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James Cameron spent ‘10-11 hours a day’ underwater to make The Abyss, which sounds terrible

A new clip from the film’s coveted 4K release dives into the innovative, hellish making-of story

Matt Patches is an executive editor at Polygon. He has over 15 years of experience reporting on movies and TV, and reviewing pop culture.

Behind-the-scenes stories from the set of James Cameron’s The Abyss are nearly as coveted by longtime fans of the aquatic odyssey as the movie itself. A majority of the 1989 film was shot in enormous water tanks, and the labor of both performing and diving each day led the cast to experience multiple emotional breakdowns. Much of the endurance test is well-documented, but Cameron clearly has a few things left to say.

Fox and Cameron’s long-awaited 4K transfer of The Abyss on Blu-ray finally arrives on Tuesday, and with it, a handful of new extras, including a brand new making-of documentary, “Deep Dive: A Conversation with James Cameron.” In this exclusive clip from the doc, Cameron digs into how much consideration went into the underwater production... even if the result was still a pain-in-the-ass for all involved.

After an extensive search around the globe for a location where a science-fiction movie set around the wreckage of a downed submarine could actually be shot, Cameron and his team decided ... there was no place that already existed on Earth in which they could get the job done. The man has high standards! So they settled on building a 7.5 million gallon tank for the movie at an abandoned power plant in southern California. But finding a place to let Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio swim around and make extraterrestrial contact was only the beginning of the reimagining of the studio filmmaking process. As Cameron details in the clip from “Deep Dive: A Conversation with James Cameron,” his entire crew had to be trained and outfitted for all the types of conversations and decision-making that takes place on a common land-based film set.

“We needed to be able to talk to each other underwater,” Cameron says in the feature. “So most of the people doing the lightning and camera support were on regular scuba. A lot of them were utility divers who had experience working movie sets and a lot of them were lightning and grip people who trained on scuba for the movie.”

Cameron talks about working with his multiple directors of photography on the film, and what he himself had to do to show up to work every day, which he says involved diving and directing underwater for “10 to 11 hours a day.” The making of Avatar: The Way of Water sounded like absolute hell, but doing almost the same job in the late ’80s... I don’t blame Ed Harris for shedding tears.

If you think you know everything about The Abyss, the whole documentary shines light on the other technical requirements of the shoot and “addresses some of the myths” that have swirled around it over the years, according to the 4K’s product info. And while it took eons for a Blu-ray version of the film to arrive, in true Cameron style, the director is going hard this holiday season. The Abyss, as well as Cameron’s Aliens and True Lies are all available in 4K Ultra UHD for the first time ever on digital starting on Tuesday and on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray disc on March 12, 2024. Avatar and Avatar: The Way of Water Collector’s Editions also arrive to digital on Tuesday with physical releases on Dec. 19.

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