Colliding With Destiny:The Building And Sinking Of The Ship Set

Cameron recounts, "We had a series of big pre-visualization sessions for about a month and a half. We built a study model of the ship and went around it with a video camera. We learned the geography of Titanic, as well as which angles made look its most imposing and most beautiful." As the process continued, the sets required to film the ship and its destruction became apparent.
"You can't just build one set," Cameron continues, "you have to build a number of sets at different angles because the ship was changing angles continuously over a period of time."
The elegant First Class Dining Saloon and the three-story Grand Staircase, both built virtually life-size, were constructed on a hydraulic platform at the bottom of the 30-foot-deep interior tank on Stage 2, designed to be angled and flooded with 5 million gallons of filtered seawater drawn from the ocean only yards away. This was only one of the enormous logistical feats accomplished by use of complex hydraulics and construction.
Production designer Peter Lamont, whose impressive body of work has earned him three Academy AwardŽ nominations ("Aliens," "The Spy Who Loved Me" and "Fiddler on the Roof"), took on this enormous assignment as an irresistible challenge to his distinguished career. At the onset, he was able to obtain from shipbuilders Harland & Wolff copies of the original blueprints of Titanic along with Thomas Andrews' own notebook of remarks on the ship's design features. This was the first time such material had ever been made available since Titanic's sinking.
During the course of his research, Lamont discovered that the manufacturer of the original carpeting for the Dining Saloon and Reception Room on D Deck was still in business. The company, BMK Stoddard of England, still had the pattern on file and could reproduce the dyes. Immediately, production put in an order, adding another element of reality.
"For nearly a year," Lamont says, "we had sets and furnishings being built in Mexico City, Los Angeles and London, with timelines for shipping to a facility that wasn't even built yet. The quantity of items we authentically reproduced -- deck chairs, table lamps, leaded windows, White Star crystal and china, luggage, lifejackets, marine accessories -- amounted to literally thousands of pieces because part of the goal of the art direction was to recreate the size of it all -- titanic. Constructing the 775-foot filming exterior set of Titanic is an undertaking as complex, in a different way, as building the real thing, but in just one-tenth the time."
As Lamont also points out, providing an additional challenge was the fact that, since it was Titanic's first voyage, its interiors were barely completed and hardly photographed. Through extensive research and the aid of consultants Don Lynch and Ken Marschall, his department was able to accurately recreate the opulence of the ship's famed First Class Dining Saloon, Reception Room, First Class Smoking Room, Promenade, Palm Court Cafe, Gymnasium and several deluxe period Staterooms (including Cal and Rose's Empire-style suite) based on reference photos from Titanic's sister ship, the Olympic, and the few interior photos of Titanic that exist.
Great care was also taken in providing a realistic tour of the more Spartan realms below the first-class decks of Titanic, including the Third Class Berths and General Room; the Marconi Wireless Room; the cavernous Boiler and Engine Rooms; and the huge Cargo Hold, where the spoils of the rich (including a handsome new maroon and black Renault) were stored. All combined, the 775-foot ship set was about 10% smaller than the actual Titanic, eliciting a sense of awe from all involved.
"It took us a long time to really get our minds around how big Titanic really was," Cameron says. "It was huge, 880-feet long. In weight, it was 48,000 tons in displacement, but in physical weight of steel, it was closer to 60,000 tons. This thing was a monster."
In order to promote the illusion of Titanic being at sea, the ship set and the tank were strategically constructed along the coastline with an unbroken view of the ocean to create an infinite horizon during the day or night. Also, the night scenes would require a tower crane to position lights well above the already 45-foot high boat deck at the ship set's "level" position and higher at the stern when in the "sinking" position.
Given the towering dimensions of the ship, Cameron made great use of the Akela Crane, an advanced piece of filmmaking hardware. One of the largest camera cranes in the world, it has a reach of 80-feet. However, in order to fully the majesty of the Titanic at sea and in peril, Cameron put his background in engineering into play again.
"We built this big tower crane with almost a 200-foot reach," Cameron says, "and we put the track along the side of the ship in the water tank. We could go right over the top to the funnels and reach a point on the ship from end to end in a space of five minutes.
"We could stabilize the image enough," the director continues, "and use it for visual effect shots and for big, beautiful establishing shots. It evolved into a very important tool."
Producer Jon Landau estimates that "almost a thousand effects shots were eliminated because of the ability to shoot on the full-sized ship set."
The set was repositioned to a 6% angle via a complex "jacking process," involving two construction companies, to simulate more advanced stages of sinking. For the final stages of the disaster, the ship would be separated into two pieces, the front half sinking in 40-feet of water using powerful hydraulics. One of the more chilling facts about the actual sinking was that there were only enough lifeboats to handle barely half the passengers aboard. Heightening this tragedy was the crew's failure to fill the boats to capacity, resulting in only a third of the passengers making it to safety. For the film, the production team was able to apply a layer of realism to this technically complex and emotionally powerful sequence. The lifeboat davits, which is the system of pulleys and mechanisms required to launch the vessels, were constructed by the same company that built the davits for the actual Titanic.
"The Wellan Davit Company," Cameron explains, "built our davits to their old plans. We literally had the very same piece of machinery that was used on Titanic to lower a lifeboat."
In the early hours of April 15, 1912, the flooding bow of Titanic pulled the forward portion of the ship down, lifting the stern out of the water to a terrifying angle. When the stress on the hull reached critical mass, with the two portions still attached at the keel, the descending bow pulled the stern straight up to a vertical position, where it bobbed for a few minutes before plunging like an elevator into the dark sea.
Throughout the course of the production, the filmmakers were continually reminded that water is one of the most powerful forces on earth. "Whenever we tried to deal with water, we were always frustrated by its weight and power," Cameron says. "That's one of the interesting things about the Titanic disaster. They thought they were the lords of the sea. They thought they had dominated nature. But nature will never be dominated. We have to ride with it, but we're not going to steamroll right over the top of it. They thought they could pave the world and drive their big, metal ships across the ocean with impunity. They were wrong."