SHIP OF DREAMS: A JAMES CAMERON INTERVIEW

[ James Cameron Interview (Upon the release of Titanic) ] ^ There are few filmmakers whose work and reputation speak as strongly as do James Cameron’s. In just over a dozen years, he has helped lead a revolution in special effects and postproduction, and helmed several spectacularly complex productions that not only served as stages for developing new technology, but told compelling stories within fantastic settings.
[ Describe the theme of “faith in technology running mankind into the ground” that runs through each of your films. ] ^ (Laughs) I suppose that is a thematic connection between Titanic and my other films, as well as a love story, though it is much more magnified in this picture. The sinking of the Titanic was one of the great cautionary events of the early 20th Century, and since we’re in the midst a definitive technological era, it’s still an event that’s worthy of notice even now as we approach the 21st Century — which promises to be an even more technology-based time. The problem is that technology is largely invisible to us because we adapt to it so rapidly. We live in a world that has been transformed in the last decade by the personal computer, yet we don’t really sense that there has been a profound change. But the Titanic isn’t just a cautionary tale, it’s a true event, which I think is another thing that gives the film such great power. So in terms of visualizing the picture, we wanted to give it a great sense of reality and not over-stylize it.
[ How can you visually convey to an audience that the Titanic itself was the state-of-the-art, and boarding that vessel in 1912 was akin to us today climbing aboard a spaceship? ] ^ It’s hard to do that, because there are certain things about the technology that just seem antiquated and quaint to us now. The telephones on the Titanic’s bridge are goofy old-style telephones with earcups. But you can convey the fact that people thought this ship was just the cat’s pajamas through the actions of the characters. They have to react to the technology, as well to the design accomplishment of the Titanic. The ship was grand and majestic and had a look that was unlike any ship of its time with the four funnels and its long, straight lines. So part of what we do in the film is to get you to know and love the ship as a character, and get the audience to put themselves in the mindset of the people coming aboard with their optimism. I have to work against 85 years of history in which we’ve associated the name ‘Titanic’ with gloom and doom. So, photographically, everything at that stage was designed to be bright and open and cheerful — sunlit — as the passengers come on board. The light is actually very rosy and warm throughout this early part of the film, everything is great, and these people just don’t know what’s coming.
[ What was your process in adapting modern filmmaking techniques to this period story and how have you told it in your own visual language? ] ^ You always have to think about what’s grammatically correct for any film in a visual sense. Is it correct to use a lot of the new technology, with sweeping camera moves and so on, in a story that is essentially a period story? I think the answer is resoundingly yes, because what I was trying to do is break through these barriers that have been put up around period films. Some people think a period film has to be shot like Barry Lyndon with a very proscenium-style frame. I wanted to shoot Titanic like a Terminator movie. I wanted it to have the subjective immediacy of my other films, like The Abyss or Aliens, where you’re inside this thing. I wanted to put the audience inside the Titanic, so we use Steadicam shots moving through corridors, sweeping moves — it’s like if the Titanic really existed today and we could take it out to sea and fly around it with a helicopter, shooting with a Wescam or something like that to get these beautiful shots. Well we couldn’t do that, but if one can imagine doing that, then you can imagine what your visual effects will look like.
I remember having an early conversation with someone who said, “Well, (shooting from an ærial perspective) would look odd because they didn’t have aircraft back then.” That was the total opposite of what I believed. I wanted to tell a story that’s set in 1912 utilizing every modern tool that I could think of. However, I didn’t want overly modern stylization, or anything that one would associate with a current trend in cinematography. I wanted to use my tools to the fullest dynamic spectrum available, but always use them correctly in a dramatic sense.
“David Lean made period films like Lawrence of Arabia and used the state of the art of filmmaking as it was available at that time. I remember seeing Doctor Zhivago for the first time and there was this huge sweeping crane move that was absolutely breathtaking, but they couldn’t have done that in 1917 during the Russian Revolution. So I think this argument is moot. Most people would accept the fact that you use the modern tools, but then the question is, what is the visual style for the film that does not seem anachronistic to the audience?
“I found that while making Titanic I was spending more time in a wider frame. In True Lies I was in a looser frame than I was in T2 or Aliens because the intensity level was different. It was comedy, and actors use their bodies to a greater extent in comedies. So I was cutting the bottom of the frame at the waist, or even mid-thigh, on a lot of master shots. But on Titanic I was across the room. And although I wasn’t trying to emulate a particular style, we used a sort of a deep-focus effect, where we were using a wider focal length and had the actors in the foreground with all this pageantry behind them in depth. This is as opposed to a long-lens effect that would just collapse the space and make it all abstract.
I think long lens photography is in response to our kind of contemporary landscape in which a little piece of an out-of-focus neon sign will be read as “city.” You don’t need to see a city because you understand that image. But I wanted the eye to be eating the Titanic up like a pizza. So we used depth of field and didn’t make the backgrounds too soupy.
I think the film owes more stylistically to the Technicolor epics of the 1940s and especially the 50s, where they were moving the camera a lot more often and letting the actors play the frame, but still slamming in when there was a dramatic moment. They used close-ups more sparingly than one might in a completely modern style.
There was not overt attempt to do an old-fashioned cinematic style on the film. And quite frankly, I’m not well-schooled enough to do that. I can only respond to what I see and what I’m trying to express. But I wanted the audience to have a great sense of the reality of the environment because I thought it greatly informed the dramatics of every scene. Source lighting was very critical to this, for instance. We always wanted the lighting to feel highly organic to the scene.
[ What thoughts did you have in creating the photographic approaches to the three primary parts of the film: contemporary scenes, the Gilded Age, and post-iceberg? ] ^ Some of these questions are only now getting sorted out during the color timing of the film. We didn’t use any big process and wanted these touches to be subtle, as we did throughout the film. The picture really has a ‘styleless style,’ in the sense that we tried to make it unobtrusive and dramatically correct for the given scene. But, I also didn’t want dramatic difference from the present day and the past — I instead wanted to create the sense that you had gone through a time machine and you are there in 1912.
Ironically, as a result of (cinematographer) Caleb Deschanel leaving the show after shooting all of the present-day sections, we have an inherent stylistic difference between those and the past scenes. I’m not saying things were contrived to happen that way — it wasn’t — but that’s how it worked out, and I think it works to the benefit of the picture.
However, I also wanted things to look beautiful when they should. You have to do some interpretation there, to soften the image and the lighting. One key thing is that the light hardened up a bit when we went outside for the period night scenes and a lot more once the passengers are in the water. The lighting is very soft in the interior scenes aboard the ship, especially in the first-class spaces, where there are never hard shadows on the faces. I especially wanted to achieve this on any shots on Kate (Winslet); we almost wanted her to look like she was lit from within. But that’s just a goal and you can’t always achieve that.
For the present-day sequences, I thought about doing some really overt stuff, like leaving off the 85 filter and letting it go really blue, giving it a ‘high-tech’ feeling. That turned out to be too stylistically intrusive, partly because we have this character Rose (as elderly woman played by Gloria Stuart, portrayed by Kate Winslet as a young girl in the period sequences), and I didn’t want her to be photographed as if she was ‘high-tech.’ The compromise was to use a cooler look in present day, but also emphasize high-tech source lighting that they would not have had in 1912, like florescents. In scenes featuring old Rose in this high-tech environment, we’d let everybody else in the scenes fall into this cyan-blue, but kept her in white light, which left her as the most human of the group.
We shot all of the period scenes so that in the night exterior photography there was quite a color separation. Russell Carpenter would go almost full blue on the ambient fill that lit the ship, but then a quarter or even half CTO on the white light, so they were pulled apart just a bit more. Now in the timing stage, we are deciding how warm or cool we want the white lighting to look. Dramatically, it’s turning out like we anticipated at the point of shooting, with the white light always a bit was to suggest the sanctuary of the ship, as well as to be historically accurate as electric light in those days was not at the voltage we use now and the light tended to be more like candlelight. But that dynamic works against the pervading sense of cold on the deck of the ship, as the disaster unfolds in this sort of a nightmarish slow motion. So we’re going a bit colder in the blues in the later scenes that we thought we would during production. But the beauty of this is that we have the flexibility because our colors are far enough apart.
One might suppose that in the 1912 sections we’d wash it all in these golden yellowish mask to give an antique feeling, but that’s not the idea at all. Instead, after you go through this dreamlike transition to 1912, you’re there and it’s real. So the idea is to go almost neutral in the color response, where the blues are blue, the reds are red, and the yellows are yellow and everything is vibrant to the best extent that the Kodak negative can render it. We didn’t want to stylize it and interpose a barrier between the film and the audience. Then, we just tried to do really beautiful, elegant lighting on a shot by shot basis. Do you want backlight and shafts of sunlight coming through the windows? Great, we did that, but then we backed off just one step so we didn’t end up with something that looked like an extended dream sequence. Everything was in proportion, richly textured, and a beautiful interpretation of reality.
But that style later evolves as we get deeper into the disaster and the scenes in deck, the camera moves become less elegant and more nervous. There’s a lot more handheld work and Steadicam, and it’s rough, which creates a sense of pervading panic in the camera movement. That’s something that Russ and Jimmy (Muro) and I worked out. And I warned Russ in advance that the camera was going to be jumping around.
[ Can you give me an impression of the procedure and tools that you, Russell Carpenter and James Muro used while shooting on the ship set? ] ^ Working on the scale of that big ship set, with the lighting instruments it required, every scene had to be very carefully worked out. The Vid Stick was very handy in terms of previsualizing shots, but it just wasn’t a situation where we could come in and say, “Hmmm, I think it would be nice if we did it this way,” and then turn the shot over to Russell to light it. He’d then have 10 hours worth of lighting to do. We had to anticipate what we wanted to do well in advance. Shooting on the ship went very slow at first, but after a few days we learned the ground rules of that set and how we had to place the big lighting instruments — like the Musco, the Night Sun and the balloons — so they didn’t reflect in the water and create dappled lighting all over the sides of the ship. The end of every shooting day would be a briefing on the next lighting positions for the big, hard-to-move fixtures. This is a standard process.
A Musco can move pretty fast, and on a standard shoot you can change its position in 20 minutes. But if we had to move balloons and towers and Muscos and a Night Sun, we could be looking at four to five hours worth of work. And that could kill us. Fortunately we had spent a lot of time previsualizing the situation and had actually designed the tank facility with the aid of a scale tabletop model, with a sheet of Mylar standing in as the water surface. We created a berm around the perimeter of the tank model and Russell cooked up what was essentially a miniature Musco that was in scale to the ship in terms of height and intensity. From there, we figured out what the lighting would look like and picked out specific places on the berm from which we could light things.
Using the bounce light hanging from the tower crane was an idea that came directly from those tests on the model. I knew that if we did not have complete flexibility in the lighting and that if I couldn’t literally walk from one end of the ship to the other and do a scene along 400′ of deck in the latter half of the day, there was no way that I was going to be able complete the film on schedule. That resulted in developing the furling system on the crane arm.
As the shoot evolved, the lighting balloons we used for this purpose turned out to be a nicer light that withstood wind conditions better — although they were harder and slower to move — and the tower crane turned out to be an ever more powerful tool for placing the camera. Working with a set of that size and that height proved to be remarkably difficult, and we knew that going, but it took us a surprisingly long time to come up with the tower crane as a solution. We had first turned to the Akela crane. We went out and did a test with one at one of the studios in Culver City and it filled the street. We were like, ‘Wow, this should do it!’ But when we got it out next to the ship set, it was a joke. We then thought we could put the Akela on a 30′ platform built on barges, which we could float right up to the set. That worked, but the real breakthrough in getting angles on the ship didn’t happen until we figured out that we could hang a gyrostabilized camera from the basket on the crane arm, which allowed us to put a camera anywhere on the entire set in a matter of minutes. We couldn’t have shot the picture without it.
But our approach to the films was in understanding an event that is far outside human scale on human terms. So there were only a few times when I wanted to do the big wide shots of crowds on the decks to show the greater story that was happening. I instead tried to start on a wide shot and then come sweeping in on a recognizable character and then punch in closer. That way we’d always have a human connection. Also I thought it was important to know where people were geographically, so a lot of the wide shots evolved into closer shots. And this of course was a photographic approach that hadn’t been done on the previous dealing with the Titanic because they didn’t have a big-enough set or the visual effects to back them up. So the shots that interested me the most were the ones where you saw the ship and understood its size and then came closer for a specific piece of dramatic action.
This idea was used most importantly for a scene in which Jack and Rose are embracing at the bow of the ship. They start out as two tiny dots only a few pixels high relative to this monstrous ship coming toward the camera and we sweep right up on them into a pretty tight shot.
[ Can you describe the early screen tests you did with Russell Carpenter during preproduction to develop the period feeling? ] ^ We did some tests, and they were very promising, but they were really ridden in on the back of auditioning some of the actors. They weren’t formal photographic tests. Part of the testing was my insecurity over not having done a period film before and wanting to see if I could work with a given actor to create a sense of the time period. I wanted to test that on film.
After trying flashing and overt diffusion and all the other classic techniques for suggesting period, they all struck me as barriers that would stop the audience from directly experiencing the events in the story. So we really got into our true testing phase for this during the two weeks before starting principal (at Baja Studios). During that time, we started experimenting with more subtle techniques, like light filtration. A half ProMist ended up being the heaviest filter we ever ended up using — a quarter was more standard. And we used very light smoke, just to soften the backgrounds and the lighting. We also wanted rich color saturations and strong color separation between the warm and cold tones. That way, if we wanted to, we could warm all the lights by adding a couple points of yellow and some red in the printing, the blues don’t disappear. We coordinated these later camera tests again with wardrobe tests, which was also a sneaky way of figuring out how to light the actors.
Another thing Russ came up with was the idea of filling at a slightly cooled temperature than the key. You can’t have warm without cool — your eye just gets acclimated to a lot of yellow and doesn’t appreciate it as warm anymore. Then you have to dump in even more warmth to make it stand out and there go all the beautiful colors in your wardrobe disappear. So Russ was filling with quarter blue of even half blue, so we could time the whole thing over so the fill is no longer perceived as blue and the highlights all of a sudden get the beautiful golden feel to them. I think it looks amazingly rich and has a lot of depth.
On our last couple projects, Russ and I have really done a lot with controlled overexposing to enrich the blacks. Doing this is like ‘safe sex’ for digital effects work — you never know when a piece of negative will become a piece of digital internegative. And these days, you should be prepared to do effects work on every single shot. The more information you have on the negative the better.
[ This leads directly into the subject of Super 35. You’re certainly one of the format’s strongest advocates. ] ^ It’s a God-given format, and now that we’re in the digital age — although not everybody is yet — you can reposition a shot, axially stabilize a shot if it has a little bit of roll… it’s like shooting in VistaVision while being able to use lightweight sound cameras. Granted, VistaVision simply give you a lot more negative area, but most of the problems in framing in the ‘scope aspect ratio are vertical. Having additional vertical frame material available means having the option to reposition shots and even do moves within shots. Sometime an actor’s head dips down in frame slightly, but with Super 35 you can chase him and reframe the shot, either optically or digitally. We probably have 100 shots in Titanic that were trimmed vertically after the fact.
Any argument against Super 35 went away a few years ago when Kodak came our with their T-grain intermediate stocks. I defy people to compare it to anamorphic, which has its own problems. In anamorphic, you’re going through an anamorphic lens when you’re shooting and then going back out an anamorphic lens when you’re projecting. Each anamorphic stage causes lateral smearing of the image, which leaves lighting artifacts that I don’t like. Whenever you have lens flares in anamorphic, you get these straight lines all the way across the frame. Some people like those, but I think they’re ridiculous and don’t correspond to anything in the way the human eye sees things. People associate that effect with ‘big movies,’ but that’s just because for a long time big movies were all shot in anamorphic. So some people think a picture has that ‘big movie’ look because the headlights on a car create these white lines that go from one edge of the frame to the other. That doesn’t correspond to anything I see in my daily life.
Anyway, that’s a stylistic choice. The compelling factor is that the intermediate stocks are so good today that the loss of O-neg area is relatively inconsequential. People have to remember that yes, in Super 35 you are losing negative height vertically, but you’re gaining horizontally. You’re not gaining as much in anamorphic as most people think. It’s not the difference between half aperture and full aperture, which is an oversimplification. I don’t know the exact figures on (image area loss), but if you follow the rules of good, clean hygienic photography and printing in Super 35, you’ll end up with something that in the mind of the audience is indistinguishable from anamorphic or better. Super 35 just lacks certain anamorphic artifacts that I think are detriments, and I much prefer that look.
[ What about increased grain, the most common detriment that Super 35’s critics bring up? ] ^ Do audiences care more about grain or focus? Where are you more likely to be out of focus, when your wide lens is a 25mm or when it’s a 50mm? Focal length is focal length, and depth of field is a result of focal length. If your medium-wide lens is a 50mm, you’re going to be out of focus more often, and your Z-axis is going to be a very shallow plane. Some cinematographers like shallow focus, and if that’s the case then anamorphic is not a detriment to them, but it would have been very problematic on Titanic since we were going for a very deep-focus style, as we did on True Lies.
So in Super 35 you’re able to shoot with shorter focal lengths, you’re using spherical lenses, you don’t have the strange anamorphic aberrations while shooting, and you’re able to result in a beautiful anamorphic print at the final print stage. That all speaks in favor of the format. But even if all of those factors combined were a wash, there is still one compelling reason to shoot in Super 35. If you use anamorphic, you cannot do any vertical repositioning whatsoever, so when you go to video you’re throwing away half of your beautiful movie. Ninety-nine percent of the video audience will see the film pan-and-scanned. What half — the left or the right — don’t you want the audience to see?
As for other proponents of the format, John Alcott started it, and he wasn’t exactly chopped liver. And he started using Super 35 when the stocks were not in his favor and the methodology had not been worked out.
[ This will be your first film to feature a Panavision logo in the end credits. How did you come to use their equipment on Titanic? ] ^ We didn’t obviously shoot in Panavision, but they did supply us with equipment and they did built our special cameras (for the deep-water dives) with the help of my brother Mike. And I have to say that dealing with them was a great experience. Their technical support was incredible. As you know, we wound down my old company Lightstorm Technologies and Mike and I entered an agreement with Panavision to co-develop technology. We’re going into production soon on a couple things we’ve designed, including the Vid Stick. So we’re in a close relationship with Panavision.
They built a new two-perf 35mm camera for the deep-dives, and a housing that could withstand 6500 psi. The front glass on the housing had 1.2 million pounds of pressure on it. It was three inches thick and made of special-grind borosilicate glass. And the optics between this and the 14mm Panavision prime that went behind it were very exacting and had to be worked out on a computer.
The Panavision FTZSAC camera-control had to be modified so it could be interfaced with the sub electronics to it could run into the housing and operate the run, frame rate, the iris and the focus.
I also told Mike that I wanted the camera movement to operate with wheels and not some joystick control. I wanted smooth, movie-type moves, not joystick scientific movements. To do that, they essentially built a hothead that would function two and a half miles under water. It was a big servo-actuated monster that could take this 190-pound camera and housing and move it.
In terms of engineering this kind of equipment, it all has to undergo a separate engineering review by at least two other companies because it’s going to be mounted on a manned submersible and the implodable volume of the camera and housing was great enough that if it failed, the shockwave could sympathetically fail the manned sphere of the sub. If that happened, anyone inside would die in about two microseconds. That means your camera and housing engineering is directly related to your life expectancy. It was unbelievably complex.
Another thing Mike and Panavision came up with was adapting a waveform monitor for exposure control. Basically, the waveform monitor shows you where your peaks and black pedestal are. I’ve sat in enough telecine bays to know that I could look at the video tap picture from our camera and relate that image to how they would look on film. So I would look at the monitor and crank my midscale values to a set threshold that Mike had drawn on the picture tube with a grease pencil. That information would then determine our f-stop, and we basically had great dailies. Reading with a spot meter through a nine-inch thick viewport on a moving sub — by the time you get your reading the shot would be gone. You’d drift away. So we did all the readings on the fly with our waveform monitor, and it has occurred to me that this setup could be a powerful tool on the set for certain kinds of shooting circumstances. If you can stick an incident meter in front of an actor’s face, by all mean do that. But if you’re dealing with complex moving subjects from a car or helicopter, and you can’t get your spot readings fast enough, the waveform monitor could be a valuable tool. I think cinematographers should consider it.
My brother Mike’s engineering skills and Panavision’s optical engineering and manufacturing skills made this all work the first time out — with just two or three months of development. That’s a pretty amazing feat.
[ Did the shooting approach they used on the Imax film Titanica influence your methods on this portion of your film? ] ^ Both productions used the same Russian submersibles and research ship to access the wreck. No, our approach was completely different. In fact, I think it was incredibly ballsy of them to do their film the way they did. They fit the Imax camera into the interior of that sub and used an existing viewing port, which was basically the extent of their engineering. The big advance on that film was the HMI lighting system they brought down. The Russian subs have a tremendous power envelope, about two to three times the battery capacity that the American, French or Japanese subs can deliver. We could take these 1200-watt HMIs down there and burn them for hours. They were very focused beams and the blue frequency light they create goes through water very well.
[ Will Titanic be released in 70mm and could you outline your experiences with the format? ] ^ We’re negotiating with Paramount on that point right now. Their appetite for 70mm is zero. I think we should go for 70mm prints in 20 to 25 key cities in theaters that deserve it because they kept their equipment in repair. And simply because the 70mm prints will look the best. Blowing up to 70mm from a flat negative has been a strange evolutionary process for me. On Aliens, they didn’t look quite as good as the 35mm prints, but the sound was much better. On The Abyss it was a wash, as the 70mm prints were slightly less snappy although the grain was finer. On T2 is was an exact wash on picture quality, but the sound quality was fantastic. But on True Lies, the 70mm really edged ahead. The 70mm prints are made from the same IN as the 35mm anamorphic prints, but since they don’t have that lateral smearing, I think they look pin-sharp. And now, our first tests on Titanic are dramatic, and I credit it all to the improvements that have been made in the intermediate stocks. But the irony is that just when 70mm prints should be embraced as a great thing, they’re being phased out because the new digital sound formats have made the format obsolete from a sound-quality perspective. On certain films though, and Titanic is one of them, 70mm prints should be struck. But I also feel that the 35mm prints will look absolutely beautiful.
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Posted on July 15, 1997 in Interviews by
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