On Filming the Underwater Scenes of The Abyss

Remember The Abyss, a 1989 science fiction film that takes place in the deep dark ocean? The movie was directed by James Cameron (Avatar), starring Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, and Michael Biehn.

While the movie was filmed in various locations, including California,  Missouri, and North Carolina, most of the underwater scenes were filmed in an unfinished nuclear reactor facility in Gaffney, South Carolina at the Cherokee Nuclear Power Plant.

Additional underwater scenes were also filmed at theBonne Terre Mine in Bonne Terre, Missouri, where the largest underground lake in the world is located.

Built in the mid-1970s by Duke Power, the containment tanks at the Cherokee Nuclear Power Plant was never actually used as intended. Instead, in January 1986, a film producer from North Carolina named Earl Owensby purchased the abandoned facility and converted it into a movie studio.

Production still of The Abyss via Google.

Production still of The Abyss via Google.

The underwater set of The Abyss contained seven million gallons of water (40 feet deep), the largest underwater set in the world at the time of filming. As deep as the tank was, however, there was still too much light streaming down from the surface. To solve that problem, the crew used a giant tarpaulin and billions of tiny black plastic beads to block out the light. When a storm destroyed the tarpaulin, filming switched to night time.

Because the actors and crew spent the majority of their time working underwater, they had to regularly undergo decompression before re-surfacing. Many of the actors agreed that their experiences during the filming of The Abyss was emotionally and physically draining. Mastrantonio even had a brief emotional break down while Ed Harris almost drowned during one of the underwater scenes.

Since the production of The Abyss went above budget, the underwater set was never dismantled and still exists in the abandoned Cherokee plant today. Visiting the set or taking pictures of the property is considered trespassing and there will be a fine if you get caught. Still, once in a while there are a few curious fans who successfully made the trek and wrote about their adventures. (The photos of the plant are included at the bottom of that web page, so don’t forget to scroll down.)

The Abyss won an Oscar for best visual effects in 1990.

To see all six parts of documentary The Making of The Abyss, check out this YouTube site.