That Sinking Feeling

Vision Crew Mans the Lifeboats for CBS Primetime

By Neal S. Yanover

from Variety On Production

Eighty-four years later, and at about the same time, 11:30 p.m., on a cold, dark night, the R.M.S. Titanic rips in half and gets swallowed in a valley of icy water again. An again. And again. Until it looks exactly right.

The crew at the Los Angeles-based effects house, Vision Crew Unlimited, has been plunging a ten-foot long, half-ton scale model of the port side of the Titanic's first-class deck into a pool, in order to get the water rushing over the structure to look fierce.

After a brief conference between two of the three Vision Crew principals, Evan Jacobs and Doug Miller, and the production's visual effects supervisor, Janet Muswell, they agree to shorten the ship's ventilator cowl before the next shot. At the nest take, the water boils over the ship's structure angrily, even malevolently, and everyone seems pleased.

This model may be "miniature" compared to the actual 882 foot, 46,328 ton original, but re-creating this part of the wreck of the Titanic is no small feat of technical wizardry. No computer could have generated it quite as convincingly, the modelers say.

In fact, despite the breathtaking sophistication computer-generated effects in Hollywood these days, physical effects shops like Vision Crew Unlimited, utilizing some of the oldest tricks of the trade, see red skies at night. Moreover, physical effects are often more appropriate and more cost effective than now fashionable CGI. Physical effects-cameras imaging actual objects-are seemingly unsinkable. So much so, visual effects supervisors often combine the two approaches.

The CBS prime-time miniseries Titanic - airing November 17 and 19 - is actually Vision Crew's second project with the doomed ocean liner. Jacobs, Miller, and partner Jon Warren and the rest of the Vision Crew model makers and technicians also created all the deck fittings and other objects for Digital Domain's 44-foot long model constructed for James Cameron's big screen production. Vision Crew's principals used to freelance around town, at Digital Domain, Boss Film Studios, and Fantasy II.

Jacobs, the company's executive producer, reports that the feature film job required a large amount of small scale pieces: 2,000 portholes, 14 lifeboats, and numerous other scale-model deck fittings exactingly detailed down to the rivets. (The big-screen Titanic is being sailed in a 300 foot by 100 foot tank in Mexico.)

Although there's room for an ocean between the budgets of the two Titanic projects, both productions faced one common problem. According to Janet Muswell, it's natural: Computers just don't do water well (or, for that matter, collapsing, exploding wood and steel). "At the moment, you can't get water to perform the way that we wanted it to with CGI and have an organic matter act in an organic way," she says. "We have incredible computer-generated water [for the wide angle shots], just choppy ocean water in daytime and night time, and icebergs. But, to have something that's this organic is, at this moment, impossible...To get a CGI model to break, it would have had to be built in a way that would have taken months longer than we had. [The deck] is an organic thing. It's wood breaking. And organic always looks better when it's real."

As a result, the production has kept the physical portion of the effects down to only four of the 80 total effects shots. "It doesn't sound like much," Jacobs admits, "but we're doing the neat stuff."

"They reached the point in the sequences where [the ship's] gotta sink and it's gotta be in water, and there's gotta be dust and debris flying, and all kinds of big mechanical things have to happen," Jacobs adds. "And doing that in a computer is just not going to look real because there's so much random stuff going on."

After reflecting on that for a moment, he adds, "The reality is that you can do it in the computer. Twister proved that. They had a lot of money to throw at that movie...But if you can get a shot in camera, using a mirror shot, why not?"

"There's an unfortunate tendency for people to think that computers are sexy, so that's got to be the way to do it," Jacobs says. "And I'm not anti-computer, believe me. I'm a big fan of computers used for the right purposes. They've made our jobs a lot easier."

"If someone comes up and says, 'You know, what we really want is a big silver sphere.' Well, that's pretty easy to do on the computer. Why don't you just do that one in the computer? That would be really hard to [actually] make. It would be perfectly easy to make a perfect sphere in the computer." But, he adds "If you're trying to do ruins, or something that explodes, let's build a model."

Another example of teamwork between models and computers can be found in the live-action/computer-animated feature, Space Jam. Miniatures were used to move the camera up, from a real Michael Jordan making his retirement speech, to the Chicago skyline, over rooftops and up into the sky, then transition back to the animation easier. Jacobs says it was much easier to rent models from Hudsucker Proxy, add a few touches, and then digitally composite in the sky. Otherwise, he says, "That would have been a real pain to do optically."

Doug Miller, the company's creative director and computer specialist, points out the computer's utility stretches beyond effects creation: "We do a lot of pre-visualization on computer using a lot of different software applications," he says. Vision Crew routinely creates animatic storyboards and 3-D animations to communicate its ideals to clients. And to convince themselves: They used a 3-D computer model to determine the proper angle for the ship's slide into the briny. It made building the track to carry the model easier.

Miller notes that many leading physical effects shops were so quick to embrace computers, they swapped out their model shops. "As soon as they completed the transition, they had to start backpedaling, putting their model shops back together again, because they realized that there are some things that are sort of impractical to do, at least at this point, in the computer...You've got to be willing to combine the two. You've got to realize that they [both] have their place."

Still there's the perils of location shooting. Even though she was wearing a jacket and standing close to a propane heater outside the Vision Crew studio at 1 a.m. on a chilly night, Muswell, a veteran effects editor and former Harry artist who claims to find compositing sessions, "quite fascinating," admits, "It's a lot more fun sitting around here waiting to shoot than it is sitting in the CG house and watching the frame rendering so we can approve texture."

"This," she says, "is fun."