This is the 1/20th scale "Beauty Model" of the Titanic as we were constructing it. When this model was finished it was used for all of the shots of the Titanic sailing on the ocean. This model was used for all of the long sweeping shots in the film that showed off Titanic's majesty and beauty as she sailed on the ocean. Here we were still working on her hull. When finished this model would be 45 feet long from stem to stern.
Here is a picture of the Beauty Model's aft well deck. Just to give you a sense of size, there are some familiar objects left on the deck. As lunch time came along we left some tools we were using on the deck such as a roll of masking tape, a Sharpie marker, and some sand paper.
We constructed our models for the film working from plans provided by Harland and Wolff Shipyards, the builders of the real Titanic. We assigned a grid number to each and every hull plate so we could easily reference between our model and the plans. After building the hull out of wood and fiberglass, a grid pattern was drawn on the surface with marker, following the hull plate layout on the plans. Then we custom cut plastic panels to fit in each space, overlapping in all the right spots. While plastic was used for most of the hull plates, it doesn't bend too well. Here you can see some additional materials I was testing for use in the curvy areas down by the propellers. The white material is styrene, and the shiny material is sheet aluminum. Both bend well, however, aluminum was chosen because we were concerned that the styrene would not hold up after hours of filming in hot lights.
Here is a close up from an angle that demonstrates why we couldn't continue to use plastic panels in this area of the ship model. Above you can see the gray plastic we've been using for most of the hull plates, however in the curvy area down by the propellers, the plates have to make some interesting curves. Here you can see some of the work I was doing in this area, cutting and burnishing on sheet aluminum. I had to do each panel twice, because the sheet aluminum was about half as thick as the plastic we had been using, so I had to double the layers where I used aluminum to match the thickness of the other panels.
Looking at the port side of the beauty model, this picture shows some of the various materials used. Most of the rivets were brass brads hammered in by hand, over 300,000 of them! Some of the panels that are full of rivets were molded that way. In the lower left corner of the picture you can see one of the several doors along the hull. The rust color you see here and there may look like rust but it is actually the color of the putty we used to fill and smooth gaps. You can also see several areas scuffed with sandpaper.
While the beauty model was being built, there was another model of the Titanic being constructed at the same scale on the other side of the model shop. This one is how the Titanic looks today at 2.5 miles underwater. While many of the shots in the film of the wreck are footage of the real Titanic wreck under the Atlantic, not all of the shots were feasible underwater in those hostile conditions. Motion control shots, and other fancy camera moves can't be done in that atmosphere, so a detailed model of the wreck had to be constructed. In many ways this model was much more challenging. Just think, every place the railing was bent, every place there is a rust cycle, had to be reproduced exactly, as the film would interchange shots of the real wreck with shots of this model.
Another view of the wreck model, here you can see some of the detail that had to be stressed over such as broken and bent railings, more rust cycles than you can count, broken and collapsed decking and bridge hose areas. Usually models get painted after construction is completed; however, in this case the rust look was built up in stages with layers of paint and iron dust in a hydrogen peroxide solution. This is why there is masking tape all over this model where spray wasn't welcome. Again some tools left on the model lets you see the scale of the model.
This view of the wreck model illustrates why I had to use sheet aluminum on the areas of the beauty model that had curves; all of the sheet lead was used on the wreck! The complex bends, tears, and damage to the wreck required a material that is sturdy and could be easily molded. For those areas, the sheet lead was used as the base material. The model of the wreck was of just the front half. As most people know, the Titanic split in two during the sinking. None of the filming done for the movie was going to be of the aft section of the wreck.
After the construction is completed, the painters get to work making everything the right color and putting on the finishing touches. Some of the painting of the parts gets done prior to assembling them, depending on the placement. However, painting is one of the last steps. Here you can see the completed Beauty Model ready for filming! Throughout the process of building the models, there were rumors floating around that several museums were interested in obtaining this model after filming. Being built directly from the original plans as well as its scale, it is the most accurate and most detailed model ever constructed of the Titanic. I am not personally aware of the validity of the rumors, but I am sure there are several museums that wouldn't mind adding it to their collection.
After the models were completed, Digital Domain took this photo of the model crew in front of the Beauty Model. It was given to each of us as a memento. In case you are wondering, I am the one in the short sleeve t-shirt in the second row. At the very beginning of the project we asked if the models needed to be water-proof, since that would have an effect on what materials were used for building the model. We were told that the model would never see water because the water would be added digitally. No matter how detailed the model, the one thing that can not be scaled down is the water, so even the best models wind up looking like toys in a bathtub on film. For that reason it was decided that the water would be digital. At that time, digital effects hadn't attempted photo-realistic water because of the complexity. The digital crew did an amazing job of pioneering that for "Titanic."
Seeing what those guys accomplished on that film is one of the main reasons I went back to school to learn the digital software. It was clear that was going to be the future. Sixteen years later I have been using digital software for all of the various disciplines you see on this site. In that time I have done print, web, motion graphics, compositing, 3D modeling and animation, and advertising.
In the spring of 1996, I was contacted by Digital Domain as they were ramping up for a film by James Cameron about the Titanic. I remember coming home to a message on my machine from the Crew Chief of the model shop asking if I would be interested in working on a crew of model builders for a film by James Cameron about the Titanic. At that point I had dabbled with some of the digital software available at that time, but had tons of experience from the time I was a child, building and painting miniature models with lots of detail.
I had arrived in California a year prior and got to work sending out portfolios and resumes, and following up with phone calls. After a long period of no responses I took a break. Then out of the blue I got this message on my machine. As I listened to the message I remember thinking to myself, "Another movie about the Titanic? Hasn't that been done over and over? Who is going to go see this film?" Thankfully I decided it was probably a good idea to work on anything Digital Domain was working on. After all they are one of the premier effects houses in Hollywood, and James Cameron was certainly not going to do anything small. I made some good friends, some of which remain as colleagues and acquaintances to this day.
I had a great time working on this project, and being part of building some amazing models. The photos to the left were taken at various stages of model completeness. Click on the images, have a look, and enjoy this look behind the scenes of work at the Digital Domain model shop for this film.
© Jeff DiSario 2012 All Rights Reserved