Titanic 3D: Conversion into New Technology

For James Cameron, bringing “Titanic” into the 3D realm was no after-thought. Cameron has been at the forefront of 3D technology for well over a decade, and is considered a visionary pioneer of multi-dimensional storytelling.  The conversion of “Titanic” is simply the next step in his exploration of 3D, and an ode to a film that he always wanted to be the seamlessly immersive experience possible.

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Cameron first began exploring the creative use of 3D in 2001, kicking off a series of acclaimed 3D documentaries with GHOSTS OF THE ABYSS.  He then dove into the daring new territory of AVATAR, a film that revolutionized going to the movies for the first time in a century.

Cameron was creating his own systems and techniques that would stretch the form’s potential.   In 2011, Cameron founded Cameron-Pace Group with Vince Pace to accelerate the worldwide growth of 3D across all entertainment.  Their Fusion Camera System has become the world’s leading stereoscopic camera system.

“I always felt the technologies coming over the horizon were going to enable an amazing 3D future,” explains Cameron, “And I always believed that the best use of 3D was to more fully involve the viewer, to draw them right through the screen into the moment with the characters.”

That was precisely his aim behind converting “Titanic”– to bring audiences one step deeper into the heartbeat of his classic tale of epic catastrophe and mythic love.   The fact that he was able to do so to line up with the 100th anniversary of the vibrant ship’s historic demise was especially meaningful.

“I’ve always felt ‘Titanic’ belongs on the screen and the conversion is a way to bring it back to the screen, and evoke the life of the ship with more emotional power,” Cameron comments.

He elaborates:  “’Titanic’ is my baby so I really wanted to roll up my sleeves and get involved in every step of the conversion.  To offer the film in this new form on the 100th Anniversary of the sinking made sense to me, corresponding with the maturity of the 3D conversion process.  I’m excited to have the film in theatres again, where all those feelings of love and loss and deeper things can be shared together among an audience.”

Cameron has himself long been in love not only with the movies, but with science and exploration.  Those themes wind through his career and legacy–and were a large part of the original production of “Titanic.” The 3D conversion became an extension of what he had set out to do with “Titanic” from the start:  use the best of technology to make the film as palpably real as any projected image could be.  Now, he was ready to focus his expertise on the puzzle of how to make a film shot in 2D feel like it had been planned in 3D from the beginning.  He reunited with producer Jon Landau to take on a task that proved to be as creative as it was technical.

Landau notes that he and Cameron started talking about TITANTIC in 3D many years ago.  “Once we both began to get intrigued with 3D, we almost immediately started to talk about one day re-visiting TITANIC,” recalls the producer.  “We were thinking about a new generation who never got the chance to experience the film on the big screen.”

Cameron and Landau were convinced that TITANIC was ready for 3D, but the question was whether 3D was ready to be applied to TITANIC’s distinctive mix of spectacle and intimacy.  Early tests with the company Stereo D – a leading specialist in 2D to 3D conversion — suggested that Cameron’s high hopes and expectations could potentially be met.

“I wanted to make sure the conversion could be done convincingly and without compromise,” Cameron says.  “I wanted it to ultimately feel as if we had originally shot TITANIC with stereo cameras.  It had to live up to that standard.  We did tests with the big crowd scenes of people running up the ship to see if we could capture that complexity.  We knew that TITANIC was right for 3D; but now we saw that 3D had matured to that level.”

It was clear that the vastness of the ship, the tumult of its collision with the warned-of iceberg and the epic struggle of passengers as it sinks in icy waters would become more rich with life and suspense through the use of 3D.  But Cameron was interested in how 3D might enhance something else:  the ineffable passion of the story.  If there is a single vein that runs through all of Cameron’s films–from ALIENS to TERMINATOR to AVATAR–it is not just a visual boldness and penchant for exploring frontier worlds but a kind of romantic yearning.

“My films might involve hard-hitting action, but at the center of each of them are love stories,” the director observes of his body of work to date.

The best example of Cameron’s fascination with love came with TITANIC–so it was essential to him that the conversion add as much to the film’s intimate moments as to its action. He saw a chance to delve into how 3D can also be used not only to craft the otherworldly but also to dive deeper under our own human skin.

“3D not only enhances spectacular environments and action–it also enhances human interactions,” the director points out.  “The most intimate moments are more powerful because you feel like you’re there with the character’s passion or fear or hope. I think this is something that Hollywood has largely overlooked.  3D is often perceived as the thin layer of icing over action or animated films.  But 3D also has the ability to pack an emotional wallop.”

Adds Landau: “3D is actually perfect for the many scenes in TITANIC that are not about action.  It lures the audience in and makes it a more voyeuristic experience.  My hope is that the conversion of TITANIC will help filmmakers realize that 3D is as appropriate for dramatic films as color is.   From the chance to feel like you’re at the dinner table with Kate and Leo to flying with them on the bow, people will be surprised by how they are enveloped into the story in an even greater way.”

The conversion process began with the scanning of a pristine 4K digital master from the original 35mm negative, which scoured away all visual imperfections.  That alone was exciting to the filmmakers.  “If you watched the master in 2D, it still looks more amazing, I would say, than what was released in 1997,” notes Cameron.

This crystalline print then kicked off a yearlong process, during which some 300 computer artists put in more than 750,000 man-hours to “sculpt” the original photography into 3-dimensional digital information full of depth and scope.

“Converting a film to 3D is not like waving a magic wand,” explains Cameron.  “There’s no killer app that somehow knows how to turn things into 3D when there’s no 3D information from the original moment of photography. We had to create everything.  Hundreds of artists worked tirelessly to outline every object in the frame, right down to each character’s face.”

Cameron collaborated closely with Stereo D’s founder William Sherak to inspire the team towards visual excellence.  Sherak understood his mission.  “It was very simple:  set the gold standard with the best 3D conversion yet done,” he summarizes.  “The technology has arrived at the point that we were now able to deliver what James Cameron wanted at a quality level he was happy with. He wanted the sense that the audience is part of the movie and not just a bystander.”

That meant never settling for good enough.  “I believe this is the deepest conversion ever done,” states Sherak.  “We had around 295,000 individual frames to work with and every one of those frames had to have the same complexity and depth. “

The process required time, but more than that, it required inspired artistry.  “It takes true artists to do this work,” Sherak explains.  “Every frame has to be looked at as a piece of art and it takes a creative vision to see how we’re going to add depth to that frame.”

Throughout, the team was motivated by Cameron at the helm.   “It really was no different than if he was directing the movie for the first time,” Sherak observes.  “He knew exactly what he wanted and was so passionate about it – and that led to a group of artists who wanted to do their best for him.  He brings that out in people.”

Sherak continues:  “Cameron approaches 3D as a real tool.  He doesn’t use tricks, because when you have such a great story, there’s no reason for tricks. But I think his films convert especially well because as a filmmaker, he perceives depth better than almost anyone.  Even in 2D, his films feel like they have depth.  I remember when I saw TITANIC for the first time and in that famous, sweeping shot of the ship, you really felt like it was real.  That’s where the technology allowed him to go back then and this is where the technology allows him to go now.”

In the trenches with Cameron and Sherak were the film’s two visual supervisors–Mike Hedayati and Yoichiro Aoki–who worked with teams of roto artists, depth artists and paint artists.  “Jim was great to work with,” says Hedayati, “and always very honest as to what we could do better.  He really pushed us.  In the past we might have an artist work on a shot for 2 days, but on TITANIC 3D, an artist spent 2 or 3 weeks on a single shot getting it to a better place.”

Aoki says the team was awed from the get-go by the digital master.  “Before we started, we were so nervous, but then we looked at the digital master, and the color and lighting were so gorgeous,” he says.  “That helped us to convert to 3D because we had so many cues from the 2D.”

Aoki’s early nerves were replaced with deep satisfaction.  “I think there is a feeling to the 3D version of TITANIC that you could never experience any other way,” he concludes.  “This was a movie that made history and now I think we are making history again.”

One of the most essential things to Cameron during the original production remained key to the conversion:  the feeling of life on the ship, best exemplified by the sweeping wide shots of the ship at sea.  “It’s really a world of its own and just as in AVATAR, you live in that world through the duration of that film,” Cameron says.  “I always wanted to bring the ship to life in all its majesty but with the feeling of this dark shadow hanging over the whole thing.  It becomes a metaphor for how technology can create the most beautiful things and yet also fail us when we don’t see the dangers ahead.”  Working with wide shots of the ship, however, was very challenging for the team.  “We normally would want to give those shots extreme depth but that has a side effect of slightly miniaturizing the scene,” explains Hedayati.  “Jim was very sensitive to that and had us pull back to make it feel more natural and like real life. “

At the same time, the artists focused intently on the one-on-one scenes.  “We were very careful with the close-ups,” comments Sherak.  “One of the things that separates Stereo D is our ability to sculpt faces so that they look real.  And, of course, the closer you get to the faces, the more you have to sculpt them.”  Yoichiro Aoki notes:  “You feel the 3D even more in more intimate scenes, and if the conversion is not good, that is where you will feel it.”

For Cameron, perhaps the greatest thrill of the 3D conversion became the chance to give his creation a second life with movie audiences.  He is well aware that the film will mean something different when it comes to theatres in 2012 than it did in 1997, and that intrigues him.

“TITANIC will have a very different meaning today to someone who first saw it 15 years ago.  Maybe that person has gotten married, maybe they’ve had children, and likely they’re going to look at life and love in a different way,” he muses.  “For them, the story might be less about romantic love and more about our sense of duty and what we’re here on this planet for.  But if you’re an 8 year-old boy seeing it for the first time, then it will be about the coolness of the ship and the race for survival; and if you’re a teenager experiencing the first emotions of love, it will feel like it’s about you.  The thing about TITANIC then and now is that it has something for people of all ages.”

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