this thing could go four or five knots, with the purpose of getting to the bottom as quickly as possible, so you'd have more time to move around and do science. The sub worked exactly as planned. I loved it, I loved it. It was photogenic; there's no bad shots of it.
TMN: Was your first impression to James Cameron, "So, you're gonna get in this and go where no one's gone before?"
John Bruno: Well, actually that's an interesting point because I didn't quite understand it because it's such a small thing. The interior of the sphere, the hatch it's 43 inches. That's how much room we had inside. Whenever he got inside to do his two-hour pre-dive checks, with John Garvin, they'd go through a major dive checklist, and then everything had to put in. Once Jim was in, he had to put his operational gear, and cameras and other equipment, in around himself, instead of pushing... And build himself, like building blocks, a little space where he was gonna work. He'd go in, then they add these other parts and this goes on your left, this goes on your right, and would just keep going, and the camera came in last. So, I could never quite see what's going on in there, and was trying to figure out how to photograph it. So, I did manage to take my still camera and reach up under John Garvin's arm, and take a still. And the picture that I saw, to me, I looked at that and I went, "My God, this is the Mercury Program." This is like that little capsule John Glenn was in that I remember from, as a kid, of seeing these guys in these very cramped spaces designed to keep them alive. And I looked at this and I went, "It's the same thing." It was kind of chilling. It was like, this is the space program, only...
He's not an astronaut, he's an aquanaut. It sounds silly, but that's the fact.
TMN: Wow, I don't even know if I could be in that just sitting on the ground for more than a hour, let alone 30,000 feet below the water.
John Bruno: Well, it was special, believe me. And we knew it.
TMN: Now, as directing the film, could you see what he was video taping down there, or did you just have to bring the cameras up and then put it together after that?
John Bruno: No, we had to recover whatever he filmed. No, it was not being transmitted. The only thing was being transmitted was his voice. In the film, there's a small 3D camera, very small, in front of his knees that's filming him, that could be moved around. But it was basically his dive log. He's documenting the whole time he was diving, what was going on. He didn't have room or a place to write, to take written information, so he just talked all the time...
Which is in the film. And somebody asked me if that was done in post. I went, "No, that's all actual dive footage. It's all his real conversations as the dives were happening."
TMN: Now, I have to ask you, too, because of all the skeptics that might be out there, you did win the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects. So, did you sneak any CGI down there or any fish of your design in the corner?
John Bruno: No, no, no. There was some reenactments, the reenactment of the Trieste dive or the shots of the Trieste descending, landing, moving at the bottom, and heading back up. There's a lot of graphics of how the sub worked, which is very simple graphics. And then there were a couple of the shots of the sub moving across the bottom. There's no way you could film full ocean depth.
There's some, the middle shots, everybody says were those real. The middle shots were done by an onboard system called "The Quasar", which is a very yellow, very large ROB that had 6,000 feed of cable, and on it had two manipulator arms. It was there to be the last sort of line of safety. So, anywhere two miles down, if Jim was in trouble, Donny Cameron, not related to Jim, could grab the sub and pull it back towards the surface. And then Jim got the idea of rigging that thing with cameras and it turned out to be the greatest film platform, operated from the surface on cable. There's the sequence in the middle of the film where he's, I think it's 4,000 or 5,000 feet, I'm trying to remember, first 1000-meter dive, where we would drop a lander, another science platform that was just dead weight. It would drop to the bottom on a timer and the weights would release them to come back, but it would do science. We'd have traps on it to collect animals, food traps, and water samples, and it had an onboard camera system that would take stills and lights. We dropped that.
It would have a transponder. Jim would find it, which is part of him learning how to operate the subs. Jim would go to it, find it, and then the Quasar would be lowered to film the whole event. So, we got footage of Jim moving across the bottom, of Jim approaching, Jim doing some work with animals, doing science, and that's all done with the Quasar. But clearly, at 35,000 feet, there's nothing that could film it. The submarine itself had a six-foot boom arm with a camera with pan and tilt capabilities, especially built by Jim's guys, miniaturized 3D cameras with wide angle lenses that basically filmed him landing. There's some really cool stuff that was done that way. But yeah, when we got to 35,000 feet, there's no way to cover that. So, there's a couple of shots moving across the bottom that are digital.
TMN: My last question for you is, you're the one of the first people to see the footage after he came back. What was one thing that stuck out that you saw that just blew your mind from the bottom?
John Bruno: Well, there was a couple of really crazy animals, but the one that made me think that this was science fiction, was there's some shots of the sub moving across a ledge, these eclipse phase, very creepy, and it's a Quasar footage, and it's following Jim, following the sub, out over this ledge and it looks... It looks like science fiction. [chuckle] It was fantastic.
TMN: Wow! I cannot wait to see it.
John Bruno: I mean, I don't know what people take for granted, but this was really, really hard. It was difficult stuff.
TMN: Well, we appreciate you making it for us, and I'm so glad I got a chance to talk with you, and I appreciate your time. I can't wait to see the film and hopefully all our audience is gonna go... It's out August 8th, right?
John Bruno: August 8th.
TMN: Cool. Well, thank you so much, John. I really appreciate it.
John Bruno: Alright, Nick. Thank you.