Titanic 3-D Sneak Preview: James Cameron Makes the Case for His Blockbuster Revival

It's auteur 3-D work-in-progress week in New York! Less than a day after Martin Scorsese gave a hometown crowd an early glimpse at his upcoming Hugo, James Cameron dropped by Times Square to show off 17 minutes from his ongoing 3-D conversion of Titanic.

"The thinking was to give you a general reminder of how the film worked," Cameron said, introducing stereoscopic snippets of his 1997 blockbuster and 11-time Oscar-winner to a small audience of local press. "Probably most of you haven't seen it in years and years. We're not changing a frame. The ship still sinks; it ends the same way. The idea is to use 3-D as a conceptual framework for bringing the movie back to the screen. We believe the film works best in theaters, and that sustained its performance back in 1998 -- that it played in theaters 16 weeks in the number-one position. And the reason for that, I think, was people's perception of the movie as an emotional experience they wanted to share with other people."

He's right, of course, about the theatrical experience. Having stumbled upon Titanic's last hour a few weeks ago on TBS, I realized how well the spectacle of the doomed luxury liner's maiden voyage held up 15 years later, even if the equally doomed love affair between Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet) still left my cold, cold heart as unmoved as the iceberg that sealed their fate. The beauty of Titanic is that it is ambitious enough (and long enough, I guess), to be many things to many viewers, millions upon millions of whom valued its qualities enough to make it the highest-grossing film in history by returning -- and returning again -- to see it on the big screen.

Cameron said he attributes this phenomenon in part to a viewer's "contract with yourself" -- the resolution that committing to and paying for the theatrical experience demands an equal level of commitment from a filmmaker. At least in the exhibition sense, Cameron argued, both Titanic and his record-breaking follow-up Avatar delivered on that pact.

"I was trying to account for what was similar between the Titanic phenomenon and the Avatar phenomenon," he said, "which proved very similar in a way, even though the movies were completely different and didn't even always necessarily play to the same segments of the audience. But I think it was that decision to see the film on the big screen. I think the 3-D's a part of that. It gives people a reason -- a simple reason -- to go to the movie theater. But I think there's a lot more going on with it than just that."

Maybe, maybe not. Almost exactly six months removed from the tragedy's 100th anniversary (and Titanic's official re-release date), today was more of a day for specifics -- a glimpse at what a year-plus and $18 million worth of 3-D conversion can buy the format's No. 1 fan. It turns out that it's no short-cuts, no "apps" and no limits, just 300 artists at their workstations going back through every line of every frame of film.

"Every hair on Kate's head has to be done," Cameron said. "They have to blow it way up to the pixel level. They have to outline it. They have to assign depth layers to it. They have to create volume by adding a mesh to it -- a rotoscoped mesh. It's a very complex process. And then they have to go back and paint in the missing parts. Because you can imagine: If you're looking at an object in 3-D, your right eye is seeing a little bit more around the right side of the object, and your left eye is seeing a little bit more around the left side of the object. That's parallax -- that's what gives you that depth illusion. But when you see an object where's no information there from the original photography, then you have to make that up."

He went on about "volumetric geometry" and "physics-based fluid simulations," but honestly, beyond the still-staggering ship-boarding sequence -- the curve of Winslet's hat, the bustle of the crowd, even the gentle sway of a gaslamp -- and a steamy, bracing sprint through the ship's engine room, I couldn't discern much of the painstaking work that Cameron cited. That said, it was 17 minutes, only about five of which featured the full panic of the ship's fateful collision and its protracted submersion into the Atlantic. That's the stuff in my contract with myself, not necessarily how the sunlight glints just so off of Billy Zane's mimosa.

Cameron gets this; he's publicly criticized the haste of most post-production conversion out there, and himself was the first to admit today that the reason that Avatar and Scorsese's Hugo made (or are at least expected to make) the visual impression they did was their native 3-D production values. As such, the man whose $200 million passion project made him the self-coronated King of the World is left to coax the shapes, breezes, currents and more out of that very project -- or else.

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  • Dyrkness says:

    Artificial 3D? No thanks. 3D MUST be shot with a stereo camera. This will be a gigantic fail.

  • So this begs the question, if i didnt like it the first time around, will making it 3D improve the chances of me seeing it? Perhaps I am the wrong demographic (male) but for me unless no other movies are out that week, its not likely to motivate me to see it just because CGI is overlaid on it ...

  • S.T. VanAirsdale says:

    If you didn't like it the first time, you probably won't like it now. Though the ambition and scale of the last hour or so -- especially in contrast to the proliferation of garbage CGI we see today -- really is impressive upon viewing 15 years on. I do recommend it.

  • The Cantankerist says:

    Spoiler alert:
    Someone pointed out on Twitter that Jack doesn't drown at the end of Titanic. Kate lets go and Leo vanishes into the ocean deep. Is he dead? Who can say? After all, Inception opens with Leo washing up on a beach. SHIPCEPTION!

  • bob says:

    JP morgan sunk the Titanic, there is a reason they like to keep movies like Pearl Harbor and Titanic constantly on the Remake, it's to keep people off of the real story. The titanic was owned partially by JP morgan, who invited some of the most powerful people at the time, that were also opposed to the creation of the Federal Reserve bank. JP Morgan is originally to be on the ship, but then has a conversation with the Ship's Captain, and get's off the ship. Hours later it sinks, lifeboats are not available so the men are forced to let the women survive, like JP knew they would. Leaving the powerful men that opposed him trapped on the boat. One year later the Federal Reserve is created. Also, as a side note, mainstream investigating has uncovered that the Titanic also had Support beams for the mid section of the ship REMOVED days before it's maiden voyage, this rendered it unable to cope with ANY sort of side damage. Since they know everyone goes to new movies, and pretty much believes what they see, this type of propaganda serves to keep people in the dark as to the true events surrounding Titanic. It's the same old story, powerful rich men killing other people to get their way, but since they can't kill them directly they plan it in such a way that the public misunderstands, and the powerful that opposed him become manageable out of fear of the same fate.