Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Visual Effects Humor and the Titanic Alternate Endings That Never Existed

Generally speaking, visual effects people are more deadpan than animation people. Animation people are generally more wacky. For example, animators may make funny noises as they eat their dinner (a salt shaker may become a dive bomber, for example) or funny noises as they leave a room (whoosh !) and no one would even notice. Visual effects people are generally more serious than that and rarely make funny noises.

The following is a story from the time when Titanic was finishing post-production which means it was the summer of 1997.

Visual effects can take a long time to do when compared to the schedules of other parts of the motion picture production process. There are a variety of reasons for this, but in general visual effects shots are awarded to facilities far in advance of the release of the film. But sometimes, for various reasons, effects are awarded at what seems to be the last minute, very near the release date of the film. Although this is often perceived as a mistake, it may not be. In the case of Titanic, it was not a mistake.

Most of the effects for Titanic were being done by Digital Domain, the effects studio that Jim Cameron had helped to found. But there were effects that could only be awarded until after sequences of the film had been edited, because they involved adding the "cold breathe" that people make outside when its cold, and that could not be done until they knew which of the many shots they were going to use. They had originally hoped to be able to get that breathe naturally by keeping the set very cold, but it turned out that was not practical down in Mexico, so they just moved on and planned to fix it later. Jim is well-known as a perfectionist, and he worked on those sequences as long as he could, and then released them to effects. In any case, Digital Domain was quite busy getting the primary effects shots of the film done, so these other shots generally went to other facilities.

[Note: Richard Hollander of VIFX/R&H tells me that all these shots were done by VIFX and that there were a lot of them and that, yes, they were always planned.]

Although there was a perfectly good reason why these shots were added when they were, it was a lot of work, and individual technical directors often like to complain, and to brag, so they did. And the field is very competitive, so maybe people were taking shots at Digital Domain (ha, they couldn't do this so we had to, that sort of thing, as juvenile as it may sound).

This seemed like a good opportunity for a joke. At various industry events, when I would run into my peers, I would say that I had heard that these shots were part of a new and very secret alternate ending to the movie.  The studio executives had become worried,  they were spending a tremendous amount of money on this movie, if it bombed, their careers were probably over.  The director was still pushing for a historically correct ending which was a very dramatic, but down, ending.     They thought it was worthwhile to prepare an alternate cut of the movie with an upbeat ending, and see how well the two versions tested against each other.  After all, they did not want to go down with the ship, so to speak.

In this new ending, the Titanic would still hit the iceberg, they couldn't change that, but our hero breaks in at the last minute and turns the ship, so it only partially hits the iceberg. and they use most of the footage of water breaking in and so forth, so some people still die, but the ship manages to make it back to NY and our heroes live happily ever after. And all of these extra shots that you hear about all over town [well you did hear about them all over town, even if they were actually being done at one facility, VIFX...], that is mostly the big crowd shots at the end as the Titanic limps into NY harbor and everyone cheers. Yea ! We made it!

My colleagues in the glamourous and rewarding visual effects industry would just look at me. You could see them thinking.  On the one hand, the story is ridiculous.  On the other hand, we all know some pretty crazy things that have happened.  After a while they realize this has to be a joke, and they would say something like "This is a funny joke, right ?"

I would like to think that I had planted a seed of doubt and that they were wondering if the studio might actually do this.    Demi Moore had just done a version of "The Scarlet Letter" in 1995 and in her version there was a happy ending, so if Hester Prinn could have a happy ending, why not Titanic?

Yes it was a joke, I would admit. "Very funny", they would say. And glare at me.

[I don't think they had to think very hard before they rejected my story, but as I mentioned above, visual effects people are generally quite deadpan and it can be hard to tell...]

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