Features and Columns

How James Cameron Recorded Dialogue Underwater for ‘The Abyss’

Well, it wasn’t easy. But it’s James Cameron so what’d you expect?
The Abyss
By  · Published on April 17th, 2020

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There are difficult movie shoots…and then there’s The Abyss. You’ve got Ed Harris punching James Cameron in the face for keeping the cameras rolling while he was drowning. You’ve got Cameron punching a safety diver in the face for giving him a broken regulator. You’ve got a host of nicknames: “The Abuse,” “Son Of Abyss,” “Life’s Abyss and Then You Die.” This is the shoot that prompted the crew to sport the infamous t-shirt: “You can’t scare me, I work for James Cameron.”

They say the most difficult things to work with are: animals, children, and water. It seems Cameron took this as a challenge rather than a warning. The Abyss was largely shot — almost entirely, actually — underwater. Which poses an interesting question: how do you record dialogue at 55-feet below? Sure you could ADR it. But that’s not how James Cameron works. Instead, he built specially designed masks that showed off the actors’ faces, with fitted microphones to capture “on set” dialogue — as well as a host of diving equipment clicks, pops, and ticks.

You can watch a compilation of behind-the-scenes footage of how the film’s underwater dialogue was captured  here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XzbuTeibUVw

Who made this?

This video comes to us courtesy of the Dutch-based film historians over at Eyes on Cinema. Their YouTube and Twitter accounts are essential follows for anyone interested in behind the scenes footage, interviews, and other contextual cinematic ephemera. The footage for the above video appears to be largely pulled from the film’s making-of documentary Under Pressure: The Making of The Abyss.

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Meg Shields is the humble farm boy of your dreams and a senior contributor at Film School Rejects. She currently runs three columns at FSR: The Queue, How'd They Do That?, and Horrorscope. She is also a curator for One Perfect Shot and a freelance writer for hire. Meg can be found screaming about John Boorman's 'Excalibur' on Twitter here: @TheWorstNun. (She/Her).