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How miniature ships were filmed for 'Titanic' and how it'd be done today

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TORONTO - Award-winning special effects guru Erik Nash says James Cameron's "Titanic" would've been shot very differently today, which is a bit of a drag.

Sure, he's all for progress and high-tech special effects, but he'll miss shooting with some old-fashioned techniques, including miniature ocean liner replicas used for the award-winning 1997 film.

While the miniatures were just tiny representations of the 269-metre-long RMS Titanic, which was the world's largest ship when it sank in 1912, the replicas still loomed large.

The biggest measured more than 13 metres long and was designed to be historically accurate down to the smallest details. During key moments of the film, including the dramatic sinking of the Titanic, it's the picture-perfect miniatures that were used to convincingly bring the massive ship to the screen.

"We probably wouldn't do miniatures for most of it today, we'd create the ship digitally. But back then we knew we had our hands full digitally — just doing computer-generated water and populating the miniature ships with people — so we determined to do what we could with miniatures and that was my role," said Nash, who was a visual effects director of photography for "Titanic" and has earned two Oscar nominations and two Emmys for other work.

Building those replicas was a huge undertaking, based on the Titanic's actual construction plans. Nash said he was amazed by the close attention to detail, including how teams worked meticulously to get the ship's thousands of rivets just right.

"For every one of those there was a hole drilled in the hull and the little rivets were put in one by one, literally thousands of them ... and it was all very precise in terms of matching the actual layout of the Titanic. So that took weeks," said California resident Nash, who spent a few years in Montreal while his father worked on Expo 67.

The commitment to historical accuracy was part of Cameron's relentless push to get every detail just right, added Nash.

"Jim is one of a kind, the great thing is he knows what he wants," he said.

"He's also one of the smartest guys you'll ever meet, he knows a lot about a lot. So it really forces you to be at the top of your game because he knows most people's jobs almost as well as they do, so you can't ever B-S Jim.

"It really made everybody in every department be at their best and be on top of everything because he was on top of it all."

Much of Nash's work with the miniatures is seen in shots where the entire Titanic is on screen, including a scene early on with a long pan of the huge ship.

First, Nash shot the miniature ship for the scene. Later, the actors' performances, shot against a green screen, were filmed. Finally, the actors — and other digital extras — were grafted into the scene shot with the miniature.

"It was a big sort of end-to-end reveal of the ship and from the time we shot the miniature to the time the shot was finished and ready to go into the movie was very close to a year — and allegedly somewhere in the vicinity of a million dollars," he said.

Much of the digital effects work was cutting edge for the time but some concessions were still required. Digitally created background characters had to be far enough in the shot that you couldn't make out details in clothes and hair, since they couldn't be rendered convincingly.

Some of those computer-generated effects haven't aged very well, Nash said, although he doesn't think most people notice what he sees.

"I think there are points where the CG characters don't hold up absolutely convincingly, there are things probably most viewers don't notice. But because I do this for a living, there are things that I look at differently now than I did back then."

Creating realistic computer-generated water was also a difficult challenge — and time consuming.

"That really had a huge load on our rendering power, which at the time was pretty meagre, particularly by today's standards. So it was hours and hours per frame just to render that water — and we had to do a lot of it."

Nash laments the phasing out of miniatures on film sets, although he concedes there's good reason to move on.

"I'm aware as anybody of the limitations of miniatures ... but there's something magical about shooting something, keeping your fingers crossed and hoping you have it," he said.

Producer Jon Landau agrees there probably would've been more computer graphics used if "Titanic" was shot today. But he's glad so much of the film was done the old-fashioned way and believes it helped to make the new 3D version of "Titanic," which opens April 4.

"When you see the ship sinking ... it's all real, it's not CGI. And I think that holds up much better when you do the conversion to 3D," Landau said.

There's also a distinct Canadian connection to some of the special effects in the original "Titanic." An effects program made by Toronto-based Side Effects Software was used near the end of the film, after the ship's sinking, as passengers in the water struggle to stay afloat.

"All the breath steam coming from the actors' mouths was all computer graphics and added digitally after the filming was done," said Side Effects' Mark Elendt.

"Personally, my favourite kinds of effects are the kinds you don't actually see, that you don't know are computer effects."

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