The Cost Of A `New' Titanic: $40 Million In Special Effects

LOS ANGELES - Most special-effects movies take you to a fantastic world never seen before: replicant cyborgs and intergalactic bugs.

The makers of "Titanic" faced an entirely different challenge. They had to re-create one of the world's most familiar disasters: to build and then sink an actual boat that exists in history, not in science-fiction imagination.

"Familiarity actually works against you," says James Cameron, writer and director of "Titanic." "Everybody knows what the ship is supposed to look like. No one knows what a water tentacle (an underwater being in Cameron's `Abyss') is supposed to look like. So it raises the bar in terms of difficulty."

Opening Friday, "Titanic" is the most expensive movie made in recent years. About $40 million of its record $200 million budget was devoted to special effects, and the film was delayed from its original summer opening so Cameron and his effects team could complete the hundreds of digital tricks.

Cameron and his crew built a 775-foot, nine-tenths scale Titanic model near Rosarito Beach, Mexico, on Baja California's northwest coast, and equipped it with exact replicas of the real ship's fittings.

Yet many of the film's most spectacular effects were filmed not on this gargantuan set but on a much smaller, museum-quality, 45-foot model. The miniature was so detailed that its lifeboats were filled with 24 tiny oars, a fact lost on audiences because the lifeboats were covered by tarpaulins.

And while Cameron filmed the actual Titanic wreckage over 21 days on the ocean floor, a significant portion of the film's wreck footage comes from a 1/20th-scale model, whose damage matched that of the actual wreckage Cameron surveyed.

The wreckage model was filmed in a dry room by a camera traveling on an intricate, computer-controlled path. Effects specialists later added sediment-filled water to the film print to make the model appear to be at the sea's bottom.

The effects are so numerous as to defy counting, and what look to be simple scenes of real life are in fact digital creations. One of the film's signature scenes (showing Leonardo DiCaprio and Danny Nucci riding the ship's prow, as the camera sweeps past them and over the Titanic's decks) is composed of no less than 200 separate effects. Dolphins racing with the ship were created in a computer, as was a tiny fish darting through the submerged wreckage.

"I decided I was going to use every tool in the service of re-creating an historical event," Cameron says.

"The epic scale of the movie was the consistent challenge," says Rob Legato, the film's visual effects supervisor. "There wasn't any single effect that was so horrific. To do them efficiently and fast and made-to-order was."

To understand what Cameron and Legato mean, it helps to consider several "Titanic" scenes. The Titanic set was not seaworthy, so it could not be filmed moving through water.

Instead, Cameron and his special effects team at Digital Domain first filmed the 45-foot model, and then added water to make it appear to be slicing through the sea. But how do you get people on the model's decks?

Legato first filmed real actors moving around a blank stage - holding a handrail, strolling along. Attached to their clothing were metallic balls, whose movements were recorded by eight high-tech cameras that screen everything else out. The data from those cameras was then fed into a computer, giving animators a human template to which could be added costumes, light and shadow.

"Once you have that, you have unlimited capabilities," Legato says. "You can change them from male to female. You can change their clothes. You can change the way the wind blows their coats." By simply copying these computerized characters, it was possible to place a cast of thousands on a model no bigger than a moving truck.

Still, these digital actors would be faceless. So some of the real cast members were photographed, and their features digitally mapped onto the heads of the computerized human templates. Through this technique, Captain E.J. Smith (Bernard Hill) appears to be standing at the ship's bridge as the Titanic plies the North Atlantic.

A similar technique was used as passengers plunge off the sinking ship. The great distances precluded the use of stunt people in most cases - they'd be killed by such long falls. So, just as digital passengers were created by filming actors with metallic balls, digital stunt players were made by filming real stunt performers making short, controlled jumps on a stage. Those falls were then extended by computer software, giving the illusion of real people plunging hundreds of feet into the cold sea.

Some of the film's shortest scenes involve exotic effects techniques. When the survivors bob in the chilly water, foggy breath was added by the effects team to help convey the cold. A three- or four-second scene of a victim in a flowing gown floating in a flooded rotunda is the result of a four-week effort that began with filming a stunt woman dangling from cables and ended with the cables being digitally removed from every frame and the water and rotunda background being added.

Effects were not solely used in re-staging the catastrophe. They also play a key role in highlighting the film's character development and standard storytelling techniques.

The "Titanic" plot is told in flashback by a character named Rose, played as a youth by Kate Winslet and as an elderly adult by Gloria Stuart. To reinforce their connection to past and present, Cameron at one point zooms in on Winslet's face, focusing on her eyes. When the camera pulls back, it is Stuart's face, but the irises have not changed.

The two actresses have dissimilar eyes. So Legato digitally removed Stuart's iris. As the transformation from young to old commences, the wrinkles around Stuart's eye begin to appear, but the iris is not really hers. Legato's team has switched her iris with Winslet's, so it looks as if they are really the same people.

"The whole idea is to take a tremendous amount of the latest technology to make it look like you didn't use anything," Legato says.

Like the production design, the special effects are geared to take you back in time, onto the actual ship.

"The average person is not going to know if the chandelier is right, but I have to say it's right, that it's all right," Cameron says. "You are experiencing what it's like to be on the Titanic. Take it from me, this is the real deal."