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Titanic 3D – Jon Landau interview


Interview by Rob Carnevale

JON Landau talks about the conversion of James Cameron’s Oscar-winning Titanic into 3D and why it involved a meticulous and highly challenging process.

He also talks about how his relationship with Cameron has evolved, why Titanic was one of the last old fashioned epics and which scenes were most difficult to convert.

He also talks a little about the future of the industry and the role 3D will play, as well as how work is ongoing on the Avatar sequels and which of Cameron’s older films may someday benefit from 3D conversions.

Q. Can you talk about the skill involved in converting Titanic to 3D?
Jon Landau: The skill of it is that every shot in the movie is now a visual effects shot because we’re converting. There’s 60 seconds in every minute of the movie at 24 frames per second and you look at every frame on a frame by frame basis to work out the stereo depth. Our team is a part of that process, James Cameron is a part of that process and we review it the same way we would review a close up of material from Avatar and critique it, get feedback and work it until we get it to what we perceive as correct.

Q. You mention Jim’s involvement. Is it as close to what it was on the original movie?
Jon Landau: Absolutely! Maybe even a little bit more so because now everything is digital so it gives us the opportunity in a review process to really stop and review things on more of a frame by frame basis than we ever could when we did the film originally on film. In film we would project something but you can’t say to a projector: “OK, stop on that frame…” You’ll burn a hole through the film. But here we were able to literally stop on frames and make adjustments and work it. Jim’s put in hours upon hours of work on this.

Q. How tough is that? If you can change anything you like, what kind of cut off points do you have? Are you tinkering throughout?
Jon Landau: The movie is being presented exactly the way it was from a cut standpoint back in ’97. The movie exists as it is. We didn’t want to do that. We had to handcuff ourselves. We were tempted at times to say: “Gee, maybe we could do this, or do that…” But it’s not about finding what’s different. It’s about experiencing the movie as it really was intended to be.

Q. Jim’s got a huge reputation as being a stickler. Is that not true?
Jon Landau: Look, Jim will say this. He says he’s not a perfectionist, he just does it until he gets it right [laughs]. But getting it right is not on a shot-by-shot basis. It’s on what works for an audience and that’s what he was aiming for. There were points when we were making the movie where Jim would find a visual effects shot and someone would go: “But Jim, we could…” He’d simply say: “Jon, nobody’s going to notice that. It doesn’t matter.” So Jim is all about the experience for the audience.

Q. You obviously met Jim on True Lies for the first time. What are your memories of that first meeting and how has your relationship developed over the years?
Jon Landau: Well, my memories of my first meeting with Jim… there was an all-hands marketing meeting that we were having for True Lies that I was a part of and I was an executive at the time. Jim had just had a breakfast meeting with Peter Chernin, who was running the studio at the time, and Peter really talked to Jim about our getting more involved in the production that we’d ever intended to be. Jim walked into this meeting and he wasn’t too happy about that. Jim thought of himself more as an independent person at that time and Peter basically said you’re going to be dealing with Jon Landau. So, Jim walks into this meeting, comes around the table, is this much taller than I am and he looks at me and says: “Jon, I understand we’re going to get to be pretty good friends… or bitter enemies!” I looked up and said: “Pretty good friends I hope.” I think that was true.

Q. What are your memories of the shoot itself?
Jon Landau: Well, first of all I remember reading the script and this was before that I knew that I was going to be involved. I’d made the decision that I was going to leave the studio at the time from my executive position. So, Jim asked me to read the script and I read it and not only did I cry just from the emotional basis, but then the producer side of me thought that this could be one of the last times where an old-fashioned Hollywood epic is made. We were not in the day and age of digital technology where everything is replicated on digitals… we went out there and we built a set that was 800 feet long. We had thousands of extras on a daily basis. And going through that process, the trials and tribulations, took its toll on a lot of people. But the success of the movie is a testament not just to one or two people who worked on the movie but to the literally thousands of people who were a part of creating what people see on the screen. I think that Titanic is the type of movie that needs to be seen on a big screen.

Q. You previously mentioned that if you’d had the chance to film Titanic originally in 3D you would have done. What do you believe is the effect on audiences of seeing something in 3D as opposed to in 2D?
Jon Landau: What we know is intuitive and not clinical. I want to just preface that. I believe… the way I describe it is that when we ask an audience to go and see a movie we’re asking them for a suspension of disbelief. When you present something in 3D it’s one less thing that you’re asking them to suspend disbelief on. So, their engagement with your narrative storytelling, if you do the 3D properly, is more engaged. So, for us 3D is a window into a world… not a world coming out of a window. I was describing it to someone earlier… if you play a gag where it jumps off of the screen, the audience jumps back and go ‘that was cool’, but you’ve interrupted that suspension of disbelief that you’ve just earned over the last hour. So, I think that everything plays at a heightened state in 3D. So, when things work, they work better, and when things don’t work, they work worse. That’s why you have to really make sure that you’re presenting something that is of really good quality.

Q. You said the actual process of doing it was very complicated. What kind of time frame did this involve?
Jon Landau: You know, other movies have come out with conversions, with a day and date of their original release. I don’t know how that’s possible. They take six weeks at the end of a very hectic schedule where the director’s can’t even be a part of the conversion process because they’re finishing the movie. So, while they might take six weeks, we’re taking 60… literally 60 weeks to work on this conversion. That doesn’t include the year and a half of testing we did with vendors, where we chose the vendors we were going to work with. It takes that amount of time. Conversion is not a technical process. It’s like filmmaking – it’s a creative process that uses technical tools. And when you try and make it just a technical process your end product suffers. So, to me to entertain the idea of a conversion you need a couple of things: you need the filmmaker involved in the process and you need the time to do it properly. And that’s what we were lucky enough to have.


Q. What are your thoughts on the future of filmmaking and the immersive experience it could become 20 or 30 years down the line?
Jon Landau: I wish that I had the foresight to see that far. I can talk in shorter terms of four or five years, or five to 10 years, but what we are trying to emphasise now to the film community are higher frame rates. Film, as you saw today, is at 24 frames per second. We believe that’s inferior visual presentation. It actually came out of a necessity for sound back in the 1920s, where it was the lowest frame rate that sound didn’t distort when being played back. But it didn’t really take into account anything from a visual standpoint. That’s why when we watch movies we see things strobing… whether it’s the picket fence going across the screen, or we see the flicker of a screen. I described it to someone earlier like this… if you think about it just from a layman’s standpoint – most everybody has a digital camera nowadays and on most of those you can see what shutter you’re shooting your pictures at.

If we take a still camera and we shoot at one 24th of a second, which is therefore 24 frames per second, that picture is really blurry when we go to print it. So, you’d never do that. But that’s what we’re doing on film. But if we’re shooting on that same still camera at one 60th of a second it’s clean, it’s pristine and it’s presentable. So, we’re pushing people to go to the higher frame rates – either 48 frames or 60 frames per second. It doesn’t matter to us. The generation 2 projectors, the digital projectors, it’s an upgrade and we believe that you shouldn’t have to choose what frame rate you shoot at between 48 or 60. Rather, whatever the filmmaker decides, the theatre should be in a position at the push of a button to play it back at a different frame rate.

It is something that will transform the exhibition experience, not just for 3D movies but for 2D movies. And that’s been our experience when showing it to people who are a little sceptical coming in… when they see the same scene, particularly an action scene or we shot a scene where we dressed up a Medieval feast and we panned along that table, you go from strobiness to a more heightened sense of reality.

Q. When will that happen?
Jon Landau: I think the first movie will probably be The Hobbit. Peter [Jackson] is shooting at 48 frames per second now on that. And certainly for the Avatar sequels we’ll be doing that. It’s just a matter of time to roll it out. Again, the technology exists to do it.

Q. You mention the Avatar sequels, so what’s the status on those?
Jon Landau: That’s going very well. We just moved into a facility that we’ve leased for the next five years. I’ve always judged my kids growing up based on where they were at different movies. So, it’s like when I started that movie they were 12 and when I finished it they were 19. So, we took this facility which has three stages and we have an office space right next to it. We’re going to be working with a technical crew in the office space and we wanted to make them feel a part of the process, so we convinced the studio to cut windows into the second floor that looked down onto the stage to make the crews up there feel part of the process of what’s going on. We’ve also done everything we could in the facility to green it up, to make it environmentally friendly. We’ve out solar panels up on the roof and things like that.

Q. What have you learned from this Titanic process that you’ll be putting into place with Avatar 2 and 3?
Jon Landau: I think I would go back and reverse that. I think we learned more from Avatar that we’re applying to Titanic than vice versa. Avatar is what taught us about 3D and where it’s important and where it’s not. For example, on an action sequence, 3D is not that important because you’re cutting fast and you don’t have time to take in the 3D. So, we learned to lessen the 3D in those sequences. But in a scene where you’re at a dinner table or something, 3D is more important because that’s where you notice it. So, we’re applying those kinds of things.

Q. What’s more difficult, the conversion process or just shooting in 3D?
Jon Landau: The conversion process is much more difficult than just shooting it. Why people today don’t… if you want your movie in 3D, we say just shoot it. You would never today sit there and say: “I’m going to film in black and white and convert it to colour.” If you want it in colour, you shoot in colour and likewise, if you want it in 3D you shoot it in 3D because it is so painstakingly time consuming. The difficult scenes are not those that appear obvious. There’s a big dinner scene where Jack’s character is invited to the upper decks and that is one of the hardest scenes to convert because there’s so much detail. You might be raking across a table and you have 12 different glasses on the table, and each one of those has to be put in the right three dimensional space.

Conversion is not about plains… you have an infinite amount of depth, so where do you place everything in that depth and how much do I adjust one glass? So, it is very, very taxing and that’s the kind of work that has to be done. The other thing that is much more difficult than people think are the close-ups because at the end of the day it doesn’t matter how big the scale and the scope of the movie is, movies are about close-ups and doing a close-up with a conversion on that is very tricky because our faces have depth and if you put too much depth in, people look bloated and if you don’t put enough, they look like their nose is flat. So, working on that is also very challenging. But Jim and our team have such a great eye at being able to do this it is really like working with a digital effects company – like when we worked with Weta where we’d go through and review shots and give our feedback and Weta would learn from that and apply it to the next time we saw shots.

Q. Both Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio have said that they’re very sceptical to be involved in this re-run of Titanic. How do you feel about that?
Jon Landau: I think their quotes have been taken a little bit out of context. I screened for Leo down in Australia where he’s filming The Great Gatsby and I can tell you he wasn’t more enthusiastic about what he saw and the idea of getting the movie out there. When Titanic originally came out, both of them were kids! Leo, when we cast him, had not come out in Romeo & Juliet yet. And all of a sudden, the kid who was used to going and playing basketball in the playground around the corner from his house, or going to the supermarket and buying his own groceries and doing all of those things, suddenly couldn’t do that anymore. His face was probably the most recognisable face in the world for a 12-week period of time.

So, right now, I think Leo is very excited about the prospect of it. Kate is going to be seeing the footage of it shortly herself and from everything I understand she’s excited about it too. I think part of it comes down to the fact that it’s very unusual to have a movie re-release… it’s not the priority in their career today. So, when you sit there and say… we’re not asking them to do a whole tonne of marketing or publicity. It is what it is. They have other professional commitments and we understand that. I read one of the quotes from Kate and I very quickly got a call from one of her representatives saying: “She didn’t say that!”

Titanic 3D poster

Q. Do you think 3D is becoming less popular now? Can Titanic buck this trend?
Jon Landau: I think that’s a mis-conception. If you look at the global 3D numbers, they’re bigger than they ever were. I think the smart way to approach it is to give people choices of what they want to go and see. There are movies… personally, I’d love to see every movie in 3D. But I think from an audience consumer standpoint they don’t feel that every movie needs to be seen in 3D, so they make a choice. I think we’ve had some movies of late where people have said: “That’s not a movie where I need to go and see it in 3D.” We’re going to be releasing Titanic in 2D, so again giving people the choice. I also think 3D is becoming ubiquitous with all of our screens, whether it’s our home television screens or our computers or our mobile devices.

If you think about it, whether you work on a Windows plasma, or a Mac platform, it’s the poor man’s version of 3D. There’s a window layer on top of a window. We see our lives in 3D. It’s only natural as technology gets better and improves… people talk about the glasses as being a deterrent to 3D in theatres. So, I’m going out and challenging the glasses company manufacturers to make that an opportunity. How do we take away that stigma? We’ve all gone to the beach at some point and worn sunglasses. It’s a part of that experience and we accept that, so how do we make the glasses cool? How do we make them have value? Do we do something where we put a USB chip in it where you can come back and you scan it into your computer, it knows you went to see the movie and you get added content? So, I think there are different ways to do it. Bono has never made glasses a deterrent!

Q. Do you have any thoughts on converting any of Cameron’s other movies?
Jon Landau: I think that when we’re done with the next two Avatars it’s something that we’ll definitely entertain… the idea of going back and looking at a couple of them to do, whether it be Terminator 2 or Aliens. I think Jim would like to do that. And looking at other filmmakers, I know that Peter Jackson is interested in possibly going back on the Lord of the Rings movies and Steven Spielberg is interested in going back to the first Jurassic Park. But I think the key here is the filmmaker involvement. That’s what you need to make these things work and to do it right over a period of time. What we’re doing now is creating our archival master.

Q. So, do the Spielbergs and the Jacksons have quite a close eye on what you’re doing? Do they come in and look at what you’re doing?
Jon Landau: A good example is Tintin… we had our performance capture stage up and we got a call that Peter and Steven were thinking of doing Tintin but they didn’t know how they were going to do it, so could they come and see what we were doing? And they came down to look at the early stages of Avatar and our performance capture, where we had a virtual camera, and then they asked if they could have the stage for a week and test the process.

And Steven Spielberg, who has been making movies for a number of years, was like a kid in a candy store. When’s the last time Steven actually had a camera in his hands? Yet here he was on our stage with this little virtual camera doing all the shots that he did probably when he was back in college making student films. So, we learned from that. The way we look at what we do is that we don’t want anything to be proprietary. What we do is we’re storytellers… if we create a technology that people want to utilise, all the better because they’re going to improve it and the next time we go to make a movie that technology will be better. If we train people and they don’t just work for us but go off and work on a Tintin movie, or they go off and work on a Real Steel, they’re going to come back better for us and we’re all going to continue to push this ball up the mountain.

Q. Did you charge Steven?
Jon Landau: [Laughs] Only a picture with Jim, Peter and Steven together. I thought that was pretty cool.

Q. Do you think we might soon get to a point where there might be an award or a category for a 3D film or a 3D conversion?
Jon Landau: I think years and years and years ago there might have been separate awards for black and white and colour movies? But now there aren’t. Now it’s one award. I think it should all be one award. It doesn’t matter how you’re doing it, it’s about the storytelling. It’s not about how you’re presenting it. The Artist was a black and white movie this year and it was still competing against the other films. Going back to the performance capture issue, I just want to touch on this because I think this is very important – performance capture, the way Andy Serkis did it for Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, or Zoe Saldana did it in Avatar, is actually a purer form of acting than normal live action production.

Those actors are making the creative choices for what that character does. Filmmaking is a collaborative effort, whether you’re behind make-up… [it’s] the make-up artist you rely heavily on, just as you rely heavily on the CG artist. It doesn’t change who is giving that performance in The Godfather or The Mask or any of these other movies. When you do an animated movie, the animator is making the creative choice of when the hand comes up, or the arm does something, or when the deep breath is taken. When we’re doing performance capture, it’s about the actor and it’s about giving the actor the ability to play characters that they would not otherwise be able to play. To me, the promise we made when we were doing Avatar to Sigourney [Weaver], to Sam [Worthington] and to Zoe and all the others, was that when they saw their characters up on the screen it would be their performances – and that’s what they saw.

Titanic 3D is released in cinemas on Friday, April 6, 2012.