BACK IN 1980 Raise the Titanic helped sink Lou Grade's career as a movie producer, yet still the stories surrounding one of the 20th century's most famous man-made disasters continue to fascinate moviemakers. The latest among them is James Cameron, whose record-breaking $300 million epic, simply called Titanic, is, perhaps, more likely to scoop some well-deserved Oscars at this year's ceremony than quickly recoup its costs and turn in a handsome profit. Not everyone shares this opinion, however.
'In terms of what they did I think they did it cheaply,' says Mark Ulano, owner of Hollywood-based Ulano Sound Services, who worked on the production recording for the picture. 'It was not a wasteful project. We were never doing things that were extraneous or unnecessary; it was just big. This film is now enjoying incredible word of mouth, and, what with the international distribution, I think it may well be one of the first pictures to approach a billion dollars in returns.'
We shall see. Certainly the heads of Twentieth Century Fox and Paramount Pictures, who cofinanced the project, will be keeping their beady eyes on the box office receipts. Titanic was the first picture to be shot at Fox's new studio facility in Rosarita Beach, a Mexican town located about 35 miles south of the US border. Thanks to the scale of this project, not to mention the size of the main set which was only fractionally smaller than the actual ship that sunk in 1912 during its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York, the Fox Baha Studios now boast the world's largest exterior water tank as well as the largest indoor one, three storeys deep, for motion picture use.
'The basic experience was one of dealing with things of enormous size,' Ulano says. 'On a normal movie you have a grip crew of four to six men and an electrical crew of maybe the same amount; this had a grip crew of 84 men and an electrical crew of 76. That gives you some sense as to the proportion of things. It was a city.'
The sound recording was made simultaneously in both digital and analogue. For the former Ulano used Fostex PD2 and PD4 recorders, while for analogue he used a Nagra 4STC. 'This wasn't strictly for protection,' he says. 'Often there's a need for both. I think there are issues that are pro and con in both areas, and I sidestepped that debate by presenting postproduction with the two mediums to choose from.
'There were several hero pieces of equipment that I had acquired prior
to this project, but hadn't really put through their paces. To start with
there were the six very expensive Audio Limited wireless microphones made
in the UK; they were unbelievably reliable and Idepended on them enormously.
This was the second show on which I approached things completely wireless;
I'm now on my fifth one and I no longer use cables to the panel. It's
an incredibly liberating way to approach a
Being that principal filming took place by the ocean front in the winter of 1995, environmental issues were obviously a primary concern. 'As far as electronics go it's a total assault situation,' asserts Ulano. 'There's a lot of moisture, you're in salt water, you're surrounded by salt air, and so you'd expect there to be an enormous amount of breakdown. That, however, didn't happen. My main mixer is a Sonosax, I also used a secondary mixer made by Mackie, and a little PLZ 1402 for the communications mix. None of the boards had a problem during the entire project.'
Among the other gear that impressed Mark Ulano were the Neutrik X-HD series waterproof connectors, which daily came through between 12 to 16 hours of submersion in four to ten feet of salt water with their reputation intact.
'These were a critical device for me,' he says. 'James Cameron really demands and needs to have a constant video assist throughout the whole show, whether it's one camera or 11 cameras filming various concurrent scenes simultaneously, and we had large distances between us and the video assist platform; you know, they'd be on barges and we'd be to one side of the tank, and so we were dealing with distances of anywhere from 300 to 1,000 feet all the time. We'd therefore go wireless to them and they would get back to us with video, but we always had to have redundancy by hardwire; that was the primary source to go to video assist for them to get our sound and for me to take back video from them, and the redundant stuff was all done through the Neutrik heavy-duty connectors. Well, never once in five months of 90&endash;95-hour weeks did we ever have a loss of signal over any of those wires. After all, you'd think that just once a drop of salt water would get into the wrong place, but it never happened.
'In this situation it wasn't as if there was a lot of flexibility for
error. I mean, we were dealing with economic pressures that amounted to
$1m or $2m shooting days, because, as everyone knows, for the third act
of the movie the front end of the
Between 60% and 70% of the original production track ended up in the finished movie; a remarkable achievement considering the size and nature of the set, as well as the number of simultaneous shooting sequences. Most of the ADR was required for scenes taking place during the dramatic third act, when the hydraulics, machinery and water (pumped from the sea into the tank at an incredible rate) all take centre stage.
'We were very diligent and I'm happy with how much ended up in the finished show,' Ulamo says. 'The set was pretty reliable, but still there were situations where there was little that you could do. You know, we had 47power generators there because of the lighting situation, so we're talking about a lot of juice--they would have 50 x 100-foot bounce cards floating in the air on an adjacent 150-foot-high tower crane, just to bounce light from the xenon arc across the other side of the ship. Nevertheless, if the director was doing a scene that was intimate and required control of the environment to the degree whereby he knew that he could use those tracks, it would be a priority for him to shut it down and make the environment workable.'
'THE DIALOGUE was still fairly noisy sometimes,' adds sound designer-rerecording mixer Gary Rydstrom. 'There was a lot of background shifting on the deck of that ship down in Mexico. I'd say that about 50% of the natural dialogue was used in the finished picture, but Tom Johnson, who mixed the dialogue, had the unenviable job of using bits and pieces of both looped and production dialogue going back and forth.' The sound designer on Titanic was Chris Boyes at Skywalker Sound near San Francisco, who worked on the movie from February of 1996 to October of 1997.
Gary Rydstrom, who would normally have performed this role, was busy on other projects such as Spielberg's Lost World, but he nevertheless still assisted with the design and later was involved with the sound effects mixing. As defined by Skywalker, Boyes' job amounted to creating any sound that required more than that which could be found in the company library. Sample: The sound of the watertight doors shutting, following the ship hitting the iceberg.
'It's a very stylised door,' he explains. 'It slides down from above almost like a guillotine and it's on a heavy geared mechanism, so there were a lot of elements in there that Iwanted to ensure were just right. As the doors shut I wanted to have a sound that felt like you're really being sealed in, to some extent sort of like a classic jail door, but it needed to have a definitive impact beyond a jail door. So, initially I looked at it from three different perspectives. Firstly, I needed to have a smooth, controlled but very heavy rolling metallic sound, and one of the elements that I used was a processed field recording of a heavy bin sitting on a truck that was rolling on a track. Then, for the gear mechanism I recorded the rapping sound of a large bolt that I leaned gently against the turning, geared winch on an old tow truck belonging to a friend of mine. And lastly, for the shutting of the door I used a combination of the doors shutting on an old ship out in the San Francisco bay together with some jail doors. I then put all of these ingredients into the Synclavier and twisted them with a certain amount of EQ, a certain amount of pitching, and basically doing anything that I could to the sound to attain what I want. It's sort of like being a cook.'
The Synclavier is one of Chris Boyes' favourite pieces of equipment, along with the Pro Tools that he has taken to using during the past year. 'It's one of those products that you can't help but love,' he asserts. 'Everyday they come out with something new. The Pro Tools and the Synclavier each do things that the other can't, so they're my two primary pieces of gear.' Elsewhere, a Studioframe was used for dialogue and a Sonic Solutions was used for the music, while the final mix took place from August through October of 1997 in Skywalker's new room that houses a Neve Capricorn and a THX sound system.
'I also work with an analogue Oram Sonics 32:8 console, together with Oram's 8-band outboard EQ and the Focusrite as a plug-in on the Pro Tools,' continues Boyes. 'Another outstanding product is the HHB Portadat, that Iuse for field recording. It's great because it's built like a rock, and when you're out in the field you don't want to worry about something breaking on you. Also, in terms of the DAT recorders that are available, it has the quietest preamp and the most sensible layout of functions. So, I often take it with me everywhere I go, because you never know if you're going to hear an illusive sound somewhere that you want to capture'
Of course, the collision with the iceberg and the prolonged sinking of the ship comprise some of the most striking visual and aural moments of the Titanic movie, yet for Chris Boyes the sound that he is most proud of is that of the engine with its two-storey-high piston.
'VISUALLY, it takes your breath away, so it had to do the same thing sonically,' he says. 'In Jim Cameron's script I read that it had to sound like a thousand men stomping their feet, and so I knew that there wasn't an English word for how large it had to be! Basically, I looked at the picture over and over again, watching the lobe on this camshaft swinging like a pendulum, and Iknew that there had to be two distinct sounds for when it comes down and goes up. They'd have to have a tremendous amount of weight without a sharp attack; they had to feel smooth. So, I played around with a lot of different combinations, and I eventually came up with a mixture comprising a piston sliding within a cylinder wall for a smooth metallic scrape, a variety of large stamper machines for the motion and for the impact, and a huge air compressor on a tug boat.
'Again, I sampled all of those ingredients into the Synclavier and played with them, but in editing them against the image I found that, while they were working sort of well, Icouldn't quite control the rhythm as I wanted to. Gary [Rydstrom] and I therefore sat down and created a loop with those sounds. I could speed this up and slow it down as I wished, and I think that what you end up seeing and hearing on-screen could definitely propel the largest man-made object on Earth.'
So what about the impact with the iceberg? Not exactly an everyday event that the viewer can easily relate to. In the film we get to see and hear this from a variety of different perspectives: The large hole that is ripped in the side of the boiler room, causing water to rush in and sweep the workers there off their feet; the cascading of ice onto the upper deck; the people who are oblivious to anything having taken place; those who hear something and feel 'a shudder'--namely, the engines being thrown into reverse.
For the sound of ship against iceberg Chris Boyse recorded himself slowly cracking a large sheet of ice in Yellowstone National Park with his own body weight, together with a combination of elements such as anchors hitting steel debris, a large lead weight being swung by a crane into a debris box, cars smashing, explosions and so on. The ice cracking effect was also used along with the close-miked sound of Boyes skiing down some slopes to produce the sensation of the ice showering onto the deck... as did several hundred pounds of block ice being thrown onto wood surfaces by the Foley crew at Paramount.
So to the water. Boyes had a 4-strong team of field recordists, one of whom ventured into the back of a sea cave where the rushing waves almost submerged him and his equipment. Water treatment and sewer treatment plants were also visited, as was a large concrete swimming pool, while an old merchant ship called the Jeremiah O'Brien came in handy for numerous of the film's elements--its engine resembled a scaled-down version of the Titanic's, both visually and sonically.
'We certainly had a lot of water,' says Gary Rydstrom. 'The thing was to make it sound big and sound different, and also give the effect of it being in places that it shouldn't be. We made as much use as we could of the boom track, which is always nice, and of the sub woofers--probably more than on any other movie I've worked on. If nothing else, this movie is about size...'
Meanwhile, from the perspective of what's going on underwater at the start of the movie when the wreck is being explored, the viewer gets to hear things that wouldn't actually be audible down there. To that end a pair of Hydrophones were adjudged to record things a little too clearly, and so, in order to attain the desired distorted effects, the field team resorted to the classic technique of placing condoms over their microphones.
'Safe recording,' as Boyes describes it. 'For me the water was one of the more difficult sound elements,' he says, 'because once water starts rushing in any form it's very much pink noise, and making that articulate was quite a challenge... At times the water became a character itself, one of the actors in the film, and not a good one!'
Still, perhaps the signature effect of the entire film is the groaning sound of the sinking, breaking vessel. For this, Boyes' assistant, Shannon Mills, recorded an old ship attached by chains to a pier, which made the desired straining sounds as it swayed back and forth. Boyes himself then worked with a 20-minute section of a DAT field tape, blending together all of the different metallic groans.
'I probably made 200 or 300 files which I sent off to Jim Cameron while he was cutting the picture,' Boyes recalls. 'He then chose the ones that he liked and cut them right in. These evolved from a ship that's starting to sink to one that's seconds from going under the Atlantic ocean. Being that this happened over the course of about an hour and a half it was important not to get too dramatic too early, so this is a real testament to how narrative and image and sonics can all come together to tell a story.'
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