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Leash talks to James Cameron about Titanic 3D

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That iceberg-crashing tug is headed back to cinemas next year – in dazzling 3D! Though nobody is that much a fan of afterthought 3D, this one’s different… if only because it’s James Cameron, the man who essentially resurrected the 3D format with “Avatar”, doing the conversion!

I caught up with Cameron and producer Jon Landau to talk all things “Titanic 3D”!

JAMES CAMERON: Every shot in this whole film from end-to-end becomes a visual effect. We have a team of 300 artists working on this right now. It’s not going to be done until February. The process, for those of you that don’t know how it works, you have to assign depth to every object in every part of every character in the frame. That’s done very, I would say, arbitrarily, meaning there will be an artist sitting at a screen and there is a team that comes in and rotoscopes every hair on somebody’s head, every line of detail and then they start connecting the dots and turning it into a mesh so that they can start establishing shape. They push and pull on this mesh until everything is in the right depth of planes of what they think it should be then they show it to us.

I’ve got a team working for me in-house sort of technical guys that have worked for us for years. They are the first intermediaries. They have worked with me on all the native 3D photography that I have done over the years. They know what good 3D is supposed to look like and they have good depth of perception. They process it then they show it to me then I go through it literally frame-by-frame with the jog shuttle just turning it and stepping through frame-by-frame.

So imagine every shot in the movie 3 hours and 15 minutes long times the number of times we have to watch every shot over and over to get the depth right. Once we’re done with the depth, then we do what we call ‘clean up.’ The clean up is hand painting in the missing information. Because when you add depth you actually separate objects in the left eye and then the right eye so that I’m kind of here in one eye and I’m there in the other eye. Every time you start moving objects around in a flat picture that was photographed 15 years ago you have to paint in the missing part. It has to be done flawlessly. It has to live up to the 4K mastering of the film that we did as the first step.

The very first thing we did was go back to the negative, mastered it at 4K and then run it through a noise cleanup process to reduce the grain and sharpen the edges and turn it into a beautiful clear picture than we ever had of Titanic even back when we first made the movie and then turn it over to the 3D guys.

I think this is all by way – we’re not trying to like elicit applause or even a sympathetic response that we’re having to work so hard, trying to show that there is a way to do conversion. We think that’s what it requires to do something that’s virtually indistinguishable from actually shooting something in 3D. Of course we didn’t shoot Titanic in 3D.

JON LANDAU: You would if available.

JAMES: We would have. If I was trying Titanic tomorrow, I would be shooting it in 3D for sure. If the cameras in the theaters existed back then, we certainly would have done it then. It wasn’t in anybody’s radar in ’95 when we started this movie. Of course it was a good really 10 years later that the 3D market really manifested itself as being economically viable.

People enjoy a movie because they enjoy a movie but we can offer a very high quality experience in 2D as well. So there will be 2D 35 mm, 2D digital, 2D IMAX which will be quite spectacular as well as the 3D formats which are RealD, and some of the other digital 3D formats plus IMAX 3D. We’ll be on every known platform. I think that speaks to the faith and the support that Fox and Paramount have put behind this film. They are seeing this as a big tent pole film. They are treating it as a first run movie. They are putting that kind of marketing weight behind the film as well.

JON: It’s about bringing audiences, as Jim said, who have never had the chance to see this on the big screen. Now we’ve got the technology we have applied and about the story that has always been there in the movie and to envelop the audience into that story and go along with Jack and Rose on their story.

JAMES: We have time for questions if you guys want to just haul off.

Q: How much is the conversion process to transform?

JON: The first question is always about money. [Laughing]

JAMES: It is. I think that this should be factored in when people are planning conversions in postproduction which is a process I disagree with. We’re spending 18 million dollars on this. That includes the cost of the 4K re-master and the entire conversion. That’s of course much more than what people spend when they convert a movie these days. We’re spending a lot more time. We have a lot more artists because, frankly, I think that we have to establish a kind of platinum standard for what it can look like.

There are a lot of films that I’d love to see converted. Just think of your top 20 films whatever they are, your favorite movies. The economics of that have yet to be proven. Hopefully with Titanic and with Star Wars which is coming out a little bit before us and with Lion King that just came out, we could start to show that there is an economic model for this that makes sense. But we think it has to be done right. There is no point in doing it and creating all that ballyhoo and publicity and have people show up and have some kind of compromised experience.

JON: And to do it right, you need the director involved. You need the person whose vision it was in the film so that they can creatively make the choices about where and how to utilize that 3D space.

JAMES: It’s a creative process. I was just in a session yesterday afternoon for about 3-1/2 hours. There was a shot where Jack is giving a note to Rose and she takes it before she has opened it. It’s an important moment. There happened to be a table lamp in the foreground. In 2D, that table lamp was just an innocuous foreground, out of focus object. In 3D, it became a shot about the table lamp. We couldn’t recompose the shot obviously so we had to think about, “Okay, what do we do?” We compressed the depth so the table lamp is not quite so close to us. We made it less obvious to the audience. It still has to be a guided experience.

I think of the role of director is that you’re directing the audience’s attention and perception throughout a movie. With the cinematography, you’re asking them, look here not over there. Not over there, that’s just the backup singers. This is the main act right here. 3D complicates that. It can also very distinctly augment the image, and say, this is what’s important right now and the 3D can do that. You just have less ability to manipulate the 3D after the fact.

Fortunately for me, I always shoot with a sense of depth of the environment. I tend to use shorter lenses. I tend to sort of wrap the characters in the sets so that the environment sort of becomes an additional character if you will. So the 3D adaptation of Titanic is a very natural one because my style was already setup to enhance the idea of depth. That may not apply to a lot of filmmakers and a lot of styles which is why I also think it’s important to shoot movies in 3D.

If their movies are starting now and they want to release them in 3D, they should just shoot in 3D. When you go back to convert movies, they get to limit the style, see if it’s going to lend itself to 3D. Again, that’s a set of aesthetic decisions that should be made by the filmmaker, the director, and producer and whatever.

JON: I think you said Jim today, if you want a movie in color, you wouldn’t shoot it in black and white.

JAMES: Exactly. If you could save a few bucks by shooting a movie in black and white then converting it to color which I don’t think so. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s a crazy kind of compromise. Mainstream movie making, certainly the big Hollywood technical films that are getting typically made in 3D now, they’re not the kind of films where people compromise. When they are doing the sound they’ll mix for six or eight weeks. They’ll use the best mixing stage. They’ll use the finest sound effects and the best digital recorders and everything.

It wouldn’t occur to anybody to compromise. It wouldn’t occur to the cinematographer to compromise, “Don’t use that lens. That lens is too expensive. Let’s use this cheaper lens. Yes, the image would be compromised but it’s okay, we’ll save money.” That’s not how we think. It’s not how we think as an industry but suddenly it’s okay to compromise on the 3D. It’s like, we know it’s not as good but we’ll slap it on. We’ll put it on the poster and we’ll get people to show up and we’ll charge them more money.

There is a content of dissidence in that messaging to the audience which is, you’re going to get an inferior product and you’re going to get charged more money as opposed to – an example that I saw recently that is the opposite example is Hugo where Bob Richardson and Martin Scorsese had never shot 3D before but they are both consummate artists in their own right. Working together, they approach the idea of 3D as a new creative palette for them to work with. They immersed themselves in it. They enjoyed it. They taught themselves to understand it. They created a movie which I think is definitively the best 3D photography ever done end to end. There is like no weak shot in the whole movie. It’s really quite astonishing. To me that’s the example that I would hold up as what happens when you do native photography.

With Titanic, we’re spending this kind of time, energy and money to try to seemingly and after the fact what that native photography would have been like had I been there with the 3D camera. It’s a daunting task. We have set the bar very high. You guys, you can judge for yourselves how effective you think it is.

Q: Will you premiere this film and where will it be? Will it be in Japan again? Do you have like a guest list of relatives of people that died in the Titanic; children, grandchildren, etc?

JON: I think our plan is shortly before the release of the worldwide premiere, that we make it a global event and not make it a North American event or a European event. I think we haven’t picked our lapel a hundred percent, you know, we have teams. We’re very lucky, especially the team that you interface with, Hillary and Karen and their whole team, they’re the best at doing what they do. They’re already looking to reach out to who they can bring back to bring that historical perspective you were talking about to everything we’re doing to bring those touchstones of humanity to what we’re talking about because that’s really what resonates. We’ll be doing that as we get closer to the release.

JIM: There is a lot that is happening in the Titanic community right at that time because of the hundred year kind of memorial of the event. There are things that are happening in Ireland, things that are happening in England, things that are happening in North America. There are artifact exhibits and so on. There is going to be a lot of special activity around that time. We’re going to try to reach out and link with some of those and create some connectivity with the movie early marketing and hopefully, whatever we create as a global premiere event. We’re going to try to create some kind of experience for the press that come to participate in that. We may have artifacts. We’ll certainly have artifacts from the movie.

I’m trying to do something that’s Titanic themed in a sense that it pays a correct respect to the actual event, the tragedy of Titanic itself as well as being a celebration of the film and the attempt to create realism in a sense in the film and so on.

Titanic has a great deal of meaning for me personally in my life. I made the film because I wanted to go explore the wreck. We actually went to the wreck and dove it 12 times in the course of making the film in ’95 before we started the fictional portion of the film in ’96. That was my first deep ocean expedition. Since then I have done six additional deep ocean expeditions of which two more were to Titanic. I have totaled now 33 dives to the wreck. We built robotics and we explored the interior of the wreck. We have explored about 65% of the interior. We found that there is a tremendous amount of the original kind of grandeur and elegance of the ship still exist within the ruins.

The wreck seems quite destroyed from the outside but when you get inside where it’s protected, you can still see absolutely perfectly preserved brass beds and crystal chandeliers. In one stateroom room I found an intact mirror and a wash basin. They hovered the ROV right in front of it. We even know who was in that room. We know who looked in that mirror last, a woman named Edith Russell who did survive. Things like that that created connection between myself and our exploration team and the actual event of Titanic. To me this is a way to just kind of roll off in one big ball and have one moment where the eyes of the world will focus on this event one last time.

You think, why is Titanic still such a compelling story. I don’t mean the movie. I mean the story of the event itself because certainly there have been many things that have happened since 1912 that have been much more horrific in terms of the loss of life; two world wars, various genocides, the use of nuclear weapons against human targets, all kinds of horrible things. But there is something enduring about the Titanic story. I think it’s because it’s almost like this perfectly written novel that really happened where you’ve got this arrogance that these people just thought they could take this ship with over 2000 people on board going at full steam to a known ice field despite the warnings just because it can’t happen to us. We’re too big to fail. Where have we heard that before?

There are so many parables from our contemporary existence in the story. And then what happens when the ship does hit the fan. You have people acting as cowards. You have people acting as heroes. You have people acting with a sense of self sacrifice. You have the class structure where the rich were surviving and the poor were not.

You have I think the situation where they saw the iceberg ahead but they didn’t have time to turn. Their ship was too big. It was going too fast. There is a metaphor there for us with respect to climate change right now. We know it’s coming but we’re moving with too much momentum and we’re not going to be able to avoid hitting that iceberg very likely. It’s just a question of who is getting in the lifeboats and who isn’t. The metaphors of Titanic just keep repeating throughout history. I think that’s part of what is resounding through time and why it continues to fascinate.

What the movie does, of course, is layers on top of that a love story. I think that the media have simplified it down to this kind of 14-year-old girl syndrome but there is really something much more than that going on here. It’s a love story overcrowded by death. Really, that’s what I think – I’ve had a lot of time to think about why was Titanic the number one movie in every single market all around the world that it played in? Because it was speaking to people on levels that transcended language and transcended culture, transcended government, transcended the rich or poor status of their lives, the developed or undeveloped status of their lives. It spoke to them as human beings. What do all human beings have in common? For one, we all hope for love in our lives. Number two, we all die. What love in the context of death means is our relationships and how we live our lives, how we live today, and how we deal with other people. I think that there is something in this film that seems to speak to everybody around the world.

We think that seeing the film in theaters gives people an opportunity to think about these kind of other levels of the movie, whereas if you’re kind of watching it on an iPad and texting at the same time and taking phone calls and pausing it to go and do something else, it’s a different experience. That’s the way people are taking in a lot of their entertainment now and that’s fine. It works. It works for most people with their busy lives. But I think that people are actually choosing certain films, certain experiences that they want to make that personal commitment to see in the movie theater where they know it’s going to be an uninterrupted experience and they know that the film is going to work on them a different way.

Q: However sort of magnificent you end up making this look in 3D, there is always going to be a certain number of cynics who will say that the whole exercise of conversion and putting the film back in cinemas is just an attempt to bring fresh money out of an old idea. How do you sell it to them?

JIM: I don’t. I don’t care about them. There is going to be cynics. If you could wave a magic wand and give everybody in the world an orgasm simultaneously there will still be cynics looking for a way to criticize that. First of all, what’s wrong with commerce? What’s wrong with making jobs for people in movie theaters around the world? What’s wrong with entertaining people? If people don’t show up then we were wrong. If people show up, we’re giving them what they want. If they show up again, then we really gave them what they want because they are willing to pay for it twice.

It’s really just a gamble that the same impact that the film had on audiences back then will happen now. That’s an experiment. Every movie is an experiment. It’s commerce baby. It’s business. It’s art and business put together. I have no problem with that whatsoever. We spent 200 million dollars on this film. Not that we need to make more money off it but I’m just saying that that’s the type of gamble that people make every time they make a movie. They make a lot of jobs for a lot of people. They spend a lot of money doing it. That’s a gamble that’s made in this kind of weird, crazy, merge of business and art that we call movies. Even small independent films that exist in a sense purely for their artistic statements still have to make money or that filmmaker is not going to be able to make another one.

JON: Nobody questions Wizard of Oz being published again in a book form or The Great Gatsby in a book form or these other stories. It’s just part of what you do. We believe there is a demand for it. As Jim said, bringing to people the experience that justifies why they get out of their homes and go to the theater. That’s what our job is.

JIM: Yeah. Frankly, I need the money. For me this is not about the money. This is about giving people an opportunity to see Titanic in movie theaters again. People who are watching Titanic right now all over the world they are watching it on little screens. That movie wasn’t made to be watched that way. So the 3D allows us to redefine the concept of re-releasing a movie. Because re-releases they don’t always work. Sometimes they do. The Star Wars re-release – I don’t know whenever it was, 10 years ago – did phenomenally well. It made a couple of hundred million dollars. That justified itself. But a lot of re-releases fall flat. They have fallen out of favor. But yet there are so many films that can benefit from being seen in a theater as opposed to on video. If we can create a new market for that with this idea, you know, we’re willing to be pioneers here. We’re willing to spend the money. We may fall flat on our ass. I don’t think so or I wouldn’t be doing it but I’ve been surprised before.

Q: You mentioned earlier the metaphor about getting too big to fail. If it could be a metaphor, what if it failed? How would you feel about it?

JIM: I think we’re good on it failing. I think we could lose every penny and we would still be ahead. There is a certain confidence in that. We went through all that when we were making the film. We felt that the scale of the film had doomed it economically, if not artistically. There was a certain point in time before we released the film where we had been screening it and we knew that people loved it and then we found out that in fact critics loved it as well but we still didn’t think we’re going to make any money. I didn’t think I was going to work again.

For me, I was like, did we make this film to make money? I don’t think so. A 3 hour and 15 minute chick flick where everybody dies at the end where everybody standing in line knows the end of the movie right before they have seen it. That doesn’t sound that commercial. I worked on films that I thought would be commercial and I worked on films that I did as passion projects. This one was done as a passion project. We either got lucky or the things that we believed drove us to make a film that people wanted to see which isn’t luck. It certainly went way beyond what we thought it would.

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About Alicia Malone

Alicia Malone is a Film Reporter, TV Host, Producer, Writer, Editor, and all around movie geek. She developed her taste for film at a young age, spending many a heady Friday night pajama-clad at the video store, picking out her 7 films for 7 days for $7. Bargain! While at school she created a Film Club, electing herself President. Eventually the School Principal asked her not to get up in assembly to talk about movies anymore.

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