Making the Reel More Real: TITANIC 3D and the 3D Experience
8 April 2012
To celebrate the 100th anniversary of Titanic’s demise (which will be official on April 15th, 2012), James Cameron released a 3D version of his epic film Titanic (titled Titanic 3D for the rerelease). Unlike many 3D films released today, Titanic 3D is not your run-of-the mill conversion. Today, 3D conversions are, sadly, a-dime-a-dozen, even though the conversion process is far from a perfected process; often the picture quality of the converted film is compromised, viewers’ eyes must continuously readjust and refocus to the inauthentic three-dimensionality added to the film, and the whole experience becomes a bit stomach-turning. Cameron, back in 1996, had the wherewithal to envision a 3D version of Titanic that was not the trendy overdone, dramatic dimensional shift; a type of 3D familiar and inviting to the eye. He kept this vision lit on the back-burner, so to speak, brewing the idea of a 3D rerelease of the film when the necessary technology and demand came about. Knowing he could not release this 3D opus at first, in the 1990s, the film debuted in late 1997 in standard 2D format. Yet, Cameron, who has talked extensively about 3D being the future of cinema, held out hope that one day technology would catch up with his 3D ambition and audiences could finally see the intended 3D version of Titanic. In the early 21st century Cameron’s hope became a reality, and for almost 10 years he has waited and worked anxiously to mark the 100th anniversary of Titanic’s sinking with the rerelease of his epic melodrama in 3D format.
Briefly, Titanic 3D is a framed story beginning with an elderly woman named Rose (Gloria Stuart). A survivor of the wreck, Rose has been brought onboard Brock Lovett’s (Bill Paxton) expedition vessel, which is searching Titanic’s wreckage for a rare diamond necklace, called the Heart of the Ocean. Rose claims to have information about the expensive jewel and begins recalling her experiences onboard the ill-fated Titanic some 80 years prior. The film jumps back in time, to April 1912, when Rose (Kate Winslet) feels trapped in a loveless engagement and about to board Titanic with her mother (Frances Fisher) and fiancé (Billy Zane). Also onboard the Titanic is Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio), a free-spirited, penniless vagabond. The attraction between the two is almost immediate and they soon begin a love-affair. When Titanic strikes a large iceberg their whimsical romance makes an abrupt turn; the two no longer fights to be in each other’s arms, instead they fight for survival amid chaos and disaster. Facing almost every obstacle imaginable, Jack and Rose survive the ship’s sinking, but Jack, sadly, dies of hypothermia in the icy water. Rose, however, was able to float on driftwood from the ship and is rescued. Instead of giving her actual name to the steward of the rescue ship, Carpathia, Rose uses Jack’s last name, leading her mother and fiancée to believe she perished with the Titanic, thus freeing her from all constraints she felt overwhelmed by. The film returns to an elderly Rose concluding her story. Lovett, feeling as though he finally understands the tremendous loss and sadness attached to Titanic, decides he will not find the Heart of the Ocean and he should stop looking, letting all those who perished rest in peace. In one of the final and most astonishing scenes of the film, the now feeble Rose walks out on the deck of Lovett’s vessel in the dark of night with the Heart of the Ocean necklace clutched in her hand. After freeing herself of the story she kept secret for roughly 80 years, Rose tosses the necklace in the ocean. Later that same night Rose passes away, “warm in her bed,” just as Jack predicted she would.
Without question, Titanic 3D is a better cinematic experience than Titanic, yet the three-dimensionality of the film only lends subtle differences to the eye, making it difficult for most audience members to notice distinctions between the two versions. Unlike almost any other 3D film that comes to mind, Cameron’s Titanic 3D does not pop out at the audience; no axe swings dangerously close the viewers’ noses, no emergency flare explodes wildly from the screen toward movie-goers faces, and no water propels from the screen giving the illusion that the audience will be drenched. These types of thrills are not James Cameron’s style; Cameron would consider these gimmicky illusions cheap and an insult to what 3D actually has to offer the medium of cinema. Thus, Cameron’s Titanic 3D delicately picks up a greater depth perception in each shot, heightening the sense of realism conveyed to audience members: the action is more intense and the love story is more intimate. With greater realism the audience’s emotional investment in the film is heightened, which is why the cinematic experience of Titanic 3D is greater than in Titanic.
As Cameron said in a recent interview, watching Titanic 3D is like opening up a window and viewing reality. Instead of looking at a picture on a wall, Titanic 3D offers a more nuanced visual spectacle, one more attractive to the eye because it comes closer to simulating the spatial relations the eye picks up in the real world. Yes, there is depth perception in 2D, easily created through focus and shading, but the depth perception in 3D conveys a more genuine sense of realism.
One reason 3D works well with Titanic has to do with Cameron’s staging and camerawork in the film. Specifically, Cameron is always doing two things with his camera: capturing the action and taking viewers on a tour of the famous ship. Reflecting back, Cameron disperses the film’s action throughout the ship, giving audience members the sense that they are exploring the immense, gorgeous, and infamous ocean liner which now rests on the sea floor. Thus, Cameron’s camera is always on the move, tracking, panning, sweeping up or down from a crane, or hand-held movement. Therefore, considerable detail is captured in each shot, often elaborate set pieces or large amounts of actors.
Take, for example, the scene when Jack escorts Rose and Molly Brown to dinner in the first-class dining room. The camera surveys the grand staircase and its landing, a particularly noteworthy feature of the ship, as Rose slyly dishes the gossip to Jack about all wealthy passengers onboard the ship. Then, the camera follows Jack as he mingles and walks the ladies to the dining room. Dimension is vital to the film in even a small moment such as this. Jack and Rose must look small compared to the majestic scale of the grand staircase, yet, in the same moment, before Molly arrives, the couple stands alone, almost god-like and grandiose, removed from others, which signals to viewers the couple is in their own world, secluded from the maddening crowd. Cameron captures their minuscule size relative to the staircase and their immense size relative to the other passengers. Moreover, as the two moves closer to the other passengers, Jack and Rose are inextricably close to one another, and others are only a mere stone’s throw away. The closeness of space between Jack and Rose is safe and comfortable, yet the closeness of space between the couple and the other passengers is claustrophobic and uncomfortable. This is an incredibly delicate balance. Dimension is exceedingly important in even the smallest of moments in Titanic, thus 3D sharpens the film’s spatial dynamic.
So, with the highly publicized release of Titanic 3D, and it being a type of subtle 3D audiences have not experienced before, is this newest 3D going to revolutionize cinema? No. Truth be told, 3D is still too costly because it requires special equipment for filming. Moreover, converting films to 3D in the factory line-type fashion the industry has been recently offers an inauthentic spectacle, difficult on the eyes; this popular conversion (which is also incredibly expensive) is obvious and requires the eye to continually readjust to new frames. Furthermore, 3D equipment does not work on the highest resolution digital cameras many filmmakers currently use; thus filmmakers would have to choose between the highest picture quality or three-dimensionality. Also, because of the 3D glasses, there is, approximately, a 30% loss in color quality and brightness with 3D films. It is noticeable even in Titanic 3D, and certainly one of the film’s few flaws.
3D is not going to take over cinema, at least not any time soon. Surely the technology will continue to advance, making 3D less costly, but for 3D to revolutionize the film world audiences’ must demand it, and that is not yet happening. Nevertheless, Titanic 3D solidifies one thing and that is Cameron as auteur with 3D being a clear mark of his filmmaking style.