Friday, April 05, 2024

Something We've Never Noticed in "The Abyss"

Selective attention is a concept that all filmmakers need to understand. When an audience is focusing on something, the aspects of the frame that are not directly related to the action, even if they're overwhelmingly dominant, can be rendered invisible to the viewer.

Take this scene from "The Abyss" (1989). In the middle of the most dramatic, most memorable, most heartbreaking scene in the movie, something happens.

Something happens that I didn't notice when I saw the movie in theaters in 1989. I never noticed it when I watched it over and over on my precious LaserDisc version of the film. I never noticed it when I watched it over and over on DVD. And I never noticed it when it finally debuted in 2023 on streaming. Watch this carefully, and then be amazed at what you didn't notice.

watch on YouTube

It's been like this since its release in 1989, and amazingly, has never been painted out of any subsequent releases - thank goodness. What's in the movie is in the movie. Studios and filmmakers need to exercise restraint during restorations, and resist the temptation to paint out "errors" visible in movies. For example, this bit from "Goodfellas" (which has been painted out of the most recent 4K release) and this bit from one of the "Terminator 2" Blu-ray releases, which had a ton of paint fixes and 'special edition' tweaks.

I'm working on investigating this further - I'd really like to know exactly what happened, and if anyone has knowledge about this extremely minute moment of filmmaking. Most likely, a diligent (and aggressive) camera assistant wiped the lens housing of water droplets during a filmed rehearsal, or during a take that they thought would be entirely unusable with water droplets on the glass. 

When the work is compelling, it's amazing what you can get away with.

Pointed out to me by Janne Ojaniemi over on Mastodon. Thanks, Janne!

Update 1: Bluesky user Neil Bulk told me that cinematographer Mikael Salomon pointed out the 'wiping of the lens housing during a take' in a Q&A screening, and was surprised to see Cameron use the take in the final edit.

Update 2: I've talked to two prominent "The Abyss" crewmembers, one of whom was in the editing room throughout the entire production. Both people said they never ever noticed this before, and this was 100% new to them.