We all know the story of Titanic – the making of James Cameron’s Titanic, that is. The $200 million production, released in December 1997, was perhaps the most ambitious film of its time. The enormous project incorporated a dive to the wreck of the real ship by the director, full-scale sinkable sets constructed in a massive purpose-built water tank, large-scale practical effects, intricate miniatures and cutting-edge digital visual effects – ushering in the realm of digital water and extras. And all this with Cameron’s trademark attention to detail.
Titanic won 11 Oscars, including for visual effects (Robert Legato, Mark A. Lasoff, Thomas L. Fisher and Michael Kanfer) and has made more than $1.8 billion at the box office globally. Now, with the release of a stereoscopically converted version of the film, Titanic 3D, we take a look back at the groundbreaking visual effects work by publishing some personal stories from the production you might not have heard before. Leading the enormous effects effort was overall VFX supe Rob Legato, who championed Digital Domain and a host of other vendors to what has become a milestone in the history of visual effects. Below we’ve identified each individual – only a very small sample of the hundreds of effects crew on the film – with their title and studio at the time.
Visual effects supervisor
Filming miniatures against a red screen: We would light with Kino Flos with backlights and it would excite the red screen and any spill would be blue spill on the ship and against the red screen. So, as opposed to getting red spill on the screen, it would get blue spill on the screen – that was the color of the lights except when they hit the reds. You could light the matte and not worry about the spill light. The best matte was derived on the red layer because it’s soft – it’s not as sharp as the green layer.
Bringing mocap to life: Early on for Titanic, mocap was a brand new technology to do what we were doing, they would just grab anybody of a generic walk cycle. But they didn’t care enough about the performance and it was a little dull. They were just walking nowhere. My belief system is – make everything have a story. Even though the full picture you take from it is, ‘Oh it’s real’ – that’s all you care about – it’s real because you’re looking in that window and something is happening – they’re making dinner, putting on their hat. So I said, ‘Let me go direct it’. And I was sitting in this black void, and I had no ideas. I needed a still of where they might be on the ship and I’ll just do a superimposition and I’d just see through my little TV monitor the people walking around the deck. So now they’re on the deck, there’s a door over there and maybe a waiter will come out – and all of a sudden all the ideas come. A person would take their daughter and look over the rail and point at the water and all of the sudden life comes out. I would do 15 or 20 takes until I believed I got something in that little moment was correct and felt life-like.
Getting the right light fall-off with mini-subs and Maglites: The light doesn’t fall-off quite the same way and it doesn’t fall off to blue the same way in water – it very quickly loses in the last spectral wavelength of the blue. That I couldn’t do – I thought we could have some kind of gradated matte and I was struggling with it. A big hero of mine is Caleb Deschanel and he was going to be photographing the movie before Russell Carpenter did. Caleb said something that I dismissed immediately and then it was one of those things where I was driving home and you think about it. He said, ‘Why don’t you backlight it?’ I said, ‘I can’t backlight because everything’s lit with the Maglites on the ship so I can’t really do that.’ I went home and thought about it. I remembered that they used to pre-flash film. I never really quite understood it or why you would do it. Then I decided I would try something just as a crazy idea. I would take Kino Flos and would light it to the point where it was just at zero exposure – just at nothing. I flooded the area with Kino Flos and backlit smoke or nothing with no apparent exposure. I had to take the ball off my light meter to get the exact formula down.
What it did was pre-flash the film in this blue area only if you had enough light to actually break the inertia of it, and so if you had this little Maglite it would basically start to fall off in intensity and just at the point where it would fall off in intensity it would add it to the little bit of exposure having the blue record and it would be blue. It would imitate exactly what would happen in the water. So now it’s the underwater set lit from below by Kinos that are so underexposed that they don’t register. Only until the little bit of light that’s left over basically adds to it, but only adds to it in the blue record, it doesn’t add to the green record or red record. As it falls off to that it actually goes through a little bit of red and green and eventually blue. I think Cameron was pretty amazed at how well it worked, because you could bounce back and forth between his shot and my shot and unless you’ve got an incredibly trained eye, and even now, because it’s been so long, I have to intellectually remember that, ‘Oh if it’s two subs I shot it and if it’s one it’s real.’ Occasionally we picked up a shot that if he didn’t get it was a one sub scenario.
Digital effects supervisor, Digital Domain
Water, water everywhere: We knew that digital ocean water was one of our biggest challenges. We did some internal tests writing our own water shaders, and it proved to be challenging, especially due to the wide variety of camera views, from close-ups, looking straight down from the deck of the ship, to wide shots, many miles out to the horizon. We needed to solve many technical issues, including wave pattern aliasing, photorealistic ocean lighting models, wave and whitecap simulation, physically correct displacement from the ship, and realistic ship wake. I came across Arete, a government contractor who had been developing ocean simulation and rendering software to assist satellite spying of ocean going vessels for the U.S. Department of Defense. Arete’s software was also used in a very limited, lock-off way, for Waterworld. We had many more complications, but we recognized the power of Arete’s core capability of rendering a photorealistic ocean using an accurate sun/atmospheric lighting model along with physically accurate but random wave simulation. They produced much better results than our internal tests, but unfortunately, Arete was not open software and did not have any features for integrating and interacting with a ship. We engaged Arete in a 4-month contract to customize their software to integrate with our pipeline and provide the ship displacement and other features. This turned out to be a crucial partnership for delivering digital ocean water throughout the film.
Digital extras: When we started on Titanic, in 1996, motion capture was still pretty early. Although it recorded mocap targets accurately, it was very noisy, and it required lots of clean-up to make it usable. And once we applied the mocap data to character rigs, it still needed lots of animator work to make it look correct. (Most of these mocap problems have been solved in the ten years after Titanic.) In spite of these challenges, we built up a library of dozens of motion capture passengers, dressed in period costume, ready for placement and rendering on the ship. When the time came to populate the model, and the digital, Titanic, we instanced these pre-animated sequences around the ship any number of times until we filled the deck. The mocap characters, walking and interacting around the ship, looked and acted like real passengers, and even included my 3-year daughter running around the deck.
For stunts, we changed our approach. We motion captured real stunt men, but for speed and efficiency, we decided to ‘roto-capture’ using the mocap data applied to simple skeletons that animators would use to key frame in 3 dimensions. We were able to use roto-capture because stunt animation was much more forgiving and didn’t have the subtlety required of deck passengers. The roto-capture/key frame approach gave us the ability to produce animation at 5 or 10 times the speed. And then we went to traditional key frame animation for any kinds of stunts that were too complex or dangerous to motion capture.
Titanic’s legacy: I didn’t know it at the time, but I think we were on the cusp of visual effects becoming the backbone of a completely photorealistic film. The ship, the ocean, the passengers, these were all centerpieces of Titanic. Yes, there were remarkable visual effects films before, but many of these films did not have the photorealistic bar that Titanic had to achieve because of its subject matter and physical environment. It opened up more story possibilities for filmmakers. For me, it was a privilege to be able to merge powerful history, great filmmaking, and photorealistic visual effects, and on top of all of that, it was wonderful that Titanic captured the world’s imagination.
Digital compositing supervisor, Digital Domain
Signature shots: Two shots come to mind: A shot we called TD35 (the big fly-over and reveal of the Titanic after Leo declares he is the ‘King of the World’) is certainly the big ‘money’ shot, and used every CG and filming technique available to man at the time! And then my favorite shot in the whole film, which by the way was was masterfully composited on the Flame and Nuke by Carey Villegas (now a well known VFX supervisor), was the very last shot in the film, which to this day gives me goosebumps every time I see it! I can’t for the life of me remember the shot number, but it’s the one where we start with Rose in her bed, seamlessly transition to a fly-by of the ocean floor where we see the Titanic wreck miniature from afar, head into one of the openings and then a perfect morph carries us through the end of the pristine 1912 deck traveling into the doorway of the ballroom and then up the stairs to see Kate and Leo kiss and then up to the skylight to the end fade out. It’s one of the most stunning and and polished morphing hookup-move composites ever done in a film, and between Jim Cameron’s direction, Rob Legato’s shot design and direction, Erik Nash’s impeccable motion control, Jimmy Muro’s dreamlike Steadicam work, the DD model shop’s amazing miniatures, Carey had all the goods to take it home and craft a masterpiece.
Nuke at DD: Nuke was pretty well along at the time, and many of the compositors worked with it exclusively. Bill Spitzak (the inventor of Nuke) and team had come up with an amazing utility called ‘Flame to Nuke’, which enabled the action scripts from Flame to be translated into Nuke, and the shots could be handed off to other compositors and the render farms. This allowed our Flame artists to do the creative / interactive work, and then pass on the heavy lifting and image processing to Nuke. We could never have finished the show using only the Flames and Infernos.
Tracking solution: We called it the ‘STEREOCAM’. It was a clever idea that Rob Legato came up with which I then worked out the details and executed. Take two 35mm cameras (in those days it meant using film-based Nikons – yes, remember that thing called film!) and put them on a precision rig about three feet apart and simultaneously shoot an object of known dimensions to calibrate the rig. Then go and shoot the various miniatures and sets (basically a set survey without the tape measures). Process, line-up and and scan the film, and then using the amazing software that Doug Roble of DD invented, we were able to use the stereo pairs to extract geometry and measurements through basic techniques of photogrammetry. Rather than slow down (and potentially frustrate) Jim and his crew during the live action shoot, we went into the various sets whenever there was a break, and kept it pretty low-key. The results were astonishing as far as accuracy…pretty much plus or minus an eighth of an inch on sets as large as 50 feet, giving the 3D CG tracking department a good head start on match moving the shots.
Titanic’s legacy: So many memories…and a few blank periods, where to this day I still can’t remember anything from a couple of the months that went by in the middle. I was on the film for over two and a half years, and for one stretch, worked seven days a week for seven months straight! My earliest memory – spending a whole day in a guarded office at Lightstorm Entertainment Inc. (Jim’s company) reading in amazement his early ‘scriptment’ thinking, OMG, this is just going to be physically and technically impossible to pull off, but of course, my first impression was wrong! And remember, when you work with a genius like Jim, you pretty much have to give up the idea that something is impossible starting on day one! I worked harder on this film than I ever did on anything else in my life, and at the same time had the time of my life. I loved being part of Jim’s team, and it cemented some amazing friendships with my co-workers…the kind where you feel like you have been to war and back together!
The coolest memory – I spent a good deal of time in Mexico on the live action set helping Rob Legato and working with Jim’s crew. On previous films, I had only worked behind the scenes as a compositor, but my first day on the set in Mexico (or for that matter on any set of any film) was the scene where Rose and entourage arrive at the South Hampton dock! 1200 fully costumed extras, a 900+ foot life sized replica of the Titanic, surrounded by a tank of 80 million gallons of water and Jim fully in his element…it just was a mindblower. Almost surreal. From that day on, I called myself the Forrest Gump of VFX! Titanic, like all of Jim’s film was a filmmaking and VFX game changer. The first extensive use of CG water and mocap characters seamlessly combined with models, miniatures, green-screens and live action. All photoreal, and in service of an epic story. After this film, it became pretty clear that sometime in the near future, pretty much anything one could imagine could be portrayed on film.
Visual effects director of photography, Digital Domain
Main shots: I was responsible for shooting the two primary miniatures, the 44 foot long 1/20th scale Titanic that’s seen throughout the first half of the movie up to and including hitting the iceberg and starting to take on water. This was all done in a hangar in Playa Vista, California. The other big miniature was the one of the wreck, present day, sitting on the ocean floor, which was intercut in the beginning of the movie with actual footage of the Titanic wreck that Jim shot from a MIR submersible. Jim had two MIR submersibles at his disposal and used both, so if you saw two submersibles, that was a miniature shot. For the real shot, the camera was on one of the subs so it couldn’t be in the shot, so our footage had to intercut with real wreck footage.
A suitable scale: We worked at a couple of different scales; the two miniatures previously mentioned were both 1/20th scale which is too small to work with in real water so for the sinking portion of the program we didn’t have a complete ship but sections — an aft section and a bow section that were 1/8 scale that we shot in a tank we built in Acton, California. That was happening concurrently with the miniature work at Playa Vista, and Rob Legato also served as DP for that portion, so those 1/8 scale miniatures were shot in water. That was for the sinking portion of the story.
The other big challenge we faced was putting the actors on board the 1/20th scale miniature — this was the biggest technical challenge of the photography because we had huge sweeping camera moves that were fairly straightforward to shoot of the miniature, and because with 1/20th size we had a range of motion that the motion control rig could cover. When you scale those up to life-size to shoot Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet to put on the bow of ship, 1) you have to shoot real time and can’t shoot one frame per second, and 2) now the moves are bigger than the corresponding moves on the miniature. The solution was to take the lateral component of the camera move out and put actors on a motion control turntable. This meant translating an XYZ translational camera move into two track axes (we had the camera on a high speed dolly track so it could move up/down but didn’t need to go left right because that was done with the turntable) so it was a big math problem. Figuring out the formula made it straightforward and allowed us to shoot the actors and place them on the miniature seamlessly. Working at 1/20th scale was also a challenge to get sufficient depth of field. Depth of field is always a challenge with miniatures — 1/20th scale is as small as you want to go; it’s nearing the limit of having believable depth of field.
What happened to the miniatures: The last I heard, the 44-footer was on display down at Manhattan Beach Studios where Jim is setting up shop. I have no idea where all of the other 1/8 scale miniatures wound up. Some of the big miniatures had to be cut into pieces to get them off the shooting stage.
That helicopter fly-over: The biggest challenge was shooting a matching camera move that incorporated live action people. Another was the number of matte passes we had to shoot for railing and rigging, and all of the deck detail. The railings at that scale are incredibly thin so we had to place green screen cards we had to place behind railings. It’s one big shot, the first beauty shot of the ship. We had a full night shift on the miniature stage, and it took three consecutive 12-hour shifts just to shoot all of the elements for that one shot. Another interesting story is that one of the first shots we did was of that miniature we photographed, but it was one of the last shots to finish because it was so complicated…CG water, smoke, people — that shot was in process for close to a year and allegedly cost in the neighborhood of a million dollars when all was said and done.
Titanic’s legacy: it was the longest miniature shoot and I was on the movie from beginning to end for 14 months continuously. We couldn’t shoot at DD so we had to set up a model shop and shooting stages in a hangar in Playa Vista. The scope of the undertaking is something that I’ll never forget. It was such a humongous undertaking on every level. Nowadays it would all be done CG so I don’t think miniature work at that scale will ever be done again.
My transition to the digital realm came after Titanic. I started VFX supervising shortly after that. I was peripherally exposed to the CG effort on Titanic, which was CG water and people put onto miniatures. I think Titanic was the driving force that made digital water happen. It was going to happen but Titanic really forced it into being at that time. Digital Domain came into being right as the photo-chemical foundation of VFX – optical printing and analog matte painting – was just getting replaced by the digital world. Titanic was sort of right in the middle of that huge transition which we’re pretty much through now. That non-digital portion of the VFX world has shrunken to less than 10% of what we do. Titanic was right in the middle of that transition from a purely photochemical analog process to a 95% digital discipline. Titanic was a movie that accelerated that shift somewhat. There are parts of the old practical world that I miss. On Real Steel we actually did a little bit of miniature work; that was fun and was a perfect fit. There are parts that I miss, but there is so much more flexibility in the digital realm that there’s no going back. So there’s a bit of sadness for what I think is quickly going to become a lost art form, but time marches on.Watch a clip – ‘Titanic breaks in half’
Digital animator, Digital Domain
Main shots: I assembled and created isolated scenes of CG passengers using motion capture clips. These individual scenes then were used to populate the deck. I also animated generic CG passengers falling, sliding, tumbling down the tilted titanic, and also passengers jumping off the ship. These animations were more specific to the geography of the deck. I also animated some of the hero passengers sliding down the deck. For the final moments of the ship I animated the passengers hanging on the railing and jumping into the water, or getting swallowed by the vortex. Finally, I created a set of generic lifeboats filled with passengers rowing, looking back, holding their kids and similar performances.
Animated passengers: For animating the passengers we used Softimage, at the time the most advanced software available. For motion capture we mainly used a wired magnetic system, that means that the motion sensors attached to the performer were transmitting their data via a set of cables. The optical systems produced very inaccurate data in those years. The cables of course limited the range of motion for the performers dramatically (compared to today’s capture volumes).
The actual motion capture data required a lot of clean up. The sensors weren’t that accurate, the sampling rates very low, the cables added noise to the data and the whole technology was just at the beginning of its
development. The animators spent quite some time cleaning up curves, smoothing out movements and reinventing some performances manually all together. It was a very elaborate process. Also, we captured finger movements separate from the actor’s performance and then put it together on our rigs in Softimage. We just couldn’t capture all of it in one pass. Since the capture volume was so small, even creating seamless walk-cycles for people ambling on deck was a matter of stitching several moves together, which then created repetition which then needed some fixing again and so forth.
The biggest challenge for creating the CG passengers certainly was to achieve the demanded photorealism, which was really not easy back in the mid 90s. I am not sure if Titanic was the first production to attempt
CG humans, but it certainly was one of the first ones. Today’s fundamentals, like anatomical correct pivot points in the underlying skeletons, correct deformations of skin and muscles, especially of shoulders and necks, and the simulation of cloth for the costumes were all just about to be invented in those years. In fact there was no cloth solver used on Titanic, but dozens of joints to animate the jackets and hats and skirts. So every aspect of the creation of photoreal, convincing passengers was difficult and a process of innovation. By the end of the project we had the foundations for cloth solvers, motion capture friendly rigs, script and lots of data and experience.
Titanic’s legacy: My memories of working on that film are still vivid. The production was intense, towards delivery date artists worked about 80 plus hours per week, and there were many artists! The ‘rock’n’roll’ spirit of Digital Domain in those years I won’t easily, if ever, forget. There was of course the experience of working under James Cameron’s irrational demand for perfection, the admiration for the huge Titanic model that was used for the break-up sequence, the red-screen motion control model shoots, and just the spirit of working at the frontier of creating world class visual effects and animations. As signature shots for me I’d pick the last few shots where the stern of the Titanic rushes down and disappears in the ocean. We had to add all those swim vest-wearing passengers holding onto the railings, sliding off and tumble into the boiling water below. Naturally those were all animated not captured. I still keep those shots on my demo reel.
Digital Titanic technical supervisor, Digital Domain
Main shots: Our team created the photoreal digital Titanic which was used throughout the movie in major and minor sequences. For example, from the moment the ship goes upright throughout the climax, the ship isn’t real, it’s ours. Sometimes it would be used to extend the small piece of real set deck mounted on a huge gimbal and sometimes the entire ship was our digital set.
Birth of DD’s Windows NT group: My team came to Digital Domain from Amblin Imaging where we won an Emmy for our work on Star Trek Voyager and did seaQuest, Sliders, and many other fun things. We started using LightWave 3d on the higher end Amiga computers of the day. Advances in RISC-based machines like the DEC Alpha and the demise of Commodore Amiga moved the team over to Windows NT on these desktop supercomputers. Because of the insane floating-point performance of these machines and the extremely production optimized LightWave, we could actually use real raytracing and pseudo-radiosity solutions on daily production deadlines – something that is still an exception today. But while we had a huge price performance advantage over the SGI machines of the day, the real credit goes to an incredible team of very talented artists that were seasoned having to perform miracles daily on a TV budget and schedule. Once they turned their attention to film, they took up their game exponentially.
Toolset: Our tools were LightWave 3D, Dec Alpha desktop supercomputers, and the in-house compositing
software now released as Nuke. The rest was all human talent. With regards to the digital Titanic itself, Fred Tepper’s demo to get hired at Amblin was a CGI model of the Titanic, so we all knew it was a subject near and dear to his heart. When we landed at Digital Domain, our first meeting at Lightstorm happened within days. We were seated in James Cameron’s private theater with no idea that we were about to being seeing the first footage of the real Titanic resting at the bottom of the ocean. Needless to say, we were hooked!
Sneaking in the digital model: Digital Domain was primarily a model shop at the time and we arrived having freshly converted Star Trek from 30 years of model to CGI. But when I pointed out during Titanic budget and vfx consultations that building four different scale physical models would never work once they were brought into final composite, we were unceremoniously dismissed! But I knew that those hand-built gorgeous models would NEVER line up pixel to pixel the way they needed them to, so we decided to build our own Titanic in secret, just in case. Everyone built a piece, but Fred was the driving force, of course. And over the next six months, we
gained the respect of our peers and learned the politics of the game. Finally, after a month of wheeling and dealing, my fellow DFX supervisor, Mark Lasoff and I felt the NT team’s Titanic was ready to show. Just as importantly, however, was the fact that early in 1997 the film was falling behind and Fox was getting scared. The media was pitching Titanic as the next Waterworld and so the heat was on.
We felt we had the right solution at the right moment and Mark showed our test to visual effects supervisor Rob Legato. And Rob agreed to slip it into dailies without warning Jim first! As was recounted to me, the meeting went something like this: They are looking at a shot, Jim makes notes, and they move on. The next shot was ours and it looked really good. Jim moves onto the next shots, gets ready to make notes, and then asks to go back one shot. Teeth gritted all around him, Jim looks at our test again and again, until finally he has to ask “Is that the set or a model?” When he’s told it is the digital Titanic, Jim looks at it long and hard and then proclaims, “Well, it’s as good as my set and better than your model, so that’s the way we’re going from here on out!” And that is exactly what happened. We had already used a crude version of our model to do the sinking/simulation sequence, so we already had ties into the pipeline. We next started replacing sections of the hull and deck that the physical models just could not be forced to do. One of the advantages of our digital model was that we could move, rebuild, stretch, or bend to fit any need, real or imagined. That flexibility without losing photorealism was the key. Then the set extensions gave way to full ship replacements for the ending sequences where upwards of 80-90% of the screen became entirely synthetic.
Old Rose sees the sim: The simulation served as a perfect cover for us to build the real Titanic. Jim knew what he wanted to show as his proposed solution to what happened to the Titanic and how its pieces came to rest where they currently lie at the bottom of the Atlantic. What most people don’t know is that the ENTIRE breaking and sinking sequence, above and below the water, was animated and rendered, even though only about two-thirds of this made it into the film. It was also entirely hand-animated. No physics simulations, dynamics, etc. etc. It also served as a de factor pre-visualization of the entire breaking and sinking sequence for later on in the show. That would prove invaluable when the time came to join the Titanic team en masse.
Titanic’s legacy: When we came to Digital Domain it was ‘on probation’. They didn’t know if we could do the things we claimed, but they sure believed that we believed we could! So they gave us a chance. 18 months later, Rob and Mark screened footage of Titanic for the visual effects Academy voters – the most distinguished group of visual effects geniuses, pioneers, and legends on the planet. When Rob brought up a wide shot of the Titanic thrusting upwards into the night sky, surrounded by drowning people, everyone in the room was sure that was a real physical model. When he clicked over to show a massive wireframe rendering of the entire scene – revealing that nothing in the frame, save a few nearby victims, was real – the entire audience gasped. My favorite personal moment was at the wrap party on the Queen Mary when this masterpiece was finally put in the can late that summer. As I was trying to thank Jim for this incredible opportunity, he cut me off and told me, ‘You saved my film.’ And while the entire industry has now gone PC and the multimillion dollar tools we invented to deliver Titanic can be bought as desktop plug-ins for pennies, that one moment of validation and heartfelt appreciation from one of my only living heroes is what I will always remember most fondly about Titanic.
Supervisor, Vision Crew Unlimited
Main shots: Along with my VCU partners Doug Miller and Jon Warren, we were initially contacted by Digital Domain’s model shop to fabricate a lot of the detail pieces for the deck of the 44-foot miniature Titanic they were building. Gene Rizzardi and George Stevens were supervising the construction of miniatures for the project and were having some difficulty hiring enough staff to handle the workload and hit a tight deadline so we were subcontracted to help out. Then some time later, we were contacted by production to contribute to the engine room sequence being shot by Steve Quale.
Details, details: Historical accuracy was very important but it was challenging because there aren’t a lot of photos available of details. In many cases we relied on photos of her sister ships, the Olympic and the Britannic. Titanic historian, Ken Marschall, was a tremendous resource as well. This attention to detail extended to discussions of exactly how many rivets might be on a ventilator or a precise bolt pattern on a crane door. It really was a museum quality model and when it was all assembled, it was quite breathtaking. Since the model would be used for many sequences in the film, most of our pieces needed to be positionable. This meant, lifeboats with detailed interiors (even though they were mostly covered), rotating cranes, movable davits, even porthole windows that could be opened. I remember the davits, which lower the lifeboats into the water, being particularly tricky to fabricate. The lifeboats were pretty heavy and there was concern that the davits would sag under the hot lights during long motion control passes so we cast them out of bronze. They were a complicated shape to cast and we ended up going to a foundry that typically fabricated very high end, fine art pieces.
Making engines: The plan was to photograph a real working Liberty ship’s reciprocating engines as plates. Liberty ship engines looked somewhat similar to Titanic’s design, but were smaller. So, we built 1:3 scale ladders, catwalks and lights to cheat the scale of the real engines. We had to install all these in the real ship’s engine room and then cruise around the harbor shooting plates. It was a real challenge because we had to remove most of the safety rails, etc from the engines which made it a little scary being down there. Everything was covered in grease in the engine room so installing our models was tricky! I believe VIFX did all the compositing and also built some models for the sequence that were shot later on stage.
Titanic’s legacy: Seeing the new 3D trailers in theaters has brought back a lot of memories. It was a very challenging VFX project that pushed the limits of the technology available. In one sense, it was a very ‘old school’ approach to VFX, with epic sized sets, large scale models for the sinking and destruction, high detail miniatures for motion control work, matte paintings for environments, etc. But it also broke new ground. For example, digital humans and water really hadn’t been exploited until Titanic. And perhaps most importantly, it was also the beginning of the transition away from the SGI platform to less costly, desktop machines for CGI, which over the next few years totally changed the way the industry worked. It was exciting to be a part of the film at the time and everyone involved was holding themselves to the highest standard. That the film has stood the test of time, proves that it was worth it.
Visual effects supervisor, Hammerhead
Main shots: We worked on two sequences for the film, the dolphins jumping in the bow wake as the ship headed out of port and a transition from the ROV footage to the fireplace in Kate’s room as she and Leonardo entered right before he sketched her.
Diving dolphins: There were a half dozen or so shots in the dolphin sequence and they ran the gamut from simple splits to full CG dolphins. Some of the shots involved compositing an image of the Titanic, tracked over the top of the Lane Victory, which was a ship that the production hired to cut through the water convincingly. In one of the CG dolphin shots, we created the dolphins and had to make it look like they were under the water leading the ship. We developed a system to distort the elements using the image of the water which connected them perfectly to the plate.
Another of the shots was taken from a piece of stock footage that was shot for Under Siege 2 that had a dolphin jumping in front of that ship. We needed to replace the ship with the titanic and Jim wanted the dolphin to jump twice instead of the once that it did in the source material. Initially we were concerned that doing a split in the water would be very difficult but to our surprise it turned out to be quite easy. Apparently, the turbulence of the water masks the blends perfectly. In another of the CG shots, they had a plate of a beautiful jumping dolphin but it was alone, or as Jim called it – lonely. We added two ‘friends’ using the same distortion tricks. The other inside story is that the dolphins that the production shot are Pacific White Sided dolphins and completely the wrong species for a ship traveling the Atlantic. Oh well.
Massaging a fireplace: The two plates on the fireplace scene were shot to match as closely as possible but of course didn’t fit exactly. We used the same morphing technology that we used in the Michael Jackson ‘Black or White’ video to align them perfectly and created a series of wipes to help steer the transition to focus on exactly what Jim was looking for. An additional element that we added was the ‘plankton’ and we made sure to have the particles in the light be bright but also the ones between the light and camera dark to give it a more realistic and dimensional look.
Titanic’s legacy: One of my strongest memories was horrifyingly getting the note that Jim thought one of our shots looked ‘fake’. Of course I immediately thought he was talking about the dolphins which is where we had spent most of our effort. It turned out he was talking about the ship which is, of course, the hero of the movie. With some attention, it fell into place quite nicely. Another funny thing about the show was that editorial was at Jim’s house in Malibu. We would arrange ‘family day at the beach’ and I would take my 4 year old daughter over when we would meet with him. She would run around on his basketball court while I was meeting and reviewing shots. On one of the days, Jim needed to get back to cutting the film and said, “Excuse me… I need to go kill Leonardo.” I also remember seeing a kids seat in the back of his Humvee – quite the sight!
As for the impact that the film had, it happened at a very transitional time in digital effects. The tools were progressing so rapidly and filmmakers like Jim Cameron were pushing to get the vision he had been craving and we were agreeing to do things that we didn’t necessarily know how we were going to do. Now days, all of these shots would be considered trivial but at the time it was really the cutting edge.
Visual effects supervisor, Banned From the Ranch Entertainment
Main shots: We worked on about 50 shots for the film, starting on about a dozen basic monitor burn-ins, but by the end we ended up doing a bunch of catch-all composites and even some original CG elements like the fish, culminating in doing the composite of the long opening shot in the film, where the two Russian submersibles are descending to the wreck through the North Atlantic depths. It was a classic case of getting awarded more shots because you keep showing them how much more you can do. We used a combination of Electric Image and Adobe After Effects and Photoshop for most of the work, with certain elements in Softimage and in one instance (the opening submersible shot), we composited using the command-line version of Shake, way back before it had been bought out by Apple.
The fish and the bathtub: The underwater shot of the bathtub itself was filmed, I believe, in a tank shoot in Escondido, California, prior to principal photography, but it was in postproduction that they decided to add a fish to it. BFTR was tasked to comp in a digital fish element – an eel-like thing – that had been created by Digital Domain, so it was a straightforward comp job with provided elements from DD, which was offloading their easier shots to other houses so that they could concentrate on the big hero shots.
Well, with so many visual effects facilities now being brought in to work on the show, it was impossible to have them all drive out on a daily basis to Jim Cameron’s house in Malibu where the film was being cut, so the VFX editorial team had a system for getting shot feedback from Jim that involved not only the usual note-taking by the post supervisor(s), but a VHS camcorder filming Jim at his KEM film viewer as he reviewed the filmouts (back in the days before we could do digital shot reviews). So each VFX house would get a feedback sheet for each shot being reviewed, plus a VHS tape of Jim giving his notes, so there was absolutely no question or interpretation of what Jim wanted.
So we had dutifully taken the DD fish elements (key, beauty, specular, etc.) and composited them into the bathtub plate, and thought we had done a pretty decent job; we turned in the shot for filmout, and then it goes up to Malibu for review, along with other shots. We get back a feedback sheet that reads ‘NOT APPROVED’, so we start watching the VHS tape of Jim’s reaction to the shots. He takes one look and he’s on an expletive-filled tear about it being the wrong type of fish for a couple of minutes, right down to pointing out the scientific names of the actual fish species that were found at the wreck. And it wasn’t our fish element in the first place! Finally, he goes silent for a moment, then says, ‘ask Van if he wants to do a digital fish.’ So after a nerve-wracking few minutes of basically feeling like a messenger of bad news being put in the crosshairs, we are now given the chance to step up and fix it, which is right up our alley.
I did my research – I had started my career as a researcher and VFX liaison for Jim on The Abyss – and found the right kind of fish he wanted (a grenadier fish, by the way) and one of our artists, Jordan Harris, modeled it in Softimage on the SGI while artist Frank Vitale did the texture maps, and we comped it in Adobe After Effects on the Mac and lit it with a translucent glow as the ROV lights reveal it. It turned out nicely, and we were particularly proud of that shot because it was one of the first times we had a chance to create a photoreal, organic creature in a shot. Up until then it was SF/fantasy stuff. I know it seems like nothing today, but it was significant for a small boutique like ours, which had only really started to do VFX that year (for the prior few years, we had concentrated on screen graphics and scientific displays for movies like Twister, The Relic and Starship Troopers. And based on that, they started giving us even more shots to do on the film.
Burning in the sinking sim: We had done a series of insert shots with minimal graphic overlays for the opening dive sequence, where we did it the old-fashioned way – shooting video footage off a monitor with a film camera. But the sinking simulation sequence had been shot in Halifax with greenscreen on the monitors because Digital Domain had not finished the complex CG simulation in time for the shoot, so we were asked to comp the finished animation into the screens during post. They had a big preview screening coming up and didn’t get the sequence edited and locked until a few days before the preview, so I ended up having to composite the eighteen monitor shots myself in two days – it’s one of the reasons I love Adobe After Effects. We got a low-res edited sequence with really jaggy temp comps done in the Avid by Jim, and then we got the scanned plates and the 1K LightWave simulation animation from DD a couple of days before the screening.
One of the shots was a medium closeup of the screen were you can see the sides of the monitor, and when we looked at the scans we received for it, it was the wide room shot; we thought that they had scanned the wrong footage by mistake, but it turned out that there was no medium shot ever filmed – Jim had blown up the wide shot by 400% in the Avid and created a medium shot from it! Since what worked in a low-res, compressed temp Avid comp was never going to work at 2K film resolution, I then had to paint an entirely new high-res background from scratch in Photoshop, complete with Post-It notes and taped-up photos along the edge of the screen to match the set dressing in the original wide-shot footage before I could comp in the screen image itself – all within those two days before the preview screening. It’s so funny to consider that we now do that kind of work on a daily basis in film and broadcast work, but it was a big deal in 1997.
Van’s cameo: My cameo was a wonderful pair of one-week vacations in October 1996 and February 1997, when I got to go down to Mexico and hang out on the most amazing sets I’ve ever seen. I was going through hell on the set of Spawn when I got a page from Jim’s office asking me to come down to Mexico to play a (historically accurate, apparently) Chinese passenger in the film who had been picked up floating on a wooden door in the aftermath of the sinking. I reckon I was the only Chinese person Jim knew at the time! So I left Spawn in the capable hands of BFTR owner/producer Casey Cannon and the team in Los Angeles, and bailed to Rosarito, where we filmed some tank work with shots of me covered in frost and being rescued. I remember calling my parents and saying “Hi, I’m in Mexico, how do you say ‘I’m cold’ in Cantonese?” I also remember documentarian Ed Marsh’s ‘Making the Abyss‘ DVD documentary playing in a non-stop loop in the cast and extras’ dressing rooms, presumably to give everyone some context of working with Jim.
Then a few months later, I get called back down for another week of filming to shoot my character’s establishing scenes in the steerage opening scenes and in the middle of the film when Jack, Rose and the third-class passengers are storming the locked gates. At that time, we were not even involved in any of the VFX work – this was just a nice gesture from Jim, which I much appreciated. A few months after that, we came in as one of some sixteen VFX houses taking on overflow work from Digital Domain in order to get the film done on time. So I ended up with both VFX and acting credits on the film, which was great, and since I was a member of the Screen Actors Guild, the residuals didn’t hurt, either! Of course, my rescue scene did not make the theatrical cut, but it finally appeared in the deleted scenes of the Special Edition DVD set, which I produced in 2005, and I got to add digital breath to myself! In fact, Casey and I produced the additional 50 VFX shots for an hour’s worth of deleted scenes in 2005, in full HD resolution, with my small team of freelance artists, mostly using Adobe After Effects and a little bit of Electric Image. I don’t expect that any of those scenes are being put back into the film for the 3D release, though.
Watch a reel of BFTR’s visual effects work for Titanic on Van Ling’s website here (scroll to screen 3).
Titanic’s legacy: What I think Titanic did was show that it was possible to have multiple effects houses working in concert toward a consistent creative vision, sharing elements and overseen by the production to great effect; this is now the standard procedure in the VFX industry, and not only allows a more efficient process of getting creative work done, but also gives smaller houses the ability to work and show their chops on bigger films.
In general, I think that Titanic really proved that you could use the power of VFX in a subtle yet integrated way, where the film couldn’t have been done so epically without the effects, but they didn’t hit you over the head with the gee-whiz factor and coolness of the technology – it was all serving the story. There was every kind of effects technique used, from miniatures and matte paintings to set extensions and full-on CG water and ships; more significantly in my view, there was every kind of utility VFX shot done, from wire removals to actor removals, to adding digital stars, horizons and cold breath into live plates and adding digital water into hallways to increase dramatic tension (and that’s just BFTR’s shots) all on top of one of the most amazing live action shoots in history. It was incredibly innovative in its synthesis, and that all comes directly from Jim Cameron – he set the bar in showing that a filmmaker can wield the big innovative technologies as a tool for story, and not have to compromise his vision or let the techniques drive everything else. Other filmmakers – especially ones who were not in the SF or fantasy genres – were able to see how the effects could be used for THEIR style of storytelling, and not to dismiss VFX or CG as being for a certain set of genres.
Dr. Ken Jones
Visual effects supervisor, CIS
Main shots: Rose contemplates jumping over the railing at the stern of the ship.
Comp’ing wakes: The elements for the Rose sequence were greenscreen of the actor’s elements on the back of the ship, and various overhead shots of the wake of the Lane Victory, a merchant ship out of Long Beach, CA. All elements were supplied to CIS. I had the artists ‘warp’ the ocean wake elements to match the vanishing point perspective of the live action plates. The major compositing software was Inferno. At that time, a 100 frame shot was considered a long shot to work on, both because of CPU and memory, but also for data storage for the intermediate elements. The blue color of the shots, plus the warm glow of the lamps, were, of course, added during post. There were real lamps on the set, but the yellowish glow merged into the greenscreen background and needed to mostly be replaced.
In 1996, tracking was done using 2D techniques applied to tracking marks on the greenscreen. Since all of the resulting water/wake/star backgrounds were very far off, essentially at infinity, there were no real 3d tracking issues to be addressed. It mostly had to do with applying a 2D track, and creating a correctly warped water wake element. There were many composting issues of blending the wake to reach the horizon, adding stars and edge clean-up. The transparent lace dress that Rose was wearing took some work, especially when it was near a lamp glow. We also did some red hair enhancement where necessary.
Titanic’s legacy: I think Titanic enhanced the overall thinking on the scope of creating a major epic using many digital techniques. It also showed the studios that there seemed to be a much higher limit on the box office that a properly engaging epic could return. The effects at the time were the most elaborate use of digital methods to create a realistic looking environment. Of course now, just like happened with T2, the effects that were once totally amazing are routinely applied to enhance far lower budgeted features. But the vision of what was possible drove the development of the tools that makes these shots far easier today than then.
Visual effects supervisor, VIFX
Main shots: Engine room sequence and breath shots.
Miniature engine room with real actors: Other than some very cool compositing there were two major hurdles in producing the engine room sequence. One class of shots included the notion of shooting a miniature and then some how putting real humans into the miniature. Doing this would be easy-ish if the camera did not move but of course, it did. Our strategy was to first shoot the engine room miniature. We then scaled up the move to be the equivalent life size move in order to shoot the humans. The remaining effort would be just the comp if all went well.I needed to get the exact angles and placement of the workers to match the miniature and to do so we measured the miniature and built, in full scale, a scaffolding structure where the live action of the workers would act and move. One of the problems that I found was our stage space was not tall enough. A simple solution to the problem was to dig a hole in the stage floor to give me the height that I needed to match the angles. I went to the producer, Jon Landau, and asked for money and he said no. My next alternative was to not scale the rig to full size but to undersize it so that it would fit in the stage area. It should not have been a surprise to any one if any one understood what I was doing that I made a call for the extras to not be taller than about 5 1/2 feet so as to not ruin the cheat.When planning the motion control moves for the miniature I tried to be sensitive to how fast I would have to move the larger rig for the human actors which would have to run at full speed. We built a rig that was fast enough but was not stable enough through the moves producing low frequency oscliations on the camera. We strengthened the rig but it still vibrated until I attached a rope to the camera head and applied a not so delicate counter force by hand during the move that finally reduced the oscillations.
The second class of shots was just as much a challenge. We were given the foreground live action plate and were told to put the miniature in the back ground. Of course the camera moved during the shot. Today this is actually a fairly simple problem but at the time it required the idea of somehow extracting the camera move through space, now called camera tracking. Digital Domain through the efforts of Doug Roble had pioneered and just recently created software that could do this exact task. I asked for their help and they supplied us with a version of the software to allow us to track the camera and then apply that movement, scaled down, to photograph the miniature with our motion control camera. It worked perfectly.
Breath in the Atlantic: Another class of work that we were given were the ‘breath’ shots were we added the moisture condensing effect to live action shots. The actors were not shot in sub-zero temperatures and Jim Cameron wanted the breath effect to help the scenes appear to be shot in the cold.We set up a shoot in a specially built tent with a large refrigerated air conditioning unit attached. In the interior it was all black dubiteen. I shot several different posses, some of them with the persons mouth behind a hole in the black dubiteen. Our plan was to luminance key the material back on the specific shots. After the first shoot it became apparent that I had to angle the breath elements more specific, read accurate, to the actual shot. We went back and shot some more elements. We started compositing and it became apparent that not only did the angle have to be right but the actual timing and bursting of the breath elements had to fit better. We went back again, and now the people producing the breath for our shoot were speaking the lines as they were in the movie. I believe there were other things that I missed or became “apparent” to me and I think we went back to that tent two more times to get the appropriate library of breath elements.
Titanic’s legacy: Titanic was a great project for me and my company VIFX. It was one of those moments in time where we were able to combine a couple of new and some old technologies in order to accomplish our work on Titanic. These shots were not easy at all to composite and to color correct at the time. I had hundreds of feet of color wedges trying to match the ‘Cameron Blue’ look that he was going for.
Digital compositing supervisor, POP Film
Main shots: We were brought on to the show about 4 months before the end of post to handle some additional work. We started off with a small CG team of about 5 people creating the cavitation bubbles that come off the main propellers as the engines start up. This work then led to a number of crowd replication shots and then quite close to the end I was asked if it would be possible to pull off the face replacement shot of Jack and Rose running down the corridor being chased by a wall of water that Jim had been told could not be done with the elements provided. Of course I said yes! By the time we were finished we still had a pretty small crew on the show compared to most of the other houses working on the film, somewhere around 20 people including our scanning and color management guys, compositors, 3D animators and management team.
Replacing faces: I did the composite of the corridor shot and it is still to this day one of the hardest shots I ever comped. All work was done on the Discreet Logic Inferno. It is a 100% 2D build on the shot. It is a 10 second slow motion shot and the people are running straight at the camera so there was little to no wiggle room to make it work. It originally started off as a minor face only replacement but as I got further into it it became obvious that I was going to have to do pretty much a full head replacement of both actors at various points in the shot. There had been a few extremely wide head replacement shots done digitally at that time but no one had ever done a full head replacement that ended up being full frame so there was a lot of pressure to make it perfect especially as it was for Jim and he sets extremely high standards for all shots in his films. Kate and Leo were each shot separately running down the corridor with no water on the floor or behind them, with a hand held camera. The master shot of the two characters running was stunt doubles running with an enormous water dump tank dropping the deluge behind them that chases them down the hall. Jim actually shot this master plate himself. He was in a wetsuit and the camera was on a bungee so that as the water was about to hit him he let go of the camera and it shot up on the bungee through a hole in the sets ceiling into the waiting hands of the camera department.Watch behind the scenes of the Titanic shoot.
To make the shot just that much more complicated, Jim had the lighting guys flick the lights on and off all the way through the shot but the lights flicks never matched across the 3 plates. I ended up having to stabilize both of the actors faces and then create a flat lit face for the duration of the shot that could then have lighting animation added to it that matched the lighting changes in the back plate. We were limited to 2K so handling the image resolution was a big deal. Once these faces were created they were then tracked back onto the bodies of the stunt doubles. At that time there was no auto tracking or stabilization so I had to do all of this work manually. Very time consuming and laborious work but it all worked out in the end.
Little things became very big tasks to fix, like Kate was wearing her earrings when she did the dry run but her stunt double was not when she did the run in the water drop. In that particular part of the shot I was maintaining the stunt woman’s hair but comping in Kate’s face right up into the hair line. Because they were not running in the same place at the same time the bounce of the earrings was different so they had to be removed and re animated to match the bounce of the stunt doubles run. Again this was all a 2D fix so all lighting and reflection changes on the earrings had to be animated to match the plate.
All the water splashes that fly in front of the faces were roto’ed out so that the lead actors faces could be added then the splashes were added back in with the appropriate lighting and refraction. I worked on the shot for two and a half months (about 16 hours a day, 7 days a week) before we had it ready for Jim to look at and fortunately when he saw it he was really happy.
Passengers in the water: The pullback showing passengers in the water was a very challenging shot as the tank that it was shot in was relatively small (about 50 feet square) and there were only about 20 stunt people in the water. Jennifer German did the shot and she did a beautiful job. Jim was very particular about how many people needed to be in the water and where they needed to be relative to the lifeboat. First of all we had our CG team match move the shot which was trick as there was very little in the original plate that stayed in a constant position. Then they created the ocean extension and night sky matte paintings that would flesh out the shot. While they were working on that part of the shot, Jen and I were busy placing people. The bodies in the water not only had to blend into the shot from a lighting standpoint but they also had to track to the surface of the water and in many cases have water lapping up over them. Jen did all of this work in Inferno which was our main compositing tool at the time. We were able to take still images of the stunt people in the water in many different positions and blend and re use many of them in order to create the number of people required in the shot. I think by the time Jen was done there were easily over 200 people in the water (many of them very small in the BG). The amazing this about Jim Cameron is that he has an incredible eye for minute detail. He would see this shot from one vfx review to the next and if a body had moved to a different position than the one it had been in the day before he would spot it in a second.
One of the really challenging elements in the shot was the light beam from the crew man that moves out over the bodies in the water. The beam as shot, ends up falling on the back wall of the stage so we cut it off mid way and extended it with an animated element created in Inferno that then moved over the bodies in the water and lit them up and cast shadows appropriately. The final shot is very dramatic. It was one of those moments in the film when you realized just how vast the devastation of human life was when the ship went down, seeing all those bodies just disappearing off into the distance.
Titanic’s legacy: Well, apart from the obvious amazing power of the film at the box office, I think it was one of those films that made people realize that visual effects were not just for fan boys and sc-fi anymore. This was a very real story about power, wealth, greed and the human tragedy that came in its wake (pardon the pun). The combination of all aspects of the visual effects film making community who contributed to it including magnificent miniature work and ground breaking CG (the ocean water done by DD was amazing) and real bleeding edge compositing tools helped make this a truly unforgettable movie experience. One thing that was brand new on Titanic was the concept of video VFX reviews. Jim had a video camera set up in his editorial office (with VFX editor Steve Moore) and they would shoot him as he went over each shot at his monitor. We would then get a VHS tape with the notes for the shot actually coming from the director’s mouth. It was amazing to us to be able to have that information come to us so directly. Of course video conferencing and software like cineSync have more recently made this an every day part of our business but back then it was a brand new concept.Watch the trailer for Titanic 3D, featuring many VFX shots discussed in this article.
Visual effects supervisor, Light Matters/Pixel Envy
Main shots: I got a call from the production company in the spring – pretty late in their post process – asking if we wanted to work on some shots for Titanic. I had worked with Jim Cameron before on the Abyss, True Lies, and Strange Days. We worked on some imagery of the Titanic’s bow moving through the water. We tracked the Titanic’s bow onto real footage of the Lane Victory liberty ship plowing through the ocean. Ironically, the bows
were shaped so differently that we had to add a lot of additional water elements to the practical footage to
match the much less curvy Titanic shape. We also composited the ‘Iceberg Dead ahead!’ sequence from the point in which the berg is first sighted – when the crew struggles desperately to turn the boat – until just before the moment of impact. (The first impact actually happens in an underwater shot.)
Iceberg dead ahead!: I had one meeting with Rob Legato bringing me up to date on what had been done. The production provided us with footage of a large miniature iceberg shot on stage. As the berg approached the impact point we had footage of the miniature coming toward camera (of course the camera was traveling toward the model on a track). We also had greenscreen foreground elements of the bow of the ship.
The water surface was easy to create because it was dead calm – the note about the ocean was actually in the script. In spite of that, we added a little bit of CG foam on the ocean/iceberg boundary because it set the berg more convincingly in the water. The stars were another challenge. We got some officially approved stars, but gave them additional depth by using different sections comped over themselves at different sizes. The moving camera complicated the stars as well. The correct motion blur made the stars go so dim that they effectively disappeared while the camera panned. It is one of those paradoxes of film vs experience; a dim object moving on film gets harder to see, but dim object moving on our retina becomes easier to see because ‘new’ image information is more stimulating. We simply ramped up brightness with pan speed so that the stars read more like they would have been actually experienced on the night. We didn’t try to match what the film would have seen (which is nothing); we tried instead to match what the people on the bridge would have seen.
In the first shot, the challenge was to make it credible that on a cloudless haze free night the iceberg should be unseen and then suddenly become noticeable on the horizon as the ship plows toward it. One solution that helped a lot was adding a shadow on the berg that line up with the horizon – it put it into the scene and at the same time made it harder to see initially. In general, the challenge was making visible what needed to be seen, while still making it believable that the scene was lit by a natural night environment. Obviously that balance was very dependent on how it was viewed, so we had to generate film prints at different brightnesses – one for editorial, one for projection, and one for Jim to view on his KEM editing table with a blue filter over the light source. It was always amazing to me how much he could see on that little screen – on a machine that was hardly designed for evaluating the subtleties of a scene lit mostly by starlight.
Titanic’s legacy: The memories of working on the show are pretty positive – not least because I think it is a wonderful movie. Just because of your questions, I went back to watch the iceberg sequence – and got ensnared into watching the whole rest of the movie. It is spectacular filmmaking. My favorite VFX shot is the last one, in which we fly over the sunken encrusted ruin as it transforms back into the glorious ship that it was. It’s my favorite because it does more than expand the world of the story – it actually IS the story. To me, it encapsulates everything that the film is about. It is about the passage of time and about loss and redemption and the transience of life and the persistence of memory and love. In that moment, VFX is more than a trick; it is technology used to give the film life and meaning, to make us feel as well as see. That is what modern VFX is capable of.
Titanic could not have been made without visual effects; in today’s world, virtually all movies require some visual effects and many cannot be even conceived without visual effects or its techniques. A movie has always been a trick at its heart – a slide show fast enough to inspire dreams of motion. The tricks of visual effects are more and more at the very core of the marvelous con that is film-making. Titanic was one of the great agents advancing that process.
Visual effects supervisor, Matte World Digital
Main shot: The Carpathia arrives to pick up Titanic’s survivors.
Matte World’s last traditional matte painting: In 1997 it was a transitional time where there were still hybrids of techniques being used. Digital Domain was doing a lot of great work using miniatures with digital compositing. We were doing the same thing, with matte painting, learning our new toolset. Before you replace one technology with a new one, quite often the original technology has evolved to a very high point of excellence. We talked a little about doing the Carpathia as a 3D model, and then realized with the time constraints of a couple weeks and since it’s only going to be used in one shot, it would be much more straightforward to do it as a matte painting (which Chris Evans was the artist for).
Toolset: The Carpathia was painted using oil paints on a 4×2 foot piece of masonite. We photographed the painting, brought it into the computer and composited it into the shot with a new sky, icebergs on the horizon and smaller lifeboats out in the distance that Digital Domain gave us as a greenscreen element. At the time we were using Alias|Wavefront Composer for compositing – we enjoyed that particular package because it allowed us to use Cineon 10bit log space, which gave us the quality to maintain the subtlety of painted gradations. Chris Horvath, who has gone on to create a lot of high-end code for the visual effects industry, was at the time working with us, having been one of the original writers of Composer. Composer didn’t have sub-pixel tracking, so Chris wrote some code for us to get the shot done! The compositing toolsets weren’t quite mature back then and there were often little problems that no one thought about that you had to find solutions for. The reason we needed such precise tracking was that the plate was photographed on a gyro-stabilized camera on a camera boat, filming a subtly rolling horizon. There was a lot of unusual dimensionality there that was difficult to track.
Titanic’s legacy: Working on the film at that time was a way to contribute using an amalgam of different solutions, both traditional and digital. Obviously today one of the benefits of CG is that it allows you to move the camera much more dimensionality in very dramatic ways, but I have to say looking back I sometime miss the beauty and simplicity of using a traditional approach like matte painting. We found it a very straightforward experience working for Jim Cameron. Of course he was extremely busy and all of our contact was through his video dailies. Jim would be videotaped pointing to our shot to make comments of what was working or what he wanted changed. I remember we sent him a quick temp for the Carpathia shot and he pointed out some very esoteric, subtle corrections with regard to color and how the painting was rendered that we’re not used to hearing from directors. Like, ‘Make the fill level of the icebergs 20cc more blue and have the sky gradations 1/3 stop darker on the horizon to make the Icebergs come forward etc.’ And, of course, we did what he wanted, but it wasn’t like we disagreed with it – he was absolutely correct and what we were thinking of ourselves as next steps. Jim explained later that he had been a matte painter so he was impressive to work with not only in his filmmaking and technical side but his artistic as well.
More on the visual effects of Titanic
For more in-depth coverage of Titanic’s visual effects, there is no substitute for Cinefex #72 from 1997 – an entire issue of the magazine on the film which was completely sold out and then reprinted without the initial advertising. Also worth checking out is American Cinematographer’s December 1997 issue which now has a dedicated Titanic page. And Todd Vaziri’s look at the film on VFX HQ remains an incredible source of visual effects info.
All images and clips copyright Paramount Pictures and Twentieth Century Fox.