December 1997


Ship Building

by Ron Magid

Vision Crew Unlimited's artisans lay scale-model keels for Titanic.

When director James Cameron began production on Titanic, Digital Domain's model shop was on a collision course of its own. They were already involved in building a huge number of models for Luc Besson's space fantasy The Fifth Element (see AC May '97), and were gearing up for one of the biggest miniature shows of all time, Dante's Peak.

Enter Jon Warren, Doug Miller, and Evan Jacobs, modelmakers who had formerly worked for DD and Boss Film. The three are now partnered in Vision Crew Unlimited, a boutique miniature fabrication shop. "Doug worked on Apollo 13, so we heard about Titanic when the show started," Jacobs recalls. "They told us about this museum-quality 45'-long ship with every conceivable detail and rivet - it had to be absolutely perfect, and we thought, ' Boy, we sure don't want to work on that.' "

With DD's stages full of The Fifth Element's miniature cityscapes and the modelshop straining to pump out the mountain for Dante's Peak, Cameron's own project was in danger of being orphaned - but not for long. "[Modelshop supervisors] Gene Rizzardi and George Stevens decided to open up a shooting stage and model shop at Hughes Airport in Playa Del Rey," Jacobs says. The decision came not a moment too soon. " They didn't have a shop, they had an empty building," Jacobs continues. "They didn't have the personnel or the facilities in place to begin the massive amount of work to build this 45' ship, in addition to the lots of other things they had to build. When they backed into the schedule [Titanic was initially slated for release on July 21], they realized that they had to have the ship done in six weeks. They couldn't hit the ground running, whereas we were in a position to jump in and start right away. So they approached us at Vision Crew to build the detail pieces at our shop - all of the deck detail, davits, lifeboats, cranes, and ventilators - and then bring it to them to put on the ship."

It sounds simple enough. Jacobs agrees, " It was one of those situations where you think, ' Well, we'll just pump out some model parts.' But the [real] ship had only been sailing for four days before it sank, so there weren't a lot of photographs of it. The plans for the ship were lost years ago, but we had information about the Titanic's sister ship, the Olympic, which was similar but not the same. For example, there were a lot more lifeboats on the Olympic after the Titanic sank, and the lifeboats looked different. So we were doing archaeological work as we were building the patterns. Sometimes we had to guess from one angle in one photo what some parts would look like. Fortunately, Cameron gave us access to Ken Marshall, the preeminent expert on the Titanic. He's scary; he knows way too much about the Titanic, and had volumes of photos, but it was still difficult for us to find exactly what we needed. For example, the only way we could figure out the placement and style of the ventilators was to look at the sunken wreck photos, and say, 'That looks like one of those.' It was just unbelievable."

While VCU was busily researching and building virtually everything from the deck up at their shop, work was progressing on the hull at DD's makeshift Hughes Aircraft facility. Ever the stickler for detail, Cameron insisted that actual shipmakers construct the hull out of laminated wood. " They built it like a racing boat out of strips of wood laminated onto forms," Jacobs marvels. "Then the modelers put all of the plates on, because in reality, the hull was not flat, it was made of overlapping pieces of steel. Thank God we didn't have to do the 100,000 rivets in the hull. The [modelers] placed these jigs over the hull - because the real rivets were not laid out in straight lines, but in weird patterns - and drilled a hole for each rivet. They then placed a guy every 5' down the length of the hull, and had each of them pound brads in with little hammers. We used to go over there and think, ' Man, I don't want to be on the rivet crew.' "

Of course, there were rivets galore on the cowls, ventilators, and portholes VCU was expected to knock out. "They said all they needed from us were the detail pieces that you would plant onto the main hull," Jacobs says. "Of course, those were the pieces with thousands of rivets on them. They were all over everything, because that's how the real things had been built: the whole ship was made out of sheet metal, and it was all riveted together. Most times our patterns had the rivets incorporated in them. They were either pinheads or drops of epoxy. But a ventilator might have a thousand rivets on it, and everything had to be just perfect."

Beyond constructing 2,000 portholes with working windows, VCU's 14-man team was forced to cast many of the Titanic's features entirely out of brass because of scale and stress issues. These pieces included extendable deck cranes and fully functional davits used to lower the lifeboats over the side. "In reality, the davits were 20' tall, but in our model, they were roughly 9" high and very thin," Jacobs explains. "They had to be positionable, and they had to function; each davit had little block and fall ropes, and had to be able to support the weight of a lifeboat without sagging. We made 20 lifeboats, and every lifeboat had an interior with 24 oars in it; even though the boats are covered and you can't see the oars, they're all in there."

After fabricating almost every major mechanical feature on the deck of the Titanic, VCU turned their work over to DD's modelers, who spent a total of 12 weeks painting and finishing the ship, a job shich included the placement of small photographic TransLight interiors behind each cabin porthole. "It's insane, but I think you'll see it," Jacobs says. "The idea was that they were going to get right on top of this stuff with the camera. Typically, when you build a miniature, you build three sides - just the stuff you'd see. In this case, the model had to be beautiful from all angles, because Cameron wanted a perfect, museum-quality miniature."

Once VCU had finished the detailing, they thought their encounter with the legendary ocean liner was over. "We said, 'Man, if we ever see another Titanic we'll throw up," Jacobs laughs. "But CBS was doing this movie of the week about Titanic, and they asked us to build some scale setpieces to work with water. When we were finally done with that, we said, 'Great, no more Titanic stuff.' Of course, we immediately got a call from Lightstorm [Cameron's production company], who asked if we wanted to build some engine-room pieces.

Cameron wanted to dramatize the moment where the Titanic's massive engines went into full reverse to avoid colliding with the iceberg, but "we didn't have time to build a big, bitchin' engine engineroom miniature," Jacobs explains. "Instead, someone came up with the brilliant idea of shooting the engine room aboard a Liberty ship, a real World War II troop transport moored in San Francisco. Its engines are very similar to the Titanic's, but one-third the size, so they decided to shoot that real engine room as a miniature. The only way to sell that was to put things in there that forced the scale. We actually took out all of the catwalks, gauges, dials and lightbulbs in certain areas - picking our angles carefully - and replaced them composited people onto our 1/3-scale versions. Then VIFX composited people onto our 1/3-scale catwalks and stairways to give you a sense that the engine room was much bigger than it acutally was."

This was another task which initially sounded deceptively simple to Jacobs and company: "We didn't realize that the temperature in the engine room of an old Liberty ship can reach 140 degrees! Because of that, we had to make everything out of silver soldered brass, because plastic would have sagged and melted. The [effects unit] had to get those shots in the can and prepare to composite the people in, so we had one week, literally, from the time we got thedesigns, put them on a truck, drove them to San Francisco and installed them on the ship. We were sure it would be impossible., but we did it. We had 16 people working around the clock."

Jacobs brought five modelers to San Francisco to dress the Liberty ship's engine room. "We had something llike 12 6'-long catwalks with handrails, and maybe eight stairways, which could be put together to create different layers. We also had big gauges and dials, along with 20 or 30 red caged lights, and we had to haul the stuff down 10 decks. The engine room was an old, greasy, nasty place, and it was very small. There wasn't a lot of extra room, and 1/3 scale is just huge. Also, since everything in the room moved, we couldn't attach any of our stuff to anything. We had a little latitude outside of frame, so we'd hang our C-stands there. It was really precarious and really hot.

"Our guys got there on Saturday night and dressed the room on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday. We then got in the ship, drove it out to sea, and cruised around the bay shooting these shots for a couple of days. They actually stopped engines and reversed them for real. I thought it was very clever to do the scene that way, and in the long run, it probably saved the production the cost of building a big elaborate set. In addition, the subtle nuances of the real engine room would have been impossible to duplicate. The shots are very convincing."

Jacobs and his partners in Vision Crew Unlimited unequivocally call Titanic "the most challenging work we've ever done. Everything we did on this show was a hassle. There was never an easy task, but I think the work we did is going to pay off."