Spotlight : May 1997

The (Deliberate) Sinking of TITANIC
By Todd Vaziri

Visionary director James Cameron seems to enjoy starting controversies. With each film he makes, he ups the ante--increasing his budgets, increasing the visual effects, and increasing the risks involved. But this time, just as Cameron's name is as famous as Spielberg's or Coppola's, the media has initiated a destructive snowball effect, seemingly intent on branding his new film, TITANIC, as the big flop of the year, characterizing the production and post-production as troubled, dangerous, expensive and, worst of all, late. Digital Domain, Cameron's effects company, is slowly becoming a casualty in this unnecessary battle.

While filming 1989's THE ABYSS, probably the toughest shoot in Hollywood history, he spent a rumored $40 million (which was a LOT of money, back then) and solidified his place in the industry as one of the toughest directors around. He pushes people, technology and studios to the brink, and then asks them to go farther. The result was an ambitious, visually exciting film with an emotional core that truly was the most original film of 1989.

When Cameron placed all his faith into ILM and Dennis Muren to create the villain for 1991's TERMINATOR 2, he was once again pushing the envelope of art and science. His budget soared to $90 million, but his faith in ILM paid off--TERMINATOR 2 was a rousing success not only at the box office, but artistically as well. Cameron was the first director to wholly embrace the power of computer generated imagery, a risk no other director was willing to take.

With 1994's TRUE LIES, he launched his own effects company, Digital Domain, and was confident he could make the kind of images he imagined "in-house," effectively saying good-bye to ILM. Although TRUE LIES required the assistance of plenty of other effects houses, including PDI and Boss Film Studios, Digital Domain served his needs quite nicely, and had a stunning debut.

Now, it's 1997. His latest picture, TITANIC, is easily his biggest picture ever. In more ways than one.

The production? Enormous. The TITANIC crew built the most elaborate set ever made on the Mexican coast of the Pacific. Visitors to the set felt like they were actually on the oceanliner--the ship was nearly built to scale, with some clever, Hollywood style tricks involved to create the illusion of a huge, real ship. Reports flooded from the set (pardon my pun) about hazardous working conditions and excessively long hours. At one point, the crew was even accidentally poisoned.

On the visual effects side, supervisor Rob Legato (APOLLO 13) had some very ambitious plans--using miniature and digital versions of the Titanic, as well as creating hundreds of panicking passengers as CG elements. This would be Digital Domain's biggest effects challenge yet.

The pressure? Also enormous. Studios have realized that this summer will be the biggest movie season ever--just look at the movies: SPEED 2, BATMAN & ROBIN, MEN IN BLACK, THE LOST WORLD, all of which will be supported by aggressive ad campaigns and huge visual effects. TITANIC was slated to open on July 3, the same day as Sony's MEN IN BLACK. TITANIC has actually been backed by TWO studios, Paramount and Fox, and it's fortuitous, since the budget has swelled to almost $200 million.

The reality? TITANIC can't be completed on time. Digital Domain's resources are being pushed to the limit. Work hours are long and workstations are being used around the clock. Just as shots get completed, more shots are requested. Like the water gushing into the Titanic's hull, the visual effects shots just keep coming.

With Digital Domain already outsourcing shots to VIFX and CIS Hollywood, all the media was abuzz with excitement over the possibility of Cameron enlisting the help of Industrial Light & Magic to complete some shots. (At press time, ILM has not been contracted to produce any visual effects for the film.)

The mainstream media, always looking to damage somebody's reputation, pounced on TITANIC. Magazines, newspapers and television shows seem to have weekly updates on the troubled production of TITANIC. Cameron's quote in April 28's Newsweek certainly doesn't inspire confidence. He says of his own employees, "The Digital Domain guys are brilliant, but sometimes I think they're idiot savants."

We all know that it's not reality that changes people's minds, it's the perception of reality. Right now, the perception is that Digital Domain and Cameron are in big trouble--so much trouble that they've been forced to enlist the help of their main rival to bail them out.

The reality of the situtation is far less dramatic. Hollywood is always looking for a massive failure; just look at how they loved ripping into 1993's LAST ACTION HERO and 1995's WATERWORLD.

Digital Domain is taking a lot of heat over this issue--heat they shouldn't have to endure. The inevitable delay of TITANIC is not in any way their fault. Shots are being added left and right, and they're dealing with them.

My advice to Lightstorm, Fox, Paramount and Cameron? Until TITANIC has a confirmed, solid release date, the media will continue down this path of trying to destroy the film. Announce a date--in August, November, whatever. Once that date is solidified, the stories and rumors will die down, and the media attention will do the same. Until that happens, many parties will needlessly suffer the consequences, including Digital Domain, the film industry as a whole, and Cameron himself.

Epilogue: In late May, Paramount announced that TITANIC will see its American release on December 19, 1997.

Links: TITANIC, Digital Domain, Industrial Light & Magic, APOLLO 13, , STARSHIP TROOPERS, SPEED 2, MEN IN BLACK, BATMAN & ROBIN, CONTACT

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