In 1996 I got the opportunity to be part of the team at Digital Domain as we built the models used for the James Cameron film, "Titanic." On this page you will see several pictures I took of this model as well as the wreck model as we were building them.
When completed, this 1/20th scale model was 44.5 feet in length, and was used for the majority of the shots of Titanic sailing on the open seas. What a fun project. At this scale there is a lot of detail you can place on the model!
We had the privilege to work directly from the plans of the real Titanic sent to us from Harland and Wolff Shipyards, the builder's of the real Titanic. While we worked on these models we heard there were several museums interested in acquiring this model after the film wrapped. According to them, it was the most accurate, most detailed model of the ship ever made.
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.
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 curved 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 curved 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.
“Jeff worked for us as an assistant model maker on Titanic. His perseverance and creativity during a difficult build contributed to an excellent final result that looked amazing on film.”
Model Crew Chief/Model Shop Foreman