Count on James Cameron. Looking at "Titanic" in its glorious $18-million 3-D restoration–released (also in 2-D) on the 100th anniversary of the sad night the great ship went down–I was reminded of what an accomplishment the picture was back in 1997.
Don't get me wrong. It holds up as a movie, remarkably well, given that it set a standard that other Hollywood tentpoles have been trying to meet ever since. Only Cameron's own "Avatar" has topped that "Titanic" bar–at the box office at least–via premium 3-D ticket prices. But there's a reason "Titanic" stayed number one at the box office for 15 weeks (beat only by "E.T."), grossed a total $1.8 billion worldwide, and won eleven Oscars, one of only three films to reach that milestone (along with "Ben Hur" and "Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King").
"Titanic" is an intimate period romance set against an epic historic disaster that viscerally shoves audiences into the dramatic events of that night, via two fictional lovers, freewheeling artist Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) and corseted upper-crust Rose (Kate Winslet). And everyone who participated in making that film gave their all. It was extraordinarily difficult to complete. You can see it in the details that cram every frame, from Jack and Rose embracing on the prow of the ship and Rose frantic as she sloshes through flooded hallways to save Jack when he’s trapped in handcuffs as the freezing water rises, to the climactic rush to the lifeboats as the ship slips into the icy Atlantic.
Only exacting engineer-writer-director Cameron, now 57, could have pulled it off. He did so at an extraordinary cost to himself and his crew and the studio paying for the most expensive movie ever made. With his historic solo dive to the bottom of the Mariana Trench fresh in our minds, it was Cameron who talked Fox into funding his Mir sub exploration of the real Titanic complete with robot cameras–footage that anchors the film and lends it weight and authenticity. (He talks to NPR.)
It's hard to remember that "Titanic" was supposed to be a box office dud. Back in 1997, when I was west coast editor of Premiere Magazine, we covered the movie like a blanket. Delayed and massively over-budget, the film was shaping up to be a financial disaster for Twentieth Century Fox–domestic distributor Paramount had capped its investment at $65 million, leaving its producing studio partner to front the rest of the $200 million cost.
Cameron was putting his crew, cast and 150 trained period extras (who played the extra parts throughout the movie) through their exacting paces, flooding tanks in Rosarita, Mexico with rushing water and creating dazzling computer-rigged crane shots to swoop out from a digital Titanic composited with live actors. (The reissued HarperCollins coffee table book "James Cameron's Titanic" recounts how the film was made.)
No one had ever done anything like this. Cameron, who was a partner at VFX house Digital Domain at the time, worked with visual effects supervisor Rob Legato ("Hugo") to create a digital ship plowing through digital water, with little digital moving figures on the decks. During the dramatic sequence when the ship splits in half and bodies tumble down the decks, Cameron intercut between a rocking live-action gimble and CG figures.
I was one of the first media people to see the completed movie, as Cameron showed a pristine print to several Premiere players at the LucasFilm screening room in Marin. He told us where to sit in the center of the room and I felt his eyes boring into the back of my neck during the film. We were suitably effusive afterwards—but he knew what he had.
Computer graphics have come a long way since then. But remarkably, except for one weird shot with Leo and Kate's heads superimposed on stunt bodies in a flooded corridor, the VFX hold up.
Which brings us to 2012. Cameron has believed in 3-D from the beginning. In fact, he’s personally responsible for the entire industry’s move toward 3-D (video of his Popular Mechanics Q & A, which digs into the "Avatar" sequels, is here). Even though everyone told him and inventor Vince Pace that 3-D filmmaking was impossible, they rigged two HD cameras together “and figured it out,” he said, proving that it could be done. Thus they changed the entertainment industry, for better or worse. (Here’s my Popular Mechanics interview with Cameron about his love of science and exploration, in which he describes his upcoming Mariana Trench dive.) Now he and Pace are testing new sophisticated servo-controlled light 3-D shoulder cameras for shooting sports and concerts, “serving broadcasters on a global basis,” Cameron said.
Thing is, Cameron knows how to handle 3-D technology and is willing to spend the money (in this case, $18 million) and time (60 weeks) to do it right. That isn’t always true of everyone else, and to his regret Cameron can’t control the way other less scrupulous people have used the technology, at both the production and exhibition end, where saving money by turning down projector lights darkens 3-D movies in theaters. (He cited Paramount and Michael Bay’s proactive approach to working with exhibs on the release of the most recent "Transformers" movie.)
The experience of watching "Titanic" is “a window into a world instead of a world outside a window,” said producer Jon Landau at a Paramount show-and-tell. Both he and Cameron believe that 3-D is about immersion. Clearly this lovingly created new version of the global 1997 blockbuster—the biggest of all time—will bring new boatloads of audiences to pay premium prices for the blown-up IMAX 3-D and 35 mm 3-D, or enhanced 2-D. Cameron explained that the 4K digital master off the original super 35 anamorphic movie is less grainy and more spectacular than the original negative. He always shoots for depth in 2-D, so it wasn’t so hard to make this work in 3-D.
Cameron has a rationale behind his love of 3-D. It has to do with the way the human eye works, he said at Popular Mechanics: “3-D is a better way to watch stuff, it’s the way we see the world. Everybody’s got two eyes. Our brains have been hardwired for 200 million years to think in stereoscopic vision. There’s a greater alignment with the way the human sensory system works. We see in color, hear spatially.”
And the movies have moved from black-and-white mono to wide screen color, surround sound and 4-D seats. “Where we are now is equivalent to 1903 in the automotive industry,” he told me in our interview. “Mistakes have been made, the market needs to be fully defined. 3-D is with us to stay. The lesson learned is that the studios can’t abuse the audience and expect to charge premiums—when almost half the movies are in 3-D. You might have to charge a discount. My point is that when 3-D becomes the norm, you can’t charge a premium for the norm.”
The next step will be going to higher frame rates in movie theaters, from 24 frames per second to 48 and 60 as well, he said. It will improve camera pans so they won’t strobe, which is more noticeable in 3-D. “It’s easily achievable to change the rate of display. It’s just a firmware update for projectors.”
On the "Avatar" sequel front, of course there will be enhancements, as the design process is under way even as Cameron works on the script. He is talking about developing a new tool set, including a render engine, he told me, a new animation tool for virtual production. “We need to do it right. We’re in heavy design for the first year and will start virtual production next year.”
While some of us remain skeptical about 3-D (unless Pixar, Cameron or Bay does it right)—I love 2-D, and see no need to improve on it—Cameron insists that 3-D is here to stay: “It’s how we see.”