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"Goodbye! We'll Miss You!"
For many wide shots of the Titanic, the passengers are actually computer generated models. The digital extras and stuntpeople for TITANIC were animated via a complex combination of motion capture, freehand animation, and 'roto capture', where animators keyframed CG models using footage of actors performing an action as reference. The position of the decks had to be meticulously tracked in 3D and massaged in 2D, so the CG passengers would actually appear to be standing on the decks and leaning on the railings throughout complicated camera moves.
This technique was used many times throughout TITANIC by Digital Domain--combining motion control photography of a model miniature ship, with motion-capture CG extras lining the decks of the ship. In nearly every case, the camera is moving in dramatic, swooping moves, and at no point do the CG people 'slide' or jiggle across the decks.
One of Digital Domain's stunning launch shots. The passengers on the ship are actually computer generated models. The shot below is a detail of the previous shot.
The fact that the passengers actually seem to be aboard the great craft is a marvelous complement to the compositing/rotoscoping team, since various pieces of the miniature would have to be rotoed if a CG person would appear behind it--the best example would be the ship's railings. Even though matte passes were shot of the miniature's railings, it must still have been a massive task. The compositing prowess continues for shots of Jack and Fabrizio, and Jack and Rose on the very tip of the bow, where full-scale motion control footage was composited into the miniature shots. For those, the railings and posts that appear in front of the characters had to be meticulously isolated, even during shots of a number of seconds in length.
The Southampton sequence features a great deal of footage from the first unit shoot, which took place in Fox's Studios Baja in Mexico, where a nearly full scale Titanic was built. This allowed Cameron to freely move his camera in dozens of wide shots, without the need for tracking and compositing a miniature or CG ship. Much like the underwater sequences, his desire was to cut between this 'real' ship, and the composited CG/miniature ships without the audience ever realizing the trickery, and that was accomplished.
The Southampton dock shots feature hundreds of cheering crowds on the docks, sometimes realized as composited greenscreen footage of a small group cheering. For moving camera shots, the greenscreen clumps of extras were animated in 2 and a half-D: the 2D pieces of crowd would be arranged in 3D space for sweeping camera moves. This trickery is seamless and invisible. Digital matte paintings fill the edges of the screen, depicting various cranes and
buildings around the dock. In a particularly cool image, the camera cranes around Jack Dawson waving, "We'll miss you!" Visible the background, sometimes covered by his hand, is an enormous crane, actually a digital addition. It is effects shots like this that almost subliminally take the viewer into the world of the characters.
Digital Domain composited real wake elements with their digital water (created with Arete software), CG smoke, model tugs and the 1/20 scale Titanic, which measured over forty feet long.
The greenscreen composites in the tavern sequence where Jack wins his ticket on board Titanic were executed with real flair; even with some complicated camera moves and smoke, the background seemed to be in the distance, although the background element seemed a bit contrasty.
The Journey Begins
For most of the at-sea shots of the ship, Digital Domain photographed their 1/20 scale model, and even as the camera swoops close to the decks, the miniature holds up. Depth of field remained realistic, and the detail of the hull and decks looked very sharp. Digital water, combined with practical water elements seemed real, even when the breakwater in front of Titanic and tugboats nearly fill the frame. One of my favorite shots of the sequence is an epic, wide shot of a tiny sailboat being engulfed by Titanic's enormous shadow.
A subsequent helicopter shot of Titanic, with the ship extremely small in frame with a its smoke trail behind it, features the full CG ship. Its hull is mysteriously brownish gray in this shot, and the smoke trails didn't seem to have the dissipation attributes normally seen with smokestack trails.
As the engines rev up, the camera takes us down to the Titanic engine room. Only very few people will ever realize that nearly the entire sequence is nothing but visual effects--clever combinations of a miniature engine room created by Tony Meininger of Brazil Design, and a different miniature (1/3 scale) engine room (actually a real-life engine room) contained greenscreen-photographed people moving around its walkways. The camera arcs all over the place, and all the elements match--the workers don't slip and slide even in the most active of shots. Later in the film, as the engine room is told to reverse engines, the camera is wild, with the operator running down 'corridors' and climbing 'ladders'. Compositing was also consistent, with the color values of the greenscreen elements matching their surroundings. The engine room sequences were part of VIFX's work for the film.
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All text Copyright © 1998 Todd Vaziri, unless otherwise noted