Vision Crew Unlimited artisans help Digital Domain lay scale-model keels for TITANIC..
Faced with the enormous task of constructing the myriad models and miniatures required by Titanic of both the doomed liner and other vessels Digital Domain opted to subcontract some of the work out, primarily with Donald Pennington, Inc. Also brought into the fray was Vision Crew Unlimited (VCU), a boutique miniature fabrication shop fronted by John Warren, Doug Miller and Evan Jacobs, modelmakers who had formerly worked for DD and Boss Film. "Doug worked on Apollo 13, so we heard about Titanic when the show started," Jacobs recalls. "They told us about building this museum-quality 45' long ship with every conceivable detail and rivet it had to be absolutely perfect, and we thought, 'Boy, we sure don't want to work on that.'"
But VCU would soon be doing just that, as DD contracted them to build the large model Titanic's detail pieces at their shop, "all of the deck detail, davits, lifeboats, cranes and ventilators and then bring it to them to put on the ship," Jacobs says.
It sounds simple enough. Jacobs agrees, "It was one of those situations where you think, 'Well, we'll just pump out some model parts.' But the [real] ship had only been sailing for four days before it sank, so there weren't a lot of photographs of it. The plans for the ship were lost years ago, but we had information about the Titanic's sister ship, the Olympic, which was similar but not the same. For example, there were a lot more lifeboats on the Olympic after the Titanic sank, and the lifeboats looked different. So we were doing archaeological work as we were building the patterns. Sometimes we had to guess from one angle in one photo what some parts would look like. Fortunately, Cameron gave us access to Ken Marshall, the preeminent expert on the Titanic. He's scary; he knows way too much about the Titanic, and had volumes of photos, but it was still difficult for us to find exactly what we needed. For example, the only way we could figure out the placement and style of the ventilators was to look at the sunken wreck photos, and say, 'That looks like one of those.' It was just unbelievable."
While VCU was busily researching and building virtually everything from the deck up at their shop, work was progressing on the hull at DD's makeshift Hughes Aircraft facility. Ever the stickler for detail, Cameron insisted that actual shipmakers construct the hull out of laminated wood. "They built it like a racing boat out of strips of wood laminated onto forms," Jacobs marvels. "Then the modelers put all of the plates on, because in reality, the hull was not flat, it was made of overlapping pieces of steel. Thank God we didn't have to do the 100,000 rivets in the hull. The [modelers] placed these jigs over the hull because the real rivets were not laid out in straight lines, but in weird patterns and drilled a hole for each rivet. They then placed a guy every 5' down the length of the hull, and had each of them pound brads in with little hammers. We used to go over there and think, 'Man, I don't want to be on the rivet crew.'"
Of course, there were rivets galore on the cowls, ventilators and portholes VCU was expected to knock out. "They said all they needed from us were the detail pieces that you would plant onto the main hull," Jacobs says. "Of course, those were the pieces with thousands of rivets on them. They were all over everything, because that's how the real things had been built: the whole ship was made out of sheet metal, and it was all riveted together. Most times our patterns had the rivets incorporated in them. They were either pinheads or drops of epoxy. But a ventilator might have a thousand rivets on it, and everything had to be just perfect."
Beyond constructing 2,000 portholes with working windows, VCU's 14-man team was forced to cast many of the Titanic's features entirely out of brass because of scale and stress issues. These pieces included extendible deck cranes and fully functional davits used to lower the lifeboats over the side. "In reality, the davits were 20' tall, but in our model, they were roughly 9" high and very thin," Jacobs explains. "They had to be positionable, and they had to function; each davit had little block and fall ropes, and had to be able to support the weight of a lifeboat without sagging. We made 20 lifeboats, and every lifeboat had an interior with 24 oars in it; even though the boats are covered and you can't see the oars, they're all in there."
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