Outstanding Effect Shots, part 17 of 24

Welcome to the Single-Minded Movie Blog advent calendar. Between the 1st and the 24th of December every day will bring you a short post about a classic or not so classic shot from the golden era of visual effects.

Discovering the Montana
- in The Abyss (1989)

James Cameron's ingenious underwater adventure utilized every technique under the sun (or water as it were), including traditional models and motion-controlled cameras. In this sequence a SWAT team and the crew of the underwater drilling platform Deepcore investigate the wreckage of a sunken submarine, The Montana.

The first big reveal is truly stunning on the big screen, but the subsequent shot that shows the three mini-subs crawling along the hull for the first time is the real kicker:

Dream Quest Images provided the sequence, which was shot with a large 60 foot long miniature submarine wreckage on a big motion-control stage. Literally every element of this shot was hooked up to the motion-control system. The camera move itself was carefully programmed to go as close to the model as possible, without damaging it. Each of the three mini-subs were suspended on 9 wires to provide maximum stability and repeatability. 

On top of that, the lights on the models were programmed to turn off when the camera shutter was closed, to save battery power, and the heads of the tiny diver figures on top of one of the mini-subs were rigged to move too. All shots in the sequence had multiple in-camera passes, including some shot in smoke, to achieve the look of deep sea photography.

Finally bubbles were filmed separately in a tank and added optically to complete the underwater illusion.

Everything about The Abyss is fascinating, and even though the film doesn't work all the way through, it's still magical. Thanks, in no small part, to shots like this.

NOTE: The motion-control images here are taken from the DVD special edition, and do not show the final setup for the shots. Note: The divers are missing from the Flatbed mini-sub.


  1. Weeeee waaaaant Theeeee Abyyyyssss on...fucking Bluray. Stat!