‘Titanic 3D': How James Cameron Became a Convert to 3D Conversion

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James Cameron has made no secret of his distaste for 3D conversion, but that’s exactly what had to be done to his Best Picture-winning “Titanic”

Updated, 9:16 pm

James Cameron may have helped kick off the 3D craze with “Avatar,” but he’s also been the format’s harshest critic, especially toward 3D conversions.

So how did he end up doing the 3D conversion on his Oscar-winning "Titanic"?

"Jim felt that the difference in conversions is taking the time and having the director involved," Jon Landau, producer of "Titanic," told TheWrap. "Jim spent over 60 weeks converting this."

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True to his word, Cameron went through the more than 260,000 frames of the film and watched and gave notes as they were retrofitted to 3D, said William Sherak, president of Stereo D,  the lead conversion firm on the project. 

"I do think conversion has gotten a bad rap," Sherak said.  "With the right amount of time, the right resources and the right vision, it can be stunning. And I think that's what 'Titanic' is — it's stunning."

The finished product sailed into theaters on Wednesday to critical acclaim and solid box office. It made more than $25 million over its first five days of release, more than the $18 million it cost to retrofit the film for 3D screens. And it scored an A to A+ among a heavily female audience, according to Cinemascore.

Of course, Cameron may have been the toughest audience to please. He has said publicly and frequently that he is no fan of most of the 3D movies Hollywood has been producing the past few years.

“Jim has been pretty vocal about his distaste for conversion,” said Todd Cogan, an executive at Venture 3D, who worked on the project. “‘Titanic’ is his baby, so he didn’t settle for good enough. He really put us through the wringer.”

In particular, the director has slammed the habit of hastily converting films from 2D in order to pad their grosses.

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“I’m concerned about things that erode the market. Bad 3D is one of them," Cameron said at the movie trade show CinemaCon last year. 

But what emerged from the months of hard work on “Titanic” was a project that may have softened Cameron’s stance on the conversion process.

“It is gorgeous,” Cogan said. “When it’s done correctly, conversion can look better than a movie shot in live action. We have control over every single thing in a shot and that makes enhancing a puddle or a particular object that much easier."

Cogan and Sherak have dogs in the fight, but many top critics agree with their assessment. New York Magazine's David Edelstein was no fan of "Titanic" when it originally premiered, but the prickly cinéaste flirted with ebullience when it came to its 3D incarnation. 

"I admit to approaching [Cameron's] 3D Titanic in a pissy mood, thinking, This better be good," Edelstein wrote. "Well, it’s better than good. It’s smashing."

"The best thing about Cameron and company’s work in Titanic is that aside from the damn plastic glasses, you might forget you’re watching 3D — yet be drawn into the story as never before," he added. "The early stuff, believe it or not, works even better than the tumult and spectacle."

“Titanic” stands as one of the most ambitious conversion undertakings, taking nearly double the time allotted to most projects. 

"The conversion process is a creative process that uses technology. It is not a technological process," Landau said. "When you try to convert film in six weeks, it can only be a technological process."

Because “Titanic” was such a passion of Cameron’s and was the film that earned him an Oscar for best director, Cogan and Sherak say the auteur was remarkably hands on. 

He would have the various vendors who were working on the film go to his Malibu home to review footage or video-conference with them. He drew up a set of rules for how they framed shoots and assigned a supervisor from his production company to ensure that the work was in keeping with the film’s original aesthetic.

"Jim's ability to go through the film frame by frame and say exactly what he wanted was both the hardest and most rewarding part," Sherak said. "He was directing the movie for a second time, but this time he was directing the depth." 

Also read: 3D's Last Hope: Spielberg, Scorsese and Bay

In interviews promoting the release, Cameron has acknowledged the intense role he played.

"I wanted to roll up my sleeves and get involved in every step of that process," Cameron told the site Flicks and Bits.

"Converting a film to 3D is not a magic wand, there’s not some computer black box that does it for you," he added. "There’s not a killer app that somehow knows physically how to turn things into 3D when there’s no 3D information from that original moment of photography. You have to create everything."

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There were other hurdles for the team to overcome beyond Cameron’s legendary perfectionism.

“Titanic” was intended to be re-released not only in 3D, but also in IMAX. The wider screen format required extensive digital alterations, because the original film had not been shot to be exhibited on such an expansive canvas.

“There was a lot more real estate to clean up and a lot of stuff that needed to be painted out,” Cogan said. “There were lot of boom mikes and lights on tables that needed to be painted out.”

Cameron’s shooting style and the sumptuous look of the film also caused agita for the team.

“Basically everything that makes conversion difficult was there,” Cogan said. “Jim doesn’t like a still camera, so it’s always swooping around. Then there’s ropes and water and wispy smoke and ornate hats with flowers. The level of detail was extremely high and that makes it more challenging.”

Although Cogan did not have the personal attachment to the project that Cameron did, “Titanic” had played a formative impact on his life as well. His first job in the movie business was as a production assistant on the historical romance, working on the film’s set in Mexico.

Cogan believes his most recent job takes him full circle, and he’s convinced it's time for a new generation to discover the magic of the epic romance for themselves.

“They’re not targeting the people who bought tickets 15 years ago,” Cogan said. “They want to bring in the people who were too young the first time or who were not born yet, but are driving now. That’s who they’re after.” 

For Sherak, the movie is evidence that conversion has a place in the filmmaker's tool kit. 

"We really set out to be the gold standard in conversion, that was the goal, and I hope we did that," Sherak said. "Jim made us better and every movie we do from now on will be better because of him."