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How James Cameron “Sunk” the Titanic for His Blockbuster Film

Using digital and practical effects to recreate one of the most tragic disasters of the 20th century
Photo of the sinking of the Titanic

James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster film Titanic pushed the boundaries of what digital effects could do when he set out to recreate one of the most tragic disasters of the 20th century. But the old school practical effects that appear in the film were just as important in selling the sinking of the ship.

A new video from StudioBinder, which we have embedded below, breaks down how Cameron was able to effectively pull off the sinking of the Titanic. (If you want to learn more about working with small-scale models, check out my story from last month with “10 Tips for Filming Miniatures So They Look Life-Size.”)

Pre-Production

Cameron used a blend of CGI and practical sets to recreate the massive ship in Titanic. And to accomplish that, a 775-foot replica of the ship was constructed in a facility in Baja Mexico. This nearly-full scale replica had small portions excluded from the middle section and the bow so that Cameron could angle certain pieces of the set into the water as it started to sink.

The front of the ship could angle six degrees into the water, while the rear section of the ship could detach and tilt a full 90 degrees into the water. Detailed storyboards and videomatics were made to plan out every shot and determine how and when the replica ship would be tilting into the water.

Production

Before Cameron could begin filming the Titanic, he had to consider how he would light and shoot each scene. For many of the scenes that took place on the replica ship, the team ended up using a crane with a platform that could be raised or lowered that hung from the crane’s arm.

The crane could move along the length of the set to light it, and a Wescam was mounted onto the moving platform. That Wescam is what captured many of the sweeping establishing shots of the ship that appear in the film. Additional cameras that were used to shoot Titanic included the Arriflex III, Panaflex Gold II and the Panaflex Platinum.

Although the replica set could be tilted at six degrees, the tilt to recreate the ship’s dramatic sinking needed to be much greater. To recreate the Titanic’s sinking, Cameron and his team used a few different methods. Much of the film is shot using a Dutch tilt, this paired with a composited waterline made the ship look more tilted than it actually was.

A number of miniatures of the ship were also created. For example, the shot of the keel of the ship hitting the water was filmed using a ⅛ miniature of the stern at 60-72 frames per second. It was later composited with foreground extras to help make the scene more realistic. Many of the stunt actors on the set had rollers fitted into the backs of their costumes to create more dramatic slides as the ship’s deck began to sink into the ocean.

During the sinking scenes, there were approximately 100 stunt actions on set and hundreds of extras who were fastened to the railings of the ship with safety harnesses. Large portions of the replica ship were constructed out of soft rubber to avoid injuries on set.

Post-Production

Although Cameron used a number of practical effects in the film, the special effects team still had their work cut out for them during the post-production phase. Cameron worked with cutting edge graphics companies to fully realize the dramatic last moments of the Titanic as it sank into the ocean.

VFX composites were using a combination of miniature footage and actors shot against green screen to make the scale of the miniatures more realistic. It was also one of the first films to use motion capture technology to pull off some of the more complicated stunts. The scenes of people falling off the ship as it sank were made more dramatic by combining footage of the stunt people with a CGI person mid-shot. The visible breath that we see as the characters are estranged in the freezing ocean water was also accomplished in post production. To make these shots look realistic, the VFX team filmed elements of real breath and then composited them into the film.

This unique hybrid approach of using practical effects, miniatures and computer generated elements allowed Cameron to include incredibly complex shots that ultimately made the whole film feel more realistic.

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