“All that cold blackness” | The Abyss (1989)

A United States submarine runs aground near the Cayman Trough, following an encounter with an unidentified object. With both Soviet submarines and a violent hurricane fast approaching, the crew of a deep-sea drilling platform are co-opted to assist a naval mission to secure the submarine. When the hurricane hits, and contact is lost with the surface world, the crew are forced to contend with both a paranoid commanding officer and the same unidentified alien presence that caused the submarine’s fatal crash.

The Abyss is the fourth feature film by Canadian-born writer/director James Cameron. It is a tense undersea thriller. ‘Nobody likes shooting in water,’ said Cameron. ‘It’s physically taxing, frustrating, and dangerous. But when you have a small team of people as crazy as you are, that are good at it, there is deep satisfaction in both the process of doing it and the resulting footage.’[1]

Cameron was certainly keen to accept the challenge, assembling a cast and crew of like-minded people and embarking on one of the most difficult film shoots of the 1980s. Costs overran, tempers were frayed, and both actors and their director literally came close to drowning in the act of making it. When released in August 1989, The Abyss did not entirely grab the attention of American audiences, but it has lingered on for years. It is easily Cameron’s most under-appreciated film: a smart, beautifully constructed blend of action, thrills, and science fiction.

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James Cameron started his career as a production assistant and model maker for independent producer Roger Corman. His directorial debut was the 1981 exploitation film Piranha II: The Spawning. He was originally hired as a special effects director, but graduated to directing after the film’s original director spontaneously quit. Cameron was himself fired before shooting was complete, after conflicts with producer Ovidio Assonitis.

He subsequently wrote a screenplay for The Terminator, a science fiction thriller that he intended to direct. After failing to sell the screenplay to any of Hollywood’s major studios – they all refused to allow him to direct it without additional experience – he teamed with producer Gale Ann Hurd to make the film independently. The Terminator was released in 1984, distributed by Orion Pictures, and managed to launch not only Cameron’s career but those of actors Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn. While produced on a shoestring budget, it ultimately grossed more than $78 million worldwide.

Following the success of The Terminator Cameron was contracted to write sequel screenplays to both Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) and Ted Kotcheff’s First Blood (1982). When offered the chance to direct both films, Cameron elected to focus on his Alien sequel (titled Aliens) and leave further development of First Blood Part II to its star Sylvester Stallone.

Aliens was an even bigger hit than The Terminator, grossing $131 million worldwide and receiving two Academy Awards from seven nominations. It placed Cameron in an enviable position in Hollywood. All of the major studios were keen to work with him, and to a large extent he was free to develop his own concepts. In the end he elected to stay with 20th Century Fox, who produced and distributed Aliens, and to write and direct The Abyss.

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Cameron started developing the storyline for The Abyss in 1985 while working on Aliens. He reworked a short story he had written when he was only 17, and had become fascinated by a report of scientists developing a breathable liquid for use at extreme ocean depths. He said: ‘I originally conceived it as a story about a group of scientists in a laboratory at the bottom of the ocean, which is the sort of sci-fi idea that appeals to all kids, I suppose. But once I had arrived in Hollywood, I quickly realized that a bunch of scientists aren’t that commercial, so I changed it to a group of blue collar workers and made the whole thing much more accessible to the average man on the street.’[2]

By the time Cameron came around to scripting The Abyss, part of its storyline – a broken marriage between protagonists Lindsey and Virgil “Bud” Brigman – unexpectedly reflected his own brief marriage to Gale Ann Hurd. The two had dated while filming Aliens and married shortly afterwards. By the time it came to developing The Abyss they had separated. By the time the film was released they had divorced. ‘The script preceded any personal problems,’ said Cameron. ‘The situation almost prevented me from making the film because of the scrutiny of my private life, which I protect. Then, I decided I could deal with it, as I am now. It wasn’t a big enough disincentive to making the movie, which I wanted to do.’[3]

While romantically separated, Cameron and Hurd retained a close personal and professional relationship, and certainly there was never any question that anyone other than Hurd would produce The Abyss. While Cameron busied himself with the film’s screenplay, Hurd produced another science fiction for 20th Century Fox: Graham Baker’s 1988 action film Alien Nation.

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The Abyss is based around the Deepcore undersea drilling rig, an experimental facility located on the edge of the Cayman Trough: the deepest point of the Caribbean Sea. While the facility was designed by engineer Lindsey Brigman (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), it is operated on a day-to-day basis by her ex-husband Virgil – nicknamed “Bud” (Ed Harris).

When the United States nuclear submarine Montana runs aground nearby, a navy SEAL team is sent down to Deepcore to mount an investigation into the cause of the crash and to secure the site from approaching Soviet salvage submarines. That mission is compromised by two unconnected occurrences. Firstly the SEAL commander, Lieutenant Hiram Coffey (Michael Biehn), succumbs to high pressure nervous syndrome and begins to suffer paranoid delusions. Secondly, strange glowing entities begin approaching the Deepcore rig: the same unidentified objects that caused the USS Montana to crash in the first place.

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The Abyss required two contrasting design aesthetics, one based around Deepcore and the other around the film’s mysterious ‘non-terrestrial entities’, or NTIs. To provide concept art for Deepcore and its associated submersibles, Cameron turned to noted science fiction artist Ron Cobb. Already a legend in science fiction art and design, Cobb had previously provided concept art for Alien, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Aliens. He had also worked as the production designer on Conan the Barbarian and The Last Starfighter.

Cobb was also the production designer on a film titled Leviathan, which posed a serious problem for James Cameron. When news has spread through Hollywood that he was about to direct an ocean-based science fiction thriller, rival studios had immediately put their own derivative thrillers into production in the hope of cashing in on anticipation for The Abyss. Leviathan, which was to be directed by George P. Cosmatos, featured an undersea mining operation that was threatened by a violent mutated sea monster. To avoid any accusations that his own film copied any elements of Leviathan, James Cameron worked out an arrangement with Cobb. The artist would not reveal any of his work from the rival film, but in return he would let Cameron know if any of the concepts being discussed were moving too close to what had already been designed for Leviathan.

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The film’s mysterious NTIs were based on designs by Steve Burg, Phil Norwood and Jean “Mœbius” Giraud. To emphasise their alien, otherworldly nature, Cameron decided they would be predominantly bright pink. It would contrast with the blue of the ocean, and it was a colour that did not appear too often among actual sea life.

Like Ron Cobb, Steve Burg came to The Abyss directly from working on Leviathan. He had previously worked as an animator and artist on Troll, Buckaroo Banzai across the Eighth Dimension and Robot Jox. Phil Norwood had previously worked as a storyboard artist and animator on Heavy Metal, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, Back to the Future and Explorers.

Jean Giraud was perhaps the most prestigious concept artist of the four. Under the pen name Mœbius he had become one of the most significant writer/artists in the history of French comics books (or ‘bandes dessinées’). So striking was his art that he had been working on Hollywood productions on the side for several years, including Alien, Tron, Masters of the Universe and Willow. The final organic design of the NTIs and their whirring underwater vehicles broadly reflected Giraud’s aesthetic and helped to make them stand out distinctly from the more mundane and industrial look of the Deepcore technology.

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Casting the film presented a unique challenge: given the rigours of shooting underwater in submersibles and diving suits, each actor had to be carefully screened for claustrophobia. ‘There were a few who fudged a bit,’ admitted Hurd. ‘We gave them the full picture of how hard it was going to be, but nobody ever believes you.’[4]

When casting the lead female role of Lindsey Brigman, James Cameron hoped to use Jamie Lee Curtis. She was unavailable, however, having just been cast in the lead role of Kathryn Bigelow’s thriller Blue Steel. It was an odd coincidence: since separating from Gale Ann Hurd, Cameron had started dating Bigelow. They would marry shortly after The Abyss was completed, before ultimately divorcing two years later.

Other actors considered included Kathleen Quinlan, Jessica Lange and Debra Winger. Cameron’s ultimate choice was Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, whose supporting performance in Martin Scorsese’s The Color of Money had impressed him. Mastrantonio was attracted to the role of Lindsey in part due to James Cameron’s earlier treatment of female characters: Sarah Connor in The Terminator and Ellen Ripley in Aliens. Mastrantonio said: ‘His women are not always written nicely. They get roughed up a bit, but they’re not victims. They’re smart.’[5]

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Fox executives were keen to hire a well-known actor to play Bud Brigman. Names discussed included Harrison Ford, Jeff Bridges, Mel Gibson and Patrick Swayze. Cameron, on the other hand, remained fixated on casting the 38 year-old actor Ed Harris. At the time, and despite receiving a Tony nomination for his performance in George Furth’s play Precious Sons, Harris was comparatively unknown. His highest profile screen role was as astronaut John Glenn in Philip Kaufmann’s 1983 drama The Right Stuff.

To convince those at Fox that Harris was the best choice, Cameron undertook a screen test with the actor – who wore a motorcycle helmet to simulate wearing a diving helmet. ‘He was Bud,’ said Cameron, ‘from the second he started to read. He had the relatability, the strength of character, the physicality to play a diver.’[6] On the strength of the screen test and upon Cameron’s urging, those within Fox relented and allowed Harris to be cast.

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The role of Lt Coffey was played by Michael Biehn. The 32 year-old actor had already performed for James Cameron twice: in The Terminator (1984) as time-travelling rebel Kyle Reese and in Aliens (1986) as Corporal Dwayne Hicks. Biehn was fiercely loyal to Cameron throughout the film’s shoot. ‘I would take a bullet for Jim Cameron,’ he told one interview, ‘and that’s true – I would.’[7]

Regarding his character, Biehn explained: ‘People always say, “Oh, he’s such a good bad guy,” but… Okay, here I am, I’m just this lieutenant, a guy who’s used to taking orders, cut off from my chain of command. Then I get the underwater sickness, so I’m not quite right, anyway. And then I have these people running up to me, yelling at me that there’s aliens in the water and they’re friendly. I mean, what would you do?’[8]

Agreeing to the casting of Harris, Mastrantonio and Biehn in the three lead roles represented a significant commercial risk on 20th Century Fox’s part. Wide-release films generally sold to audiences based on movie stars. Without any famous faces with which to market their most expensive production of the year, Fox was relying on the pulling power of James Cameron’s track record and the concept of the film itself.

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The film’s supporting cast was even less well known than its leads. Leo Burmester played “Catfish” De Vries. He had previously performed in a number of films including Broadcast News (1987) and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). ‘Shooting The Abyss has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done,’ he said. ‘Jim Cameron is the type of director who pushes you to the edge, but he doesn’t make you do anything he wouldn’t do himself.’[9]

Todd Graff played Alan “Hippy” Carnes, a character best remembered for his pet rat. ‘I loved that rat,’ said Graff, ‘she was my pet. […] She was born on the first day of rehearsal. She wasn’t like a subway, sewer rat. She was trained, knew her name, ate Ritz crackers. She loved women. I would go to the movies, to the dentist with her. She was a very cool rat.’[10]

J.C. Quinn played Arliss “Sonny” Lawson. He had previously appeared in At Close Range and Heartbreak Ridge (both 1986). Kimberley Scott made her feature film debut as Lisa “One Night” Standing. John Bedford Lloyd played “Jammer” Willis, having predominantly worked in television beforehand.

Despite its open ocean setting, The Abyss was always intended to be shot in controlled conditions in as large a water tank as possible. James Cameron said ‘we soon realised that we had to have a totally controlled environment because of the stunts and special effects involved.’[11] Malta was briefly considered as a shooting location, as it boasted the world’s largest motion picture water tank, but it was still not quite large enough for the film’s requirements.

The extensive underwater sequences were instead shot in a concrete containment tank at an abandoned nuclear power station in South Carolina. Construction of the station had been abandoned before it was complete. ‘There was never any radioactive material on the site,’ insisted Hurd.[12]

Converting the tank into an underwater soundstage was an expensive process, requiring additional structural work and the construction of both water filtration systems and heating. Approximately 28.3 million litres of water was used to fill the tank to a depth of 15 metres. When light pollution from above became an issue, the entire surface of the water was covered in floating black plastic beads to prevent the light from reaching the bottom of the tank. Shooting often adopted a night-time schedule, starting at seven’o’clock and running through until the early hours of the morning.

Lighting the underwater sets provided another challenge. There were simply no lights available capable of sufficiently lighting the entire tank at once. Two engineers, Richard Mula and Peter Romano, developed a 1,200 watt water-proof lamp at their company HydroImage, specifically for Cameron to use in the film. The lamp was so successful that it was later utilised in numerous Hollywood productions as well as in NASA’s training pool in Houston.

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Cameron insisted on his cast undertaking the underwater stunts wherever possible, which required each actor to undertake full diving instruction and certification. It also slowed down the pace of the shoot enormously. ‘I was in South Carolina for five months,’ recalled Michael Biehn, ‘and there were only three or four weeks where I was acting.’[13]

A professional diver accompanied each actor for every scene, to ensure that if there was ever an emergency or accident they would be able to immediately intervene. Actors never performed scenes at a depth lower than 10 metres: any further down for extended periods and they would potentially require decompression at the end of each shoot. Cameron’s 26-person crew dived deeper to arrange lighting and to shoot the cast from below. Such shots required each crew member to wait for two hours halfway up the tank before leaving while breathing pure oxygen from tubes, to avoid anyone suffering from the Bends.

Gale Ann Hurd was forced to fight with Fox over the purchase of hot tubs. The studio saw them as an indulgent luxury. Hurd saw them as a means of preventing actors and crew from suffering hypothermia.

Scenes inside the Deepcore facility were constructed on location at the same power station, both to save money and to for key sets to be easily flooded as required.

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Shooting inside the water tank necessitated the development of all-new camera housings that could fit 35mm film cameras and allow for the cameras to move from the surface to underwater while filming. Special frames were constructed for the cameras that blew two jets of compressed air across the lens during flooding sequences to keep them free of water. Entirely new diving helmets were commissioned from Western Space and Marine to enable actors to deliver their dialogue audibly while performing in underwater scenes. So effective and clear was the recording capacity of these helmets that Cameron was forced to add distortion sound effects in post-production to make them sound believable on-screen.

‘We did something never done before in motion picture history,’ said Cameron. ‘We had actors in diving suits speaking dialogue being recorded live underwater. The audience doesn’t perceive that as outstanding because we’ve seen twenty years of helmet movies and it has always been faked. It doesn’t even occur to people it was done differently with fabulous equipment. And it may not seem all that remarkable to you. But it was.’[14]

The film’s underwater photography was supervised by cinematographer and diver Al Giddings, who a decade earlier had undertaken the same task for Peter Yates’ film The Deep.

One of the more unusual challenges created by shooting the film at the power station was local wildlife. Since being abandoned in a half-finished state the facility had become overrun with feral goats. As set construction transitioned into shooting the goats continued to roam the area, chewing valuable equipment, climbing on set elements, and relieving themselves in the two underwater tanks.

Principal photography commenced on 15 August 1988, following a five-day delay caused by a near-catastrophic leak in the power station containment tank. While the tank was repaired, Cameron shot scenes inside a smaller secondary tank made from a converted turbine pit.

Unlike Aliens, which Cameron shot in its entirety before showcasing footage to Fox’s executives, The Abyss production was in constant contact with the studio. Raw footage was sent to Los Angeles on a regular schedule. Cameron said: ‘On Aliens, I was in England when I completed the picture. Then I showed it to them. I knew, if I took that approach on this film, they would be having heart attacks. So I showed it to them as I went along. I showed them scenes. I pursued them to keep them happy about what they’re doing.’[15]

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The film begins with the USS Montana cruising close to the Cayman Trough. Cameron’s original screenplay actually started a scene earlier, with the crew of a Mexican fishing boat noticing glowing lights underneath the ocean’s surface. It was also intended that the film would open with a caption quoting Friedrich Nietzsche: ‘…when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you’. When the same quote was used at the beginning of Martin Campbell’s 1988 film Criminal Law, Cameron dropped it from his own film rather than potentially be seen as an imitator. It was re-instated for the subsequent “special edition”.

The Montana encounters a fast-moving unidentified craft and, in the rush to avoid it, crashes into the side of the Trough and sinks with all hands lost. It is a tense and effective sequence, utilising a variety of smart practical effects. To represent the flooding decks of the Montana, the crew used a combination of old-fashion rear projection – a favoured technique of Cameron’s – as well as physically sinking sections of the submarine set into the large water tank.

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From there the film moves to introduce the Deepcore rig and its crew, in an effective series of scenes that not only establish key characters but also set up the film’s central storyline. A SEAL team is to be dispatched down to Deepcore, which will then move across the ocean floor to a position close to the Montana to allow for a recovery operation. There is a time limit, as a tropical storm is rapidly bearing down on the ship to which Deepcore is tethered by a massive long cable.

Dr Lindsey Brigman, who designed Deepcore, insists on accompanying the SEAL team down in order to protect her life’s work. This brings her into immediate conflict with her ex-husband Bud, who acts as Deepcore’s current foreman.

Ed Harris is excellent in this film. At the time he was still a comparatively obscure actor, and that made him immediately convincing as a very naturalistic blue-collar worker. He is an easy co-protagonist to whom the audience may attach, and provides a nice hot-headed counterpart to Lindsey’s colder, more slow-burn engineer. Both Harris and Mastrantonio work very well together.

There is a particularly nice touch in these early scenes as Bud, incensed with Lindsey after just one conversation, storms into a toilet and throws his wedding ring into the bowl. He then has a moment of clarity, sighs with resignation, reaches in and retrieves the ring. Keen-eyed viewers may note that his hand is stained a light blue for the rest of the film.

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As the SEAL team unpack their gear, one of them demonstrates to Hippy how they can use fluid respiration to survive diving in extremely deep, high-pressure waters. He does this by immersing Hippy’s pet rat Beany in the fluid, forcing her to breathe it in. Many viewers of The Abyss assumed the scene involved some form of mechanised rat puppet or trick photography. In fact the scene was entirely real. Not only was a live rat forced to breathe oxygenated fluorocarbon, the typical requirement for multiple takes necessitated five separate rats being immersed in a row. The close-ups of the process were actually shot separately to the rest of the scene, and some months later. As the fluorocarbon was a controlled substance, it was easier and cheaper to shoot it in California rather than go through the process of getting approval to transport it to South Carolina.

The first four takes of the shot went smoothly. Each rat was caged inside the tub of fluorocarbon, panicked, breathed in the fluid and relaxed. James Cameron personally lifted each rat out of the tub by the base of its tail, allowing the fluid to drain from its lungs before passing the animal to an assistant. It was then taken aside where a veterinarian would give it an antibiotic injection (the fluid tended to strip the mucus from the rats’ lungs). The fifth rat failed to breathe air again when lifted from the tub. Cameron quickly pumped the animal’s sternum and successfully revived it. This fifth rat he kept as a pet once The Abyss had completed shooting.

The scene was met with objections by the American Humane Association, which declared   the film ‘unacceptable’ due to the visible stress and panic the on-screen rat displayed. In the United Kingdom the scene was cut in order to satisfy the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), which raised similar objections. Both organisations were correct. While in nearly every other case Cameron’s dedication to presenting as realistic a film as possible is commendable, in this scene it has resulted in needless animal cruelty for the sake of a single shot. It could have been easily created using an animatronic puppet. Even in the scene as presented, it is remarkable how mechanical the real rat’s movements are. The moment where each rat defecated in panic was excised by momentarily cutting to Todd Graff’s shocked face – such obvious stress had no place in Cameron’s vision.

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A combination of SEALS and Deepcore personnel make the journey across to the wreck of the Montana. As the scene inter-cut between live-action footage of the submersibles and model footage of the wrecked USS Montana, particular care was required with the model shots. The model shots were produced ‘dry-to-wet’; that is, they were shot out of water but then treated in post-production to match the undersea look of what Cameron had shot in South Carolina.

Visual effects supervisor Hoyt Yeatman said: ‘The idea of underwater photography and dry-for-wet has been done in other films, but usually the effects didn’t have to intercut with live-action footage. The way The Abyss was to be done, we were going to have a tremendous amount of real underwater footage to intercut with effects shots of the larger vistas or of manoeuvres the full scale subs couldn’t do. The director, Jim Cameron, made it clear the look had to be identical – it had to be a seamless blend.’[16]

One of the tools used to make the model shots as realistic as possible was a special motion control rig, one built for purpose from scratch. The computer-controlled rig was capable to precisely replicating earlier camera movements, allowing the same shot of footage to be taken multiple times with different model and live-action elements in each one. To make it easier for the models to be manipulated, the rig was developed as a ceiling gantry that allowed effects technicians to physically move beneath it and adjust or repair models without touching the rig at any time. At 20 square metres it was the largest such rig ever developed at the time of production.

The constructed models were self-contained props with their own independent miniature lighting. While time-consuming to build, the independent lighting removed the need for such lights to be added to the shots later using optical effects. Even more impressively, miniature purpose-built 35mm film projectors were installed in the cockpits of each submersible, which allowed previously filmed live-action footage of the pilots to be projected from inside while the models were being shot.

The models were constructed at 1:8 scale, resulting in Deepcore submersibles that were just under 60 centimetres in length and a replica of the USS Montana that stretched a full 18 metres. The Montana was constructed on a rolling float that could be angled and locked-off in three dimensions. This allowed for specific camera angles to be developed from moving the model set rather than the motion control rig.

A purpose-built ventilation system allowed the effects crew to control the amount of smoke on the model set. The smoke helped to give the model shots the murky underwater look seen in the live-action footage. The smoke also helped to obscure some shots where the rods and wires attached to the moving models would otherwise have been visible. ‘Another technique we used,’ said Yeatman, ‘was to hang our models upside down or sideways and rotate the sets accordingly. We could really fool the audience that way, because they’d never look for wires underneath the model!’[17]

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The Montana has been entirely flooded, with all hands lost. Dead bodies drift listlessly on each deck.

James Cameron’s brother Mike, who had developed much of the camera technology used in the film’s underwater sequences, makes a cameo as one of the dead sailors. He is the one from whose mouth a small crab emerges. The shot took five takes to get the crab to crawl out of Mike Cameron’s mouth at the right moment.

Inside the submarine Jammer sees a glowing light and, in a panic, knocks himself unconscious. The team rushes to get him back to Deepcore for treatment. As that happens, and on military orders, Lt Coffey returns to the Montana and extracts a nuclear warhead. While he is gone, the Benthic Explorer – the ship to which Deepcore is tethered by a massive cable – is struck by the approaching hurricane. It drags the rig violently across the sea floor, and perilously close to the Abyss. When the cable tower on the Benthic Explorer breaks, it falls past Deepcore and into the Abyss itself. There is then a frantic race to uncouple the rig from its end of the cable before the entire station gets pulled over the edge.

It is a dramatically staged and suspenseful sequence that offers an effective rise-and-fall rhythm. Deepcore is violently dragged along by the Benthic Explorer – the tension rises. The cable tower snaps – the tension falls. Then, with a wonderfully played growing realisation, the cable tower falls past and takes the cable along with it – the tension rises once more.

Damage to Deepcore causes widespread flooding. Several men are trapped by closing bulkheads and drown. Bud almost drowns himself, but is rescued by his co-workers. The flooding sequences were created by rapidly sinking separate set sections into the dive tank, as well as pouring mass quantities of water into the sets from a line of ‘dump’ tanks. Kidd Brewer Jr, who played the role of Lew Finler, explained: ‘The hardest part of the scene is that we also have to try to secure a hatch, and it has taken three takes to get it right. And each time they’ve had to pump out about 25,000 gallons, which takes 45 minutes, into three dump tanks that rotate and release the water back down a chute.’[18]

In the aftermath of the flooding, Lindsey heads out in a submersible to deliver oxygen to members of the crew trapped by a flooding section. While out in open water she encounters a strange glowing entity that rises up from the Abyss. It is immediately followed by a much larger alien vehicle. While her evidence of the encounter is sketchy – a few blurred photographs – she successfully convinces the Deepcore survivors that the ‘non-terrestrial entities’, or NTIs, are real.

With most power down, Deepcore is slowly freezing. The crew settle down for the long wait until the storm ends and they may be rescued. In a small but quite touching scene Lindsey tells a snoring Bud to turn onto his side. ‘You have to fight for moments like that,’ said Cameron, ‘because the conventional wisdom would say, “Your film is too long. You have a boring moment where nothing is happening, take it out.” But it was such an important moment. It had to be there. You had to show the mileage between these two people.’[19]

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Lindsey’s claims of NTIs are later proved to be true when Deepcore is invaded by a massive prehensile entity that forms out of an enormous column of water before snaking its way section by section through the rig. The entity proves itself to be non-hostile, and even playful, but when Coffey stumbles upon it inside the submarine bay he slams a hatch shut. With its connection to the ocean severed, the entity collapses back into ordinary seawater.

It is not an exaggeration to claim that The Abyss revolutionised visual effects in Hollywood. It achieved this in two ways: firstly via the creation of a computer-generated water tentacle (known to the crew as the ‘pseudopod’) that would enter Deepcore and encounter the startled crew, and secondly by the manner in which the film’s numerous visual effects were assigned.

In a traditional Hollywood production, different visual effects companies would bid to provide their services for the entire film. With The Abyss, the visual effects requirements were broken down into seven separate areas. Dream Quest Images was awarded the contract specifically to provide the film’s model work. Steve Johnson’s XFX worked on developing the NTIs. Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) handled the film’s computer-generated effects. This new strategy had several advantages over the older method. It allowed effects companies to focus solely on those techniques at which they excelled, without having to also produce effects that lay beyond their primary skill-set. It also accelerated the effects schedule: rather than pay one company to work through a number of scenes, multiple scenes could be worked on simultaneously at different companies.

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James Cameron wrote the pseudopod scene without knowing how it would be achieved on-screen. As part of the film’s general call-out to effects houses, Cameron wrote of the pseudopod scene: ‘Allow for testing to determine a technique. CGI had been suggested but due to the extremely long lag time between start-up and demonstration of positive (or negative) results, I am shying away from this.’[20]

Multiple effects houses submitted bids, focusing on trick photography or stop-motion animation. ILM submitted a proposal to create the scene with the exact CGI that Cameron has sought to avoid. CG supervisor Jay Riddle created a test shot, under the supervision of Oscar-winner Dennis Muren, to demonstrate that not only was a CGI approach valid but that it was by far the best technique available. Impressed by the demonstration but still wary of the technology, Cameron agreed to give the CGI approach a chance. He had already written the scene in such a way as to be cut out of the film should the effects not look convincing, and was therefore prepared to take the risk.

The water tentacle scene was the first in the entire production to be shot, in order to provide ILM as much time as possible to develop the computer-generated imagery. Under Muren’s supervision, ILM took six months to generate just 75 seconds of footage. First a number of resin maquettes of the pseudopod was sculpted and cast by artist Steve Beck. Once the design of the pseudopod was agreed upon, it was scanned into a computer and then animated using commercial 3D software.

To incorporate the pseudopod into the previously-shot film footage, exact dimensions of the set, camera placement and angle, and lighting set-ups were provided to ILM in order to generate a three-dimensional mock-up of the set inside a computer. The pseudopod could then be positioned and animated within the mock-up before being incorporated into the live-action scene.

Cameron wanted the pseudopod to constantly ripple and undulate to show that it was made entirely of seawater. ‘It was a blend of things,’ said computer graphics designer John Knoll, ‘playing with the scale and speed of ripples, determining the right mix of reflection and refraction. If the ripples weren’t the right scale and speed, the surface looked like jello or molten glass. With too much reflection, the surface of the pod looked like chrome.’[21]

To allow the pseudopod to communicate with Bud and Lindsey by adopting their facial expressions, ILM digitally scanned the faces of Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio in the required positions. The team used ‘morphing’ software (originally designed for Ron Howard’s 1988 film Willow) to shift the pseudopod’s surface from one expression to another.

‘It was a leap of faith to use computer graphics,’ said Cameron, ‘but it was a unique scene. We were trying to create something that had never been seen before.’[22]

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The crew realise that Coffey is not simply growing paranoid, but developing the signs of high pressure nervous system. Using one of the two ‘geek’ mini-submersibles, they sneak a look inside Coffey’s cabin window and see him and one of his officers re-programming the nuclear warhead to descend to the bottom of the Abyss and detonate – destroying whatever creatures live there in the process.

When Coffey locks the crew out of the submarine bay, Bud swims underneath the rig in open water and sneaks inside via the submersible pool itself. He attempts to tackle Coffey to the ground, but that simply results in a one-on-one fight against a trained navy SEAL. It is another one of The Abyss’ best-staged sequences, as a fluorescent light falls in the middle of the fight, throwing a swinging, unsettling light back and forth as Bud and Coffey attempt to trade blows. It is a fight sequence that feels genuinely threatening, particularly given that Bud is no trained fighter and Coffey is armed with a knife. It is hugely visceral, and it is impressive that in a film packed with some ground-breaking visual effects it remains one of the most memorable scenes. It is only through the last-minute intervention of Catfish that Bud survives at all.

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Coffey escapes in one of the two submersibles, intent upon launching one of the ‘geek’ mini-submersibles with the warhead attached. Bud and Lindsey climb into the remaining submersible and give chase.

The submersible chase utilised every single technique available to the visual effects team. Medium-wide shots were taken of Harris, Biehn and Mastrantonio inside mock-up submersible cockpits in the main tank. Close-ups were shot of the actors in a cockpit set on a soundstage. Reverse shots were taken with rear projection displaying previously developed model shots. Shots of the submersibles racing after one another were shot using the already-constructed models. Shots where the submersibles collided required new models that were robust enough to survive multiple takes – these were remote controlled props shot inside the water tank. To show the submersibles’ robot claws opening and closing the effects team relied on stop-motion animation.

At the climax of the scene Coffey’s cockpit window cracks. Since the convex glass dome was too thick to crack for real, a crack pattern was applied to the outside of the glass with Sellotape. On cue a backlight was turned on, lighting up the roughly applied Sellotape and creating the illusion of an expanding crack in the glass.

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Coffey is dead, but the warhead is well on its way to the bottom of the Abyss. What is more, impacts sustained during the chase have left the submersible inactive and flooding. There is only one wetsuit and oxygen tank to get Bud and Lindsey back to Deepcore. With no other option, Bud is forced to let Lindsey drown so that he can carry her back to Deepcore and attempt to resuscitate her there.

‘That’s one of my favourite scenes,’ said Hurd. ‘The emotion of it. Two people who have had trouble, who have problems. Both wanting to die for the other person, and to risk that so the other person can live, knowing that there’s no guarantee that they’ll be able to be revived at all.’[23]

It is a dreadful scene: dreadful in the sense of simply inspiring enormous pit-of-the-stomach hopelessness. Lindsey volunteering to drown and hope that the freezing cold water will keep her body preserved for resuscitation is one thing. Bud – and the audience with him – has to actually watch it happen. Once she is dead, the audience must watch him awkwardly drag her body back to the submarine bay and then perform CPR until she is revived. Cameron stretches that CPR scene on the bay deck to an extraordinary degree, allowing the emotion of the scene to burn from urgency to hopelessness, then to grief and finally to rage when Bud’s traumatised and desperate blows to Lindsey’s chest miraculously return her to life.

The sequence was shot over three separate days: one inside the flooding submersible, one in the open ocean, and a third in the submarine bay. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio performed every scene of the sequence, including holding her breath while dragged through the water tank by Ed Harris, and lying soaking wet and partially topless to create the scene where Bud desperately attempts to revive Lindsey. On the third day, and in the middle of a take, the camera unexpectedly ran out of film. With the mishap seemingly a final straw, Mastrantonio reportedly stormed off the set in tears, shouting at James Cameron that ‘We are not animals!’. The remainder of the day’s shoot was performed without Mastrantonio on set at all, with Harris performing to an off-screen sandbag. ‘I understand the pressure and how it got to her,’ said Cameron. ‘It was our fault.’[24]

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The stress of performing under the film’s remarkable conditions took a heavy toll on the entire cast and crew. ‘One day,’ said Ed Harris, ‘we were all in our dressing rooms and people began throwing couches out the windows and smashing the walls. We just had to get our frustrations out.’[25] By halfway through the production crew members started wearing t-shirt bearing the slogan “Life’s Abyss and then you dive”. An anonymous member of the production secretly changed the title of the film on a blackboard from The Abyss to The Abuse. Reports of the stressed cast and crew leaked out to the press during production, and the film has had a reputation for a difficult, unhappy shoot ever since – something Cameron has always denied. ‘None of the actors hated me at all,’ he insisted. ‘They were eager to promote the movie and they’ll work with me again if I ask. They enjoyed the experience at the time – it’s only this revisionist mentality that’s been imposed from the outside. What exacerbated the problem, and it took me a while to understand why it was occurring, was the actors always wanted to talk about the most dangerous aspects of the shooting as those were the areas where they were challenged the most. They wanted credit for going through this great learning adventure. The press always gave it a negative interpretation as if the actors were complaining.’[26]

Regardless of Cameron’s claims, the production was stressful on him as well. While shooting one scene underwater James Cameron’s oxygen unexpectedly ran out – an assistant had forgotten to give him a warning alert that it was running low. When his attempts to silently signal his situation to the crew failed, he spontaneously removed his helmet and started swimming for the surface. A safety diver came to his rescue at the five-metre mark, forcing a back-up regulator into his mouth. That regulator, however, was broken, and resulted in Cameron simply inhaling water. He managed to reach the surface without permanent injury, but immediately fired both his assistant and the safety diver.

Just three hours after surviving the incident, Cameron was visited by 20th Century Fox’s executive vice-president of production Roger Birnbaum. Birnbaum was one of several studio executives to make the trip from Los Angeles to South Carolina to monitor the production and make suggestions on how Cameron could cut scenes or reduce his production budget. One previous visitor, Harold Schneider, had angered Cameron so much that the director had forced him to the edge of the main water tank and threatened to shove him into it.

‘So Roger shows up,’ recalled Cameron, ‘and he’s going to solve all our problems. He’s standing there in a suit and tie, and all I saw was a guy with a big bull’s eye on him. So I smiled, and said, “Hey Roger! I hear you’re the new guy,’ all friendly. I take off the neck dam on my helmet, the thing that seals the helmet on, and I said “Hey, try this on!” And before he could say anything I pulled the neck dam down over his head. Then I said, “Okay, here, try this on,” and I put the helmet down over the neck dam and I latched it in the back and front and sealed it shut. There was no air supply to the helmet, so he immediately starts thrashing around. I let him choke for about twenty, twenty-five seconds, then I pulled the helmet off and said, “That’s what it feels like when you’re running out of air in a diving helmet and you think you’re going to die, which happened to me a few hours ago. So if you think you know more about this shit than we do, then feel free to tell me what’s on your mind. Otherwise, just shut the fuck up and go home.”’[27]

abyss_12

With Lindsey revived, the matter of retrieving and de-activating the warhead is resolved. Bud agrees to dive down into the Abyss – deeper than any human has previously attempted – and defuse the warhead with SEAL assistance via radio. In order to breathe at such unprecedented depths, Bud agrees to use the oxygenated fluorocarbon.

While genuine fluorocarbon was used in the first sequence, there was no possibility or desire to have Ed Harris breathe it as well for the second. To shoot the deep sea dive, Harris was forced to hold his breath in a helmet filled with water. When he could not hold it any longer, he would push open his face plate and receive oxygen via a regulator with the help of professional diver Al Giddings.

To exaggerate the depth that Bud was falling, the diving scene was partially shot sideways, with Harris dragged along past a right-angled rock face. Harris said: ‘The worst moments for me were being towed with fluid rushing up my nose and my eyes swelling up. Once, the regulator was put in upside down so that one-half of what was going into my lungs was water. For a brief second, I thought, “This is it,” before Al swam over and put the regulator in right. And then I was mad at myself for feeling that panic.’[28]

 

Cameron picks this oppressive, claustrophobic climax to resolve Bud and Lindsey’s relationship. He is entire alone at unimaginable depths, cold blackness all around him. Due to the fluorocarbon he cannot speak, and communicates instead via a wrist-mounted keyboard. The only sound he can hear is Lindsey’s voice in his ear via radio. It is beautifully staged: both bleak and romantic at the same time.

Lindsey Brigman is Cameron’s third exceptional female lead in a row, following Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) in The Terminator and Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in Aliens. She is stubborn and resourceful, and clearly hugely intelligent – as evidenced by her designing Deepcore in the first place. At the same time Cameron gives the character shades and facets beyond being tough and smart. She is also rather brittle: a lot of her bravado is there for show, and as the stakes rises and hope falls she becomes a remarkably fragile, regretful person. Her climactic monologue at Bud is packed with both regret and love, and makes for an unexpectedly intimate and heartfelt climax to what has mostly been an action film.

abyss_22

After successfully defusing the warhead and, his oxygen spent, unable to return back up the Abyss, Bud lies down on a ledge to die. He is suddenly rescued by one of the NTIs. It is a glowing humanoid, seemingly crossed with some form of stingray. As he loses consciousness it carries him over an enormous alien vehicle. He wakes in a bubble of oxygen, as the silent NTIs show him via water-based video screens that it was his final conversation with Lindsey that led them to save him.

The full reveal of the NTIs is wisely left for this effects-driven climax. They have a unique and vibrant look to them, and give the film’s final minutes a sense of wonder that contrasts sharply against the tense, claustrophobic thrills that comprise the bulk of the film. It is a very sudden shift in tone, but one foreshadowed by both Lindsey’s brief encounter outside of Deepcore and the pseudopod’s entry into the rig.

The alien ship suddenly rises from the deep, lifting up Deepcore from underneath as it rushes to the ocean’s surface. Bud and Lindsey are reunited, and the film ends there – the survivors safe and the NTIs revealed to the world.

abyss_01

The Abyss completed principal photography on 8 December 1988. The shoot had taken 140 days, and run more than $4 million over budget. By the time post-production was complete, the budget would stretch another $6 million for a worrying total of $43 million. Under his contract with Fox, much of Cameron’s director’s fee was forfeited to help pay for the additional visual effects. ‘I worked for half-price,’ he said. ‘You can’t absolve yourself 100%, because the director is responsible for the scope of the concept.’[29]

A brief period of reshoots was undertaken at the Harbor Star Stage in Long Beach, California – essentially to produce insert shots to clarify otherwise completed scenes. A close-up of an underwater flare was shot in Gale Ann Hurd’s swimming pool. The final shot completed of the film was also the film’s final moment: Bud and Lindsey embracing on the top of the alien spacecraft. That was shot in the parking lot of California State University in Dominguez Hills, with body doubles standing in for Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio.

abyss_24

Cameron’s original edit of The Abyss ran for almost three hours. The length worried Fox’s studio head Barry Diller, who knew cinema chains were leery of films much longer than two hours. While Cameron had final cut on his picture, Diller pleaded with him to shorten the film. To work out what to cut and what to keep, Cameron undertook a short series of test screenings: members of the public were invited in to see the partially completed film for free and to be surveyed on their opinions afterwards. While test screenings were already commonplace in Hollywood, The Abyss marked James Cameron’s first use of them in preparing one of his films.

The most divisive element of the film, according to the test audiences, was its climax. In the first edit the NTIs were not simply concerned about the violence of human beings – they were actively prepared to wipe out humanity to save the planet. Using their powers of water manipulation they produced massive waves of water that hovered menacingly over the world’s coastal cities. They were able to crash down and kill millions at any moment, but Bud and Lindsey’s mutual expressions of love convinced the NTIs to spare humanity and give it another chance. It was a much larger-scale climax than the one Cameron ultimately edited together. The version of The Abyss screened for testing lacked the visual effects to properly showcase the tidal wave sequence, and when audience feedback was received opinions on the scene were split down the middle. Cameron mused that ‘those who disliked the sequence probably found it an unexpected and improbably violation of the basic claustrophobic environment within which the film had played for two-plus hours’.[30]

Based on the test feedback, Cameron decided to cut the wave sequence entirely and pare the climax down to a much smaller-scale and personal affair. His cuts reduced the film’s length to 145 minutes. It was still longer than exhibitors would like, but it was more commercially friendly than it might otherwise have been. ‘There were some beautiful scenes that were taken out,’ said Mastrantonio. ‘I just wish we hadn’t shot so much that isn’t in the film.’[31]

abyss_02

As noted earlier, the anticipation surrounding The Abyss had been high enough in Hollywood that two rival studios had quickly produced and released underwater science fiction films of their own. In January 1989 Carolco Pictures had rush-released Sean Cunningham’s horror film Deep Star Six into cinemas. Two months later MGM released Leviathan. Neither film was a commercial success, earning $8 million and $15 million respectively.

The failure of these competing features gave executives at 20th Century Fox pause: had they been successful, they might have led to audiences being tired of undersea movies by the time The Abyss was released, but as they had both failed miserably the question was instead raising as to whether audiences were interested in undersea movies at all. There was also the issue of the film’s title, which Cameron had refused to change: the studio’s market research suggested most Americans were unfamiliar with the word and did not know how to pronounce it.

On top of everything else, The Abyss was fighting a perception in the market that it was a horror film akin to Aliens. Even as the film was in cinemas, some parts of the American news media continued to describe it as a horror film: four days after The Abyss was released The Washington Post was still comparing the film to Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th.[32]

Tensions were raised again when post-production on The Abyss was delayed, forcing Fox to shift its release date from 4 July back to 2 August: the tail end of the northern hemisphere summer when audiences had already began to drop away. Just when Fox was about to pull the trigger on that delay it was revealed that Cameron needed another week to complete editing the film. The film received a second delay; in this case by one week to its final release date of 9 August.

As it happened, 1989 had been one of the most aggressively competitive summers in American film history. Between May and August the various Hollywood studios released such films as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Ghostbusters II, License to Kill, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, The Karate Kid Part III, Lethal Weapon 2, When Harry Met Sally, Turner and Hooch and A Nightmare on Elm Street 5. Looming large over all of these films was Tim Burton’s Batman, a massive hit for Warner Bros that grossed $411 million worldwide.

Stuck at the tail end of the season, The Abyss was forced to make do with $90 million, of which just over $54 million was earned in the USA. It was enough for The Abyss to break even, but it was far from the box office success enjoyed by The Terminator and Aliens. Aside from The Terminator and Piranha 2: The Spawning, The Abyss remains James Cameron’s lowest-grossing feature film.

abyss_08

Following the release of The Abyss James Cameron moved on to writing and directing his high-budget sequel Terminator 2: Judgment Day. A year later 20th Century Fox worked with Cameron to release an extended version of Aliens to home video. With the addition of 16 minutes of cut footage, Aliens: Special Edition became a huge commercial hit on VHS and laserdisc. Its success led Cameron to consider undertaking a similar extension to The Abyss, although he remained uncertain of the wisdom in doing so.

‘It seemed like a no-win proposition,’ he said. ‘If we restored the scenes, which comprise about 27 minutes of film, and the result is disappointing, then the special edition project is a failure. If we restore the scenes and the result is better than what we first released, then we look like bozos for not doing it right the first time.’[33]

Cameron also said: ‘20th Century Fox was not crazy about the idea. On paper it looked like it would be a wash between what it cost to do and what we would make off the laser disc. I said fine, you’re not going to lose any money, it’s all my energy, so write the check and let’s just do it. So we did. It cost about $300,000. Fortunately, The Abyss Special Edition sold very well; we actually made a profit, although that wasn’t the goal.’[34]

The Abyss: Special Edition restored the 25 minutes of footage cut from the original theatrical release. It hit a snag when it came to the sound: 20th Century Fox had failed to archive the recordings in 1989. While the original cast were largely available to re-record the relevant dialogue, Kidd Brewer Jr had died in 1990. Using transfers of dailies (footage used by directors to assess each day’s shoot as they go) it was possible to reconstruct Brewer’s performance for the new edition.

While much of the additional footage included was interesting and enjoyable, the sentiment Cameron sensed among those early test audiences proved to be correct: while losing a fair amount of context in terms of growing USA-USSR hostilities, the theatrical edit feels much more constrained and personal. It is ultimately about a broken marriage getting repaired, which seems a far more identifiable and intimate matter than the threats of nuclear war.

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Today The Abyss feels partially forgotten. Subsequent to its release Cameron wrote and directed Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), the action comedy True Lies (1994) and then the box office juggernauts Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009), which remain at the time of writing the second and first highest-grossing feature films of all time.

As Cameron’s image has come to be defined by Jack and Rose’s ocean-borne romance, or giant blue aliens on Pandora, The Abyss feels as if it has slipped into the shadows. That seems a shame, as its smart screenplay, innovative production methods, superb characters and grounded, hugely naturalistic performances puts it heads and shoulders above either subsequent film. It is James Cameron almost at his very best, and while it not share the commercial success of his other films in terms of creativity and filmmaking techniques it is an absolute victory.

 

[1] Rebecca Keegan, The Futurist: The life and films of James Cameron, Crown Publishers, New York, 2009.

[2] Iain Blair, “Underwater in The Abyss”, Starlog 146, September 1989.

[3] Ian Spelling, “Under pressure”, Starlog 150, January 1990.

[4] Dave Mawson, “The Abyss may float despite heavy sequels”, Telegram & Gazette, 3 August 1989.

[5] Aljean Harmetz, “The Abyss: A foray into deep waters”, New York Times, 6 August 1989.

[6] Rebecca Keegan, The Futurist: The life and films of James Cameron, Crown Publishers, New York, 2009.

[7] Oscar Hillerstrom, “Michael Biehn interview: Dwayne Hicks wants to give Jim Cameron a hug”, The Sci-Fi Show, May 2013.

[8] Will Harris, “Michael Biehn on The Victim, William Friedkin, and his favourite antagonist role”, AV Club, 2 October 2012.

[9] Iain Blair, “Underwater in The Abyss”, Starlog 146, September 1989.

[10] Lynn Geller, “Todd Graff”, BOMB – Artists in Conversation, Spring 1992.

[11] Iain Blair, “Underwater in The Abyss”, Starlog 146, September 1989.

[12] Aljean Harmetz, “The Abyss: A foray into deep waters”, New York Times, 6 August 1989.

[13] Aljean Harmetz, “The Abyss: A foray into deep waters”, New York Times, 6 August 1989.

[14] Alan Jones, “James Cameron takes a second plunge”, Starburst 136, December 1989.

[15] Peter Goddard, “How James Cameron disappeared into The Abyss”, Toronto Star, 6 August 1989.

[16] Ron Magid, “Gantry secret weapon for The Abyss”, American Cinematographer, December 1989.

[17] Ron Magid, “Gantry secret weapon for The Abyss”, American Cinematographer, December 1989.

[18] Iain Blair, “Underwater in The Abyss”, Starlog 146, September 1989.

[19] Ian Spelling, “Under pressure”, Starlog 150, January 1990.

[20] Rebecca Keegan, The Futurist: The life and films of James Cameron, Crown Publishers, New York, 2009.

[21] Quoted in “The Abyss: Pseudopod sequence”, Prix Ars Electronica: Computer Animation, 1990.

[22] Quoted in “The Abyss: Pseudopod sequence”, Prix Ars Electronica: Computer Animation, 1990.

[23] Chris Neumer, “Gale Anne Hurd interview”, Stumped (http://www.stumpedmagazine.com/interviews/gale-anne-hurd/)

[24] Rebecca Keegan, The Futurist: The life and films of James Cameron, Crown Publishers, New York, 2009.

[25] Phillip McLean, “Terror strikes The Abyss”, Sunday Mail, 27 August 1989.

[26] Alan Jones, “James Cameron takes the plunge”, Starburst 135, November 1989.

[27] Paula Parisi, Titanic and the Making of James Cameron, Orion Books, London, 1998.

[28] Aljean Harmetz, “The Abyss: A foray into deep waters”, New York Times, 6 August 1989.

[29] Martin Kasindorf, “Fox plunges into The Abyss”, Los Angeles Times, 6 August 1989.

[30] Quoted in The Abyss: Special Edition souvenir booklet, 20th Century Fox, 1992.

[31] Ian Spelling, “Under pressure”, Starlog 150, January 1990.

[32] Marshall Blonsky, “Hooked on horror”, Washington Post, 13 August 1989.

[33] Quoted in The Abyss: Special Edition souvenir booklet, 20th Century Fox, 1992.

[34] Bill Moseley, “20,000 leagues under the sea: an interview with James Cameron”, Omni, 1998.

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