Interview: John Bruno from "Deepsea Challenge 3D"

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A 3D documentary chronicling filmmaker James Cameron's diving expeditions in his Deepsea Challenger submarine.
August 7th, 2014

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?"

[‬chuckle‭]

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.‭

[‬chuckle‭]

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?

[‬chuckle‭]

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.‭