This week I found myself at a screening of some footage from the forthcoming re-release of Titanic in 3D, along with a Q&A with producer Jon Landau. Titanic is just one of 'those' films – nearly everyone has seen it and nearly everyone has cried at it at least once, even if they won't admit it.
I haven't been affected by any silly sappy romance story since I had my cardiectomy, but I can appreciate Titanic as both a piece of cinema and also as one of the most ridiculously expensive money-spinners of James Cameron's career.
Jon Landau is an energetic and charismatic presence who, in his own words, has been with James Cameron longer than any of his wives. He first met the director when he was working on True Lies and three years later was working alongside him as a producer on Titanic. "The main difference," he says, "between Jim then and Jim now … is that Jim is now a family man." Take that how you will.
During the group Q&A, someone in the audience asked Landau if the decision to re-release Titanic in 3D was purely a profit-driven venture, if they were "just in it for the money". He argued that film is a business, and his job is to put asses in seats and to sell popcorn: creating jobs and keeping the industry healthy. With every film ever made – outside of the most edgy experimental film and no-budget shorts – there is always some kind of aim to make money.
With that in mind, Landau believes you don't go ahead and spend $18 million converting a film to 3D just because it might make you a bit more money. There needs to be passion there or it's just not going to work.
This is something that the producer clearly believes in strongly. I asked Landau which film, in the entire history of cinema, he would most like to see remade in 3D. Rather than naming a specific film, he stated his belief that in every case the original filmmaker must be involved. "Post-conversion 3D is not a technical process, although there's technology involved," he said. "It's a creative process." Landau believes that the only reason way to convert a film to 3D is to have the director himself stand up and decide that it's something he wants to do.
Landau also reiterated past comments that Cameron might return to convert some of his other films to 3D a few years down the line, after completing work on the Avatar sequels. That could mean Terminator and Aliens action, in 3D, on the big screen' just'… six, seven years from now?
Among the first people to see the whole finished film was Leonardo DiCaprio, after Landau and co. sent a copy of the film over to the set of The Great Gatsby for a private screening. Apparently DiCaprio was impressed by the quality of the 3D, but experienced moments of despair over how young he looked in the film. "I don't look like that any more!" he kept exclaiming. Kate Winslet, on the other hand, will see the film for the first time at the premiere in April.
Finally, I asked Landau was his favourite part of the film was, having seen it so many times now. He gave it a lot of thought before replying that, although it was quite corny, he loved the moment right at the end of the film where Jack and Rose are reuinited amidst the crowd of applauding crew and passengers. At which point someone sitting behind me went, "Awww!"
How does the 3D look? In places it's breathtaking, and it's undoubtedly the most well-executed example of post-conversion 3D I've seen so far.
The main problems stem less from faults with the 3D process and more from the fact that the film was not originally made with a 3D execution in mind. As a result, there are two things which, with a certain frequency, turn the 3D element into more of a burden than a boon.
The first – and probably the biggest problem – is that any kind of over-shoulder or "dirty" shot doesn't work. Let me clarify this: my experience, when looking at a shot with an out-of-focus foreground element, my eye was automatically drawn to whatever was in the foreground as opposed to what the camera was focusing on. As a result, there resulted a strange battle between what my vestigial monkey brain was telling me to look at and what James Cameron wanted me to look at in the frame. The clearest example of this was the breakfast scene with Billy Zane and Kate Winslet. I was desperately trying to look at Billy Zane, but all I could think was, "My God, look at that wicker chair Kate Winslet is sitting in. How have I never noticed that wicker chair before?"
There was also an unfortunate moment where Rose was swinging an axe around to break Jack out of his handcuffs, and the 3D effect meant that the out-of-focus axe edge jumped out of the screen like a bad horror movie.
The other problem I noticed was that any kind of fast movement looked a bit dodgy, an effect I recognised having played a lot of video games with poor framerates. The film was converted to 3D frame-by-frame, but since it was only shot at 24fps there were only so many frames for them to work with and as a result the fast movement doesn't always look quite right. This is simply inherent to the film medium as it currently stands.
Some scenes, however, look so good that each of them by themselves is an argument to see the film in 3D: the enormous pistons moving as the ship engineers try desperately to turn the ship away from the iceberg in time; crowd scenes of people pushing and shoving each other seem that much more chaotic with the 3D element added; any scene involving running down corridors looks fantastic; but the winner has to be the iconic shot of Jack and Rose "flying" at the bow of the ship.
Aside from the 3D element, does the film still hold up after all this time? The 90s hype train drove it to break box office records and it steamrolled into the 1997 Academy Awards with eleven Oscar wins and three more nominations, but the script is peppered with some awfully cheesy dialogue and since its initial release the film has received a good deal of criticism, parody and tearing down – though I think this was partly a case of people being embarrassed by the fact that they'd sobbed their little hearts out in '97 over a Celine Dion song and a sappy romance story.
Speaking of sobbing, the preview that was played included the ships final moments, and the strains of 'Nearer My God To Thee' coupled with images of unlucky Third Class passengers accepting their watery doom did their job and there was the distinctive sound of audience members trying to sniffle as quietly as they could. Oh, fellas.
The truth is that you can rag on Titanic as much as you like, and perhaps the all the criticisms are valid. But all that aside, it's a big, beautiful spectacle of a film with a great deal of genuine human emotion behind it. Whether you think it's just a money-spinning gimmick or an experience that everyone needs to see in the cinema, there are few better ways to remember the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic.
And if that's not enough reason for you, just remember that it has Billy Zane in it. Ah, Billy Zane.