Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Land Before CGI
Raise the Titanic



In 1980 Raise the Titanic was released to across the board pans from the critical community. The public too seemed dissatisfied with the film as it tanked at the box office. Even today all it can muster on IMDB is a rating of 3.9. So, were the original pans warranted? Yes and no. In all honesty, it's not a very good movie, granted, but it's not the worst thing ever made either. It's a cold war thriller and as far as that kind of thing goes it's decent but not without problems. The main problem of Raise the Titanic is a supreme lack of confidence in its story, taken from the novel of the same name penned by Clive Cussler. Directed without an ounce of flair by Jerry Jameson it plods through scenes that need not exceed seconds in length and exits quickly scenes that actually might hold interest. It's maddening watching someone direct a film counter to all common sensical instincts but by God that's exactly what Jameson does. To make matters worse the movie's third act is clearly truncated and rushed through. The tale of trying to extract a rare mineral thought to have been placed as cargo aboard the Titanic in 1912 spends 90 percent of the movie talking about what to do (raise the Titanic of course!) then 10 percent doing it in a race towards a climax and dénouement.

Critics and audiences were most likely reacting to the film's price tag of 40 million dollars at a time when the average film cost around eight. It is unfortunately fairly clear that 39 million went into the Titanic raising part of the movie and a million or so went to everything else. But again, as a cold war thriller with a twist ending it's not entirely bad but yes, one can find better thrillers elsewhere so why bother?

Well, because its Titanic raising sequence is pretty damn amazing for those of us who still appreciate great model work done in the most difficult setting imaginable for a miniatures/model artist to work: water. Water cannot be scaled down. It is the size it is, period, so when a big drop passes by the model it becomes clear that it's a model. High powered fans are often used to blow small thin ripples briskly across the surface while high-speed cameras shoot the action to be played back at a slower speed, hopefully simulating an ocean rather than a pool. Sometimes the effect works, sometimes it doesn't. Here, for the most part, it works. The model for the Titanic is fairly big as these things go, approximately 55 feet in length, so much of the miniature effects look good even in the water. Only a couple of shots, particularly an early one of the anchor, betray the model for what it is. The sequence was filmed in Malta and directed by Ricou Browning with superb sound editing by William Wistrom. Enjoy the clip and please remember this film was made in 1980, six years before Bob Ballard pinpointed the wreck and discovered it had broken in two before settling on the sea floor. I say this not to my usual informed readers but to anyone who may stumble across this piece by a random google search without possessing the proper historical knowledge since, remarkably, the ship coming up in one piece is criticized on many message boards I have come across for not being historically accurate. Most do not realize that unlike what is shown in the James Cameron film the ship most likely broke apart just beneath the surface hence the lack of eyewitness accounts of the ship's separation (although there were a couple of eyewitness theories along those lines based on the sounds they heard). At the time of this film's release the prevailing view was that the Titanic had gone down in one piece.



One last thing. If you are interested in the behind the scenes of the model work and filming done for this movie there is no more valuable place to go on the internet than this Raise the Titanic YouTube page where you can see great stills of the model in production here as well as a host of other interesting morsels for your consumption.

29 comments:

Arbogast said...

What's interesting while watching this clip for me is how my sense of awe goes on and off like it has a short in it. The slow motion bubbling of the water that begins this clip actually goosed me with a pure sense of fear-laced wonder but some of those shots, as you point out, reveal the discrepancy of the model/water dynamic. (And how about that music? God, they used to pour on the syrup back then, didn't they?)

Isn't it interesting that they didn't intercut any human reactions to the raising of the Titanic? I would have thought that would be a no-brainer because you'd be able to sell the model work by the reactions of the onlookers. Unless they were really bad reactions, as sometimes happens, and perhaps they were shot and left on the cutting room floor.

But anycat, it's fun watching this and I'd rather watch cheesy old model work than the twinkle-twinkle of CGI. I'm old school like that.

Roderick Heath said...

When I was a lad, about the age of six, I was such a desperate Titanic buff that my parents got their first ever video store membership precisely so I could watch this film...True story. The trouble with the film, obviously, is that is chucks out all of the thriller material and leaves...well, a great John Barry score, and that fantastic raising scene.

Richard Harland Smith said...

I miss Richard Jordan.

Peter Nellhaus said...

So the underwater sequences were directed by the Creature from the Black Lagoon? Checking out Browning's filmography, the film might could well have been better, and certainly no worse had Browning been given a shot at big time filmmaking.

Greg said...

Arbo, so many of your reactions mimic mine. That initial bubbling up the culminates in the full-on ejaculation of water before the bow majestically rises up from the mist gives me chills and that sense of fear/awe at seeing something so big come bounding up into the air. At the same time the water/model dynamic is frustrating and reveals itself too often.

As for reaction shots, well, there aren't any during the first raising shots you see here but immediately following the raising and before the shot of the horizontal Titanic there are some reaction shots that I edited out. They're pretty bad and made the scene kind of laughable to me. Since I felt they undersold what I here am clearly trying to sell I yanked them. M Emmett Walsh, such a fine character actor, has an amazingly cartoonish eyes bulging expression on his face that is embarrassing. You half expect him to wipe his eyes and do a double take while the soundtrack makes a "boing!" sound.

Greg said...

Roderick, I've written about the historic Titanic here before and have been fascinated with it since I was a kid too. I read A Night to Remember and its subsequent film version is still my favorite by far of all Titanic movies. I too just had to see this but was quite disappointed when I did. Still I remembered the ship coming up all those years later and when I watched it again recently was still impressed with the model work.

Greg said...

Richard, the acting in this movie is quite uneven. Jerry Jameson, who outside of episodic television is only known for Airport 77, another film using models and water, directs in about as lackluster a fashion as is humanly possible for a director. It's like there was no director and each day someone just turned the camera on and everyone acted in front of it. Richard Jordan, a favorite of mine since my boyhood fascination with Logan's Run, turns in an average performance as does Jason Robards despite their talents as actors. There's simply not much here for them to work with.

Greg said...

Peter, I thought the same thing myself. Given how lackluster (I keep using that word) Jameson's credits are and how much better are Browning's (plus his directed fx sequence for this is the most memorable thing). I'm not sure why he wasn't given the reins for the whole thing. It's not like Jameson had a name that trumped Brownings.

Richard Harland Smith said...

Jerry Jameson, who outside of episodic television is only known for Airport 77, another film using models and water, directs in about as lackluster a fashion as is humanly possible for a director.

Jameson's pre-Titanic career is pretty interesting. He did an excellent job with the fact-based TV movie The Deadly Tower (about the Charles Whitman killings, with an excellent star performance by Kurt Russell in balls out career-changing mode) and it's funny to see how he brought (and it must have been him) some of his exploitation gang into this A-list production, including The Bat People's Stewart Moss and Michael Pataki, as well as Paul Carr from The Dirt Gang and Brute Corps. I'm tempted to think Jameson was rolled over by corporate meddling, had to rush, cut corners. I don't mean to say the guy was an auteur or anything, but he'd clearly put in his time behind the camera. Or, hell, maybe he was just outclassed.

Greg said...

There's just no real style displayed. From beginning to end you get standard center frame medium shots and over the shoulder for conversation. Very much in television movie mode for the time. Browning's Malta shoot uses a much richer variety of angles and lighting than anything Jameson does elsewhere in the film.

Now as far as the rushed ending goes I can't fault Jameson for that (and maybe not even for the lack of style) because one does get a sense that once the ship's out of its grave the point is to wrap it up. Problem is, as written by Cussler in the book, there's plenty more story after that and a pretty damn good twist at the end but it's clear the powers that be wanted the raising of the ship to be the climax of the movie even if it wasn't the climax of the story.

Hokahey said...

The novel is so much better than this film - but I'm loving your posts here! I love models - and this is an awesome scene!

54 seconds into the clip, do you notice a bow-on shot that reminds one of a very famous 1997 movie poster???

Going in the opposite direction, the sinking of the Titanic (model) in the 1950s Titanic with Clifton Webb is also an awesome and effective use of a model.

Greg said...

Hokahey, it's been a while since I've seen the 1953 version. As a Titanic buff I was quite dismayed at how utterly wrong the whole ship looks in that version. The railings, the furniture, the windows, all of it, looks like a 1953 cruise ship instead of the Titanic. And then I remember Webb and the boy standing on the deck when suddenly the ship lurches 45 degrees and sinks. I'll have to watch it again. It's on Netflix instant I believe. Maybe I'll give it a look tonight.

Marilyn said...

I didn't notice the obvious model effects, except for one of water rushing along the side that I associate with models in water. The anchor looked fine to me except that the paint was a bit bright. The score, taken out of context, is a little cheesy, but not bad. The only thing is that I would have expected the ship to look worse after decades under water.

The only part of Cameron's Titanic I watched was the beginning, of the real Titanic being explored underwater. It was truly awesome.

Arbogast said...

They should doctor Raise the Titanic with CGI so that it now rises to the surface with Leonardo DiCaprio's skeleton skewered to the bow.

Greg said...

Marilyn, when Bob Ballard found it in 1986 I was thrilled. I was also surprised at how overgrown and rusted away it was because I had gone by things like Raise the Titanic which, you're right, does have it looking pretty good. Looks to have been submerged only around 12 years or so.

Otherwise, I think watching actual footage of the Titanic in documentaries and hearing the tales of the victims and survivors is infinitely more interesting than even the best movies on the subject so far.

Greg said...

Arbo, I think they should remake it accurately and have the ship come up in two pieces, rusted out and with the stern smashed in as it is now on the ocean floor. And then as it reaches the surface like a pile of Victorian rubble one of the characters screams, "Rip off! We spent how much to make this happen?!"

Hokahey said...

Greg - You're talking to another extreme Titanic buff, and you're right about historical accuracy in the 1953 version. (Due to a camera glitch it shows the port side butting heads with the iceberg underwater.) I just remember loving that sinking scene when I first saw it on TV when I was a kid. Even now, its drama holds up.

I agree - A Night to Remember is a masterful version of the historical Titanic - and it's amazing how the drama of the sinking is all there without grand special effects or CGI.

As for sinking ships - which is kind of a fascination I have - have you ever seen Last Voyage? They actually sank a real derelict ocean liner in the filming of this suspense thriller.

Greg said...

Hokahey, it's like you read my mind. I have The Last Voyage ready to go for a future Land Before CGI installment. I got it through i-tunes and plan to put together clips from it later. I have never actually seen it before and look forward to watching it and posting a video on it.

Hokahey said...

Awesome! It's a fun movie; quite suspenseful, and, as I said, I love sinking ships. Anyway, keep up the "Land Before CGI" posts; they're lots of fun! I'll think of more sinking ships.

Arbogast said...

...have you ever seen Last Voyage? They actually sank a real derelict ocean liner in the filming of this suspense thriller.

They didn't actually sink the thing entirely, if you can believe that. They partially sank the ship - which had been, IIRC, the first ship to respond to the sinking Andrea Doria some years earlier - raised it after the film crew had gotten their footage and hauled it off for scrap.

Anonymous said...

tdraicer:

Night to Remember is my favorite Titanic movie as well. (Ever see the Nazi version?)

Raise does have a nice cameo from Alec Guinness as an aged survivor.

bill r. said...

No banners for MISHIMA...?

Greg said...

TD I've wanted to see the Nazi version for a while now but never have. Is it available?

Greg said...

Bill, thanks for the great thoughts on the miniature work in... Oh wait, that's right, you didn't even bother to comment on the post I did!

Anyway, click on the sidebar banner to go to the selections.

bill r. said...

Aw, lay off! It was a hectic day yesterday, and I wasn't on-line all that much.

Anonymous said...

tdraicer:

Greg, yes the Nazi version is on dvd; check Amazon under "Titanic 1943."

Greg said...

Thanks!

Jon Rob said...

As much as I love John Barry his later non-Bond stuff was often too lush and pastoral. Works for Out Of Africa but this?
The moment the Titanic breaches the water music needs to give a sense of "HOLY CRAP this is really happening. This is immense. This is historic".
What we get is music that says "Ahh. isn't she lovely" and no sense of the event. It's more fitting for a slow sweeping shot of a ship launching.

The biggest flaw with Raise The Titanic is probably just not giving the public what they expected.Nobody really wanted all this dry office talk and frigid cold war 'plot'.
Also, if it's hard to sell a movie whose overall colour scheme is variations of cold, dank grey.

But that model work was exceptional

Greg said...

Rob, well said. John Barry, whose scores on their own I love, has the occasional problem of the music not quite giving a sense of the event they're scoring. Here the event is momentous but the score relies on lush strings rather than bold woodwinds and brass to sell the moment. It's an odd choice and one that doesn't quite work.