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Russia: Institute Plays Supporting Role In "Titanic"

  • Robert Lyle

Washington, 13 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The blockbuster film "Titanic," which is drawing record breaking millions into theaters around the world, owes more than most people know to the P.P. Shirshov Institute of Oceanology in Moscow.

The Institute, part of the Russian Academy of Sciences, provided the two manned miniature submarines which filmed the underwater wreckage of the real Titanic, giving greater dramatic effect to the recreations of the great ocean liner used for the romantic story that runs through the movie.

But more than those scenes, it was the friendship between the head of the institute's manned submersibles, Anatoly Sagelevitch, and American photographer Emory Kristof of the National Geographic Society, that helped inspire movie director James Cameron to make the current box office hit in the first place.

Kristof says after he and Sagelevitch had gotten together to film hot water vents in the depths of Lake Baikal in Russia and in the Galapagos Islands in the south Pacific, they collaborated on doing a film of the Titanic's wreckage 3,800 meters below the surface of the North Atlantic for the Canadian IMAX film company. IMAX is a double width film shot on special cameras that is projected on a screen five stories high.

The collaboration was essential for the IMAX film because the institute's two small submersibles -- MIR One and MIR Two -- are capable of diving to depths of 6,000 meters, far deeper than comparable French and American mini-subs.

But more importantly, says Kristof, the Russian mini-subs carried twice the battery power. And in the depths where the Titanic wreck sits, it takes incredible light to cut through the total blackness.

Using German lighting technology, the two MIR subs could produce the equivalent of nearly 100,000 watts of tungsten light -- enough to make filming of the wreckage possible.

But at the same time, Kristof also wanted to try a 3-D camera system he had devised. Underwater is the perfect location for 3-D filming, Kristof says, because it is at its best for objects no further than 18 meters from the camera lens. That exactly duplicates what a diver experiences.

The filming, with both the IMAX and Kristof's 3-D cameras, and utilizing the unprecedented lighting rigs, was done in eight dives of the two Russian mini-subs in 1991 covering over 100 hours of underwater time.

Kristof said Cameron had long been interested in producing a movie on the Titanic, but had found the early underwater photography completely inadequate for a big-screen epic.

So when the first rough cut of the IMAX film was ready, Kristof invited Cameron and Sagelevitch to Ottawa to view it. He says that as the scenes began to unfold on the huge IMAX screen, Cameron grasped Kristof's arm and said: "Oh, Wow -- we can do it!"

Next Cameron asked to see the 3-D film and that did it, says Kristof. The Hollywood director decided then and there the film epic he wanted to make was possible.

Cameron hired Sagelevitch, his crews and submarines to do the actual filming for the Hollywood picture and even cast Sagelevitch in a small part with one line of dialogue.

National Geographic cameraman Kristof says he loved the fictional film, but admitted that his favorite parts were the underwater scenes he himself inspired at the start of the film. Says Kristof: "Cameron got it -- he understood what had been done down there."

The Geographic society, which underwrote the original discovery of the Titanic wreckage in 1985 and many of the subsequent dives to the site, is showing Kristof's 14-minute 3-D film at its headquarters in Washington as a special event for the next month. Narrated by Kristof, the film slowly and gently glides the viewer in a surprisingly life-like visit to the dramatic wreckage of the Titanic -- providing scenes that Kristof says are even better than what he could see in person on the ocean floor.

Sunk after hitting an iceberg on its maiden voyage from England to New York on April 15, 1912, the Titanic carried 1,522 people to their graves.

Kristof's 3-D film, more than any other pictures, allows anyone to really see the Titanic -- as he describes it -- as "a great big haunted Victorian mansion of a shipwreck" that continues to captivate people nearly 100 years later.