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Lighting the Abyss

Designers Meet The Challenge

Lois I. Burgner, Assistant Editor

Reprinted with permission from Lighting Design + Application/October 1989

Like the challenge presented by a dragon or a quest, a difficult lighting project can bring out the best, or the worst, in a designer or engineer. Intelligence, ingenuity, and daring are the prescription for the designer who saves the day. An adventurer who braves adversity can come away with a different perspective and, often, new resources for use in the future.

The Abyss, a film written and directed by James Cameron and produced by Gale Ann Hurd, the team responsible for The Terminator and the Oscar-winning Aliens, was such an undertaking. Cameron, a certified diver, never wanted to film The Abyss anywhere but underwater. But with 40 percent of the live-action principal photography shot underwater, it was guaranteed to be one of the most difficult productions ever. “We felt it was essential for the integrity of the film, but it greatly compounded the problems of the shoot because the technology did not exist to create the world we wanted to show,” Hurd said.

“It was the biggest challenge of my life,” continued Hurd, a confirmed over-achiever. “I don’t think I will ever tackle anything as difficult as this picture.” Filming without stunt divers, voice-overs, or other aquatic simulations, The Abyss, when conquered, had pushed underwater and cinema technology well beyond state-of-the-art, yielding dozens of new innovations including a new luminaire.

In this epic adventure, a team of civilian divers working on a prototype underwater oil-drilling habitat are pressed into reluctant service by the US Navy in a search-and-rescue effort for a ballistic missile submarine which has been mysteriously incapacitated at a depth of 2000 ft. The stricken nuclear vessel, with all hands lost, has come to rest precariously on a craggy brink within the Cayman Trough, an apparently bottomless abyss, 21/2 miles straight down from the floor of the Atlantic. Transferring down to Deepcore to coordinate the rescue mission is a four-man team of Navy SEALs.

Seemingly working at cross purposes, the two contingents are caught in a chain of events that finds them all trapped in the black depths of the trench. The routine mission becomes an unexpected journey of danger and wonder as the divers encounter a superior force, an ultimate force that has the power to judge mankind. The head SEAL suffers paranoia and delusions due to high-pressure nervous syndrome (HPNS: a rare affliction indigenous to pressurized-air environments). As his ardent militarism turns Strangelovian, he puts not just the stranded divers, but the entire Earth in jeopardy. This odyssey explores the frontiers of human endurance and challenges the love shared by two of the divers.

The Abyss, starring Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, and Michael Biehn, is the brainchild of Cameron, a product of his teen years. “It is a very positive, hopeful film with a message: that we have to change if were to survive as a species, …and this aspect of the film is interrelated with the theme of love and personal sacrifice:” he said.

During an interview with Cameron regarding the possibility of shooting the underwater miniatures for The Abyss, Pete Romano and Richard Mula, partners in the Los Angeles-based Hydrolmage, Inc., were asked to supply all the lighting for the underwater sequences. Romano received credit for underwater miniature photography and Mula as underwater miniature lighting supervisor.

Underwater soundstage

The Abyss was filmed in two specially built underwater filming tanks converted from a partially constructed containment building and the foundation of a planned turbine pit at the never completed Cherokee Nuclear Power Station outside Gaffney, SC. The larger tank, which measures 209 ft in diameter and more than 55 ft in depth, was filled with 7.5 million gal of water. The other tank, with a capacity of 2.6 million gal, measures 200 X 115 ft with an average depth of 25 ft. With massive sets built inside them, these tanks were filled from a nearby spring. They are the largest heated, filtered tanks in existence.

The decision to film in tanks as opposed to the open ocean presented a distinct “abyss” for Cameron and his crew. Not faced with the oceanic problems of destructive errant currents, vessel support, variable water visibility, and sharks, the crew instead concentrated on establishing the technical systems required for the underwater principal photography:

  • Outside contractors developed “hard hat” diving suits of the future, with wraparound faceplates and beamsplit worklights; (to better see the actors’ faces) and an effortless breathing regulator.

  • A crewmember invented an underwater filling station for scuba tanks.

  • Each helmet was equipped with earphones and an aircraft-quality microphone that made possible extensive communication between Cameron and his underwater and topside cast and crew. This system also allowed scripted dialogue to be recorded underwater, a first in cinematic history.

  • A diver propulsion vehicle was totally redesigned to make a quicker and more agile camera mover.

  • Fully functional submersibles and ROVs (remotely operated vehicles) were custom built by several different suppliers.

  • An array of lighting breakthroughs was improvised, not the least of which was the first use of metal halide lamps in an underwater stagelight developed by Hydrolmage.


Water, salty or fresh, acts as a filter. Whether it be sunlight or artificial illumination, water absorbs the red wavelengths first then on down the spectrum to the blues and violets to black; all light is filtered out. Hence, light filtering down through even perfectly clear water begins to dim and look blue after only a few yards.

At the 1700 to 25,000-ft depths specified in the script there would be a total absence of ambient light. The vast majority of the illumination had to come from (or look like it came from) practical sources, e.g., Deepcore, its submersibles, or the divers themselves. Preferring not to shoot at night (for fatigue and safety reasons), a giant tarpaulin was installed over the entire tank. Cameron also called for tons of black polystyrene beads to be floated on the surface of the tanks, providing a permeable barrier that would break up any reflections of underwater lights off the underside of the water’s surface. Unable to fit a tarp over the smaller tank, the miniatures crew was forced into a night shooting schedule. The polystyrene beads were sufficient to block out moonlight.

“The design philosophy of the film,” noted Cameron, “was to be as real as possible. Even though the film is ultimately a fantasy, the intention was to make it grittily realistic.” All the sets and their dressings had to realize the near future. Much of the equipment was existing technology taken one step forward. The diving apparatus and the lighting fixtures are examples of practical equipment that had to function beyond their roles as movie props.

Designed by a team headed by Ron Cobb, conceptual artist on The Abyss, the final Deepcore used vertical cylinders in a modular configuration. A large percentage of the prototype habitat, six partial and complete modules, each standing approximately 25 ft tall and 16 ft in diameter, were constructed full size in the larger tank. The massive set took 8 months to design and construct and was used as the principal aquatic setting for the film. Operating in and around the habitat were two manned submersibles, two ROVs, the cast and crew, and a large complement of production equipment. Joe Nemec, III, an art director, designed six sets to represent the USS Montana, the downed submarine. They included an exterior section measuring 60 X 28 ft and a missile tube measuring 6 X 13 ft. In the “small” tank miniatures, some up to 45 ft long, were filmed.

These tremendous sets required tremendous candlepower to capture the action on film. Director of Photography/Underwater Lighting Supervisor Mikael Salomon agreed with Romano and Mula that conventional underwater equipment would not sufficiently light the sets nor create the desired effects; only metal halide lamps could do the job. Producing 100,000 plus lumens, Sylvania’s BriteBeam(tm) HMI (hydragyrum medium arc iodide) 1200-W lamps satisfied this requirement.

Besides being four times as powerful as standard incandescents, regardless of their voltage, HMIs are remarkably efficient. The incandescent lamp devotes 80 percent of its energy to producing unwanted heat, an HMI converts that same percentage of its energy into usable illumination. The HMI is also longer lived, typically 1000 hrs compared to the incandescents average life of 150 hrs. Finally, it can take physical abuse that would break any filament, according to Romano, whose other feature credits include Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and Splash. But Cameron remained unsold on the idea.

“What the director most wanted was to make people feel they were really, really deep,” Romano said. So a blue light was required, but there had to be a lot of it. The incandescent lights burn at 3200 K; HMIs burn much higher at around 5600 K. The HMIs start out rather blue, daylight balanced; as the light travels from the source to the set to the camera it blues even more but remains bright. To get a similar color temperature, a 1000-W PAR incandescent must be gelled with a blue filter, halving the output, according to Romano. Cameron initially wanted a 10,000-W incandescent stage/studio light, but Romano maintained that these were too big and bulky (two-thirds the size of a 55-gal oil drum) and that they had the lesser output. Mula, calculating in air, diagrammed the beams thrown by the 1000-W and 10,000-W incandescents and the 1200-W HMI (Figures 1, 2, and 3 respectively).

To show the comparative strengths of the three lamps underwater, Hydrolmage did a demonstration on a smoke-filled stage. The director was impressed with the light meter readings and color temperature of the HMI; he gave the go ahead to develop a prototype.

The luminaire

“This concept [of using 1200-W HMIs underwater] had been a pet project of Richard’s [Mula] for years, and suddenly we had the chance to put the theory into practice,” Romano said. The next step was for Hydrolmage to place the lamps in a watertight luminaire capable of withstanding depths up to 55 ft and the concomitant 24 lbs/inch² of pressure. In this effort they received much help from GTE Products Corp’s Sales Representative John Brennan and Development Engineer Jeff Buschmann. GTE was asked to modify their HMI so it could be used in a compact underwater luminaire, which HydroImage dubbed the SeaPar(r) 1200. “It was a good PR thing for them [GTE], it being such a high-profile film,” Romano said. “I think they are trying to cater to those with special needs; I don’t think other manufacturers are. They were incredibly helpful, much more so than I expected.”

Normally, the Sylvania factory just puts a clear glass cover on the lamp’s reflective housing and seals it in. They then supply four fresnels to provide different beamspreads (very narrow spot, narrow spot, medium flood, and wide flood). Hydrolmage asked that the different fresnels be sealed directly onto the face of the reflector jacket. “We were able to modify the beam pattern of the light without having to float a separate piece of glass in the enclosure,” Romano said. “We had the fresnel installed at the factory.” If this had not been done, there would have been three layers of glass in the luminaire: the clear face, the fresnel, and the protective cover, which is approximately 0.15 inches thick and is the part that comes into contact with the water (see Figures 4 and 5). So, to change beamspreads, one changes luminaires. Romano said the different luminaires were marked with colored tape on the outside to tell them apart.

Also, in GTE’s standard version there are two 2-1/8-inch solid copper leads that come out of the back of the lamp; these are run through a ceramic base then soldered onto two 5/8-inch, nickle-plated brass prongs. “We had them stop their assembly process one step before that, and we made a special fitting that went right on those copper leads. This was very small to make the luminaire smaller,” said Romano. The lamp and ignitor are sealed entirely in an aluminum and glass case which has withstood depths of up to 220 ft (salt water) and the concomitant 110 lbs/inch².

“We now have the lightest, smallest, most versatile underwater luminaire in the world,” he bragged. Out of water it weighs 28 lbs, in fresh water 5 lbs, and it is easily hand held. It is versatile in that the beams can be controlled by snoots, scrims, and gels. These are held by an aluminum retainer ring that pulls off the front of the luminaire. “No other underwater light offers these options,” he said.

LTM, a French company, makes a metal halide underwater luminaire, the AQUAPAR. Their luminaire, however, weighs 52 lbs out of the water and 19 lbs in fresh water, according to Romano. “Plus snoots, scrims, and filters have to be taped on or somehow affixed,” he said. Another advantage to the SeaPar is that it is “underwater pluggable.” SeaCon(r) connectors, manufactured by Brantner and Associates, can be connected and disconnected underwater. In case of a lamp burnout, Romano said, “you just pop one off and pop the other one on. There is no moving of cables up to the surface.”

There was, understandably, some concern about HMIs because of the danger to personnel working with ac current underwater. Conscious of this hazard, Mula incorporated a bonded ground return line back to the ballast, which because of its size and permeability was kept high and dry. “Beyond that we have a redundant system with two ground fault interrupters. The ballast had an in-line 20 A GFI which was then plugged into a 20 A GFI outlet,” Romano said. In case of a short circuit, the whole system would shut down in less than 0.016 s.

Hydrolmage produced a prototype that they field tested for Cameron in a swimming pool. Finally convinced, the director placed an immediate order for 15 lamps. “Without these special Sylvania lights, I would not have been able to film the movie,” said Cameron in retrospect.

“The HMIs became the workhorses for all the live action and miniature photography for both practical and off-camera lighting,” Romano said. The SeaPars can be distinguished on screen by the 7-inch extension on the back that houses their ignitor (see Figures 4, 5, and photos). In addition to the 50 1000-W PAR 64 incandescents that were used on the film, a total of 20 HMIs were ordered. Because there were so many, Hydrolmage hired an outside shop to machine the aluminum-body luminaires.

Hydrolmage has ordered, to date, an additional 30 lamps. “I have been using them on TV programs, feature films, and commercials since The Abyss, some in the open sea,” Romano said. Salt water is a little denser, heavier, than the fresh water used in The Abyss, but it does not affect the output of the luminaire. There have been no problems with corrosion.

Funded and released by Twentieth Century Fox, The Abyss is an action/adventure/fantasy/love story, a tearjerker that had audiences all across the country on the edge of their seats. One of this past summer’s blockbusters, the total cost of the film has not been disclosed.

The production assistants’ motto, “Life’s abyss and then you dive,” indicates the travails each member of the production had to endure (early on they dubbed the project The Abuse). Just getting through the gruelling production schedule, 10-12 hrs a day, 6 days a week, for the 17 weeks in the water, was a victory in itself. But, in most, their best shone through; it’s a fine film altogether, a credit to cast and crew. Though it was not a struggle to save the world, as it was for the Deepcore crew, The Abyss faced by Romano and Mula earned them two additional credits: Underwater Lighting Equipment by Hydrolmage and Underwater Lighting Equipment Design by Richard Mula and Pete Romano.

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