Titanic’s VFX producer on how James Cameron brought her onto the movie, and how she made it *into* the movie

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It’s now 20 years since James Cameron’s Titanic was released. Back in 1997, somehow the film made it through an incredibly challenging shoot, a tense studio environment, constant media scrutiny and a gruelling post-production schedule to become the then most successful box office hit of all time.

But Titanic was not without its challenges, especially in terms of visual effects. New ways of realising digital water, digital extras and combining these with live action and miniatures was ushered in for Titanic, principally by Digital Domain. In addition, a whole army of effects vendors also contributed to the film.

Helping to oversee that mammoth VFX effort was visual effects producer Camille Cellucci, who in this deep dive interview, shares with vfxblog how the director specifically asked her to work on the film, what VFX production meant 20 years ago, and how she managed to wrangle an appearance in Titanic itself.

vfxblog: What you were doing right before you came on board Titanic?

Camille Cellucci: Well, I was at ILM working on the switchboards at the beginning. I was helping any way I could, and it was looking like I was going to work on Ghostbusters 2. Then they came to me and said, ‘You know, we need a production assistant on another movie, and we’re going to take you off of Ghostbusters 2 and put you on The Abyss.’ I was devastated, because I was such a huge Ghostbusters fan and I thought, ‘They’re putting me on The Abyss, some black hole movie nobody’s heard of,’ and I was really kind of bummed. Of course, it turned out to be one of the best things of my career.

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Camille Cellucci.

vfxblog: It was obviously where you met James Cameron?

Camille Cellucci: Yes, but also Jim Morris was the VFX producer on that movie, and he has been one of my greatest mentors. I have nothing but respect for him, and learned so much from him. So this little black hole of a movie turned out to be one of the linchpins of my career. Also, interestingly on that movie I ended up not only being the production assistant, but in the director’s cut I was the VFX coordinator, so it’s one of those rare films where I have two credits.

vfxblog: What happened after The Abyss, did you stay in touch with Cameron?

Camille Cellucci: The next part of my experience was, I was doing this commercial, and it was a Miller beer commercial, dancing through the ages. Cameron was directing and they asked me to be the coordinator., It consisted of all these crazy morph scenes. I was like, ‘Huh. Why is Cameron doing a commercial? It seems like he has a lot better things to do.’

But once I started working on Titanic, and saw what we did with those incredible transitions from different time periods – you could see how those crazy morphs developed into pure magic. In The Abyss, it was the water snake, and then not too long after we saw the Terminator 2 boards coming through the fax machine. Cameron’s always thinking about the next thing while he’s doing the current thing.

Then I decided to move to LA wanting to learn more about the film industry. I loved ILM, it was a great place to work, but I wanted to have a bigger picture of how everything worked. Scott Ross had come from ILM down to Digital Domain, and so I helped them bid T2 3-D: Battle Across Time. Then I got hired by Imageworks, and so I went off to Imageworks for five or six years. [note for regular vfxblog readers: Cellucci helped win the Imageworks bid for Speed (1994)].Titanic_bow

vfxblog: How did you reconnect with Jim for Titanic?

Camille Cellucci: The wild thing about Cameron is he has this amazing, incredible memory, not just in art and work that he’s doing, but also for people, which I didn’t really know or have a sense of. There had been talk of Titanic, and people would ask do I want to go work at Digital Domain. At the time I was pretty happy at Imageworks so I decided I was just going to stay there and do what I was doing. Then ultimately I get a call from Cameron who said, ‘Listen, we’re going into post-production on Titanic, and I want you to come work directly with me.’

Now, at this point, Titanic was the bad word in town. It was, ‘This movie is going to fail.’ I was told by multiple senior executives that all of the analysis is showing this movie will fail, it will be Cameron’s downfall, it will never make enough money. Everybody knows this story, they know how it ends. Why are people gonna see it? You’re gonna ruin your career by working night and day for someone who’s impossible to work with, and you’re never gonna be able to come up on the upside of that. It was one of those moments in life where you go, Okay. So when I’m quiet and away from all the outside noise, something inside me says, ‘I want to do this movie.’ When I get into all the noise, I start to doubt myself. So I just had to get quiet enough to say, ‘You know what? I’m gonna do what I think I should do, not what the outside world is telling me.’

So I left Imageworks and boarded Titanic. And then I thought, ‘Oh my God. Everybody’s gonna know I don’t know what I’m doing!’ I walked into this very complicated film. At that point they already had 18 or 19 VFX vendors on this movie. In part, because Jim had done so much VFX work over the years and he had a bunch of his favorite guys. I think he wanted to make sure they all had an opportunity. Also, while the shot count wasn’t anything like the kinds of shot counts we have today, the work of each shot was like its own movie. In the script there’s literally a line that says, ‘The ship sinks,’ and that’s reel 9 of the movie.

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vfxblog: Digital Domain was doing the lion’s share of the work wasn’t it?

Camille Cellucci: Yes, basically what happened is my role was to deal with all of the other houses on the movie, and Digital Domain/Rob Legato dealt directly with Jim. I coordinated certain things and certain conversations, but I didn’t manage that work in the same way. They had terrific producers on their end -Cari Thomas, Crystal Dowd and Karen Murphy. It was a tremendous community effort, and one of the cool things I loved was that it was primarily, in fact I think exclusively, all California studios, which is something unheard of now on these big visual effects films.

vfxblog: So at this point they had shot the main unit in Baja California?

Camille Cellucci: Yes, post had just started. They had technically wrapped Baja. I had the good fortune to visit Baja and see the set, so I had a little context for it and see a few of the scenes, which I think also in that still, quiet moment helped inform my decision. The one shot I saw that I always kept with me was that reveal of Kate Winslet in the hat, as she looks up. I kept thinking about that shot, and I was like, ‘I want to be part of that kind of storytelling.’

I realized in post at one point I think we had 14 crews shooting, because we had a whole bunch of models and miniatures , a whole bunch of elements, and a bunch of second unit and pickup work being shot. In fact, even on Titanic they came to me, and said, ‘Camille, we need your hands tonight,’ and I was like, ‘Wait, what are you talking about?’ Just to back up – we would do these reviews, we’d go out to Jim’s house where he was doing a lot of his cutting, and we would be reviewing every night until about 10 or 11. One night they were like, ‘Okay, we need your hands because we need to do these little insert shots, it’ll only take an hour.’ And then suddenly it’s 2am and I’m falling asleep on the garage floor. It’s amazing how, even on one of the biggest movies in history, it still comes down to a couple of guys, some lights and some props, shooting in a garage.

vfxblog: How was VFX production being coordinated back then? Was it all kind of paper-based, or were you using some sort of software or spreadsheets? How were you keeping track of the shots?

Camille Cellucci: Well, interestingly enough, a lot of it was paper. I had an old-fashioned binder with a tab for each facility. I was working with Excel and had a status report for all the shots we were tracking, and those were two of my primary ways of keeping track of it. We had tremendous visual effects editors in Bryan Carroll, Steve Moore, and Rob Yamamoto.

The other interesting thing is that, at that point we didn’t have Dropbox and all those things, so we had a couple of runners running stuff around to all the houses. It was ‘Sneakernet’ at the time. We also tape recorded all of our sessions with Jim, and they would go out to all the houses the next day, so it was quite a thing to get notes to everybody, but we wanted to make sure they could hear directly from Jim. We had a little video setup that had a T1 line to Jim’s house and to Digital Domain, and to the music stage and a couple other places, so we did many of our reviews with Jim that way.

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vfxblog: With most of the visual effects studios in LA, did you have time to drive around and do reviews at their facilities?

Camille Cellucci: We didn’t do a lot of reviewing at the facilities, just because I realized if I even had a conversation with every single facility every day, even if it was only a half hour, that would be a nine hour day, right? So obviously we focused on certain facilities at certain times, and we definitely did some conference calls and that kind of thing, and with Digital Domain we always had that special line that we could actually video conference with each other. There was one room at Digital Domain that we set up with that, and one area with Jim, and we would do those kinds of communications.

If a facility wanted their work reviewed on that particular day, they would need to get it to us by I think it was either the day before or the morning of. We would have reviews with Jim at like 6-7 o’clock at night, and we would video tape all of those, and then they would go out by Sneakernet the next day to all the facilities and at the same time we’d pick up any shots they wanted to submit, so it was that kind of runaround every day.

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vfxblog: At some point Titanic was aimed for summer 1997 and then got pushed to December. Can you talk about just from a production point of view and how it impacted you?

Camille Cellucci: I don’t know as much of the intricacies. I do know that I was looking at what there was to accomplish, and that particular release date from my small window on the movie, there were much bigger windows that people like producers Rae Sanchini and Jon Landau were looking at – but from my small window on the movie I thought, ‘I don’t know how we get to that date.’ I mean, as it was we were working up until the very last moment of the very last minute. It wasn’t like we finished the film and then held it for a couple of months.

vfxblog: It’s amazing that this was 20 years ago. Obviously audiences had seen dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, and actually 1997 had already been a big year in VFX. But Titanic really did have a lot of bold effects work with miniatures and digital water and motion capture. Was there that sense that you were on the cutting edge?

Camille Cellucci: I think there was that feeling all along. I think at the same time, everybody was just trying to get to the next day. You’re so focused on just trying to get the work right. There’s one story – I don’t know where it is or who has a copy of it, but Richard Hollander did this fantastic tape for Jim. One of the big things we were dealing with was the stars in the night sky, and the horizon line, and if you have the ship moving, how are the stars supposed to move relative to the ship or not move, or how big are the stars supposed to be relative to the ship? Richard Hollander did this full video like, laying out with literally a pointer, and a dry erase board, showing Jim his feeling of how the stars should behave relative to the ship behaving. People think about the huge things, but then there’s the little things like that that are actually so key to the movie.

The other thing Jim wanted, and these are the kinds of things that wouldn’t have been in if we had had to release in the summertime, was make sure it felt cold for those passengers, so we needed to show breath. What Richard at the time decided is, ‘You know what? We need real breath. We’re not gonna try to create this digitally.’ So we literally had a cold room with actors saying the words so we could get the right digital elements to then make all the breath for those moments.

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One of the things I love about Jim and the way he works is the way he combines things, like the combination of miniatures with digital water. And then it was a huge deal that we had these digital people, doing the whole libraries of people on the ship for some of those wide shots. That was a first time ever. Now I look at some of it and I cringe. I’m like, ‘Oh, that walk looks a little bit stilted,’ but you know, there is a moment with the captain who walks on the deck and you think it’s not right but actually it’s really how that actor walked!

The other big thing was icebergs. Icebergs look fake in real life, so playing with how do you make something that looks fake in real life look real in a movie where just the nature of what it is looks fake? You look at some of these icebergs and you go, ‘That looks like a terrible comp.’ So, there were a lot of those kinds of questions going on, and managing it all. We had a small but mighty, on the production side, visual effects production staff with a couple coordinators and a couple of production assistants. Pam Easley was also a big part of things. She was the associate producer.

Another technology thing, we had Avids for cutting at the time, but they were nothing like what we have today. It was all a big deal that we had three terabytes of space out at Jim’s house. That was a big deal. One of the hugest shots, everybody was in awe because it took 400 gigabytes, and that was unbelievable at the time. But it would also take days to render. The water stuff was just crunching, crunching, crunching.

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vfxblog: On the reviewing shots side of things, again, for people who don’t know, you’d be reviewing things on VHS, but when you wanted to review a shot on film, what process was involved in actually making that happen, and arranging a screening?

Camille Cellucci: Well, it would be, ‘Okay, we’re ready to go to film on this.’ All the vendors would need to send in their work to the lab, and get it back from the lab, and then we would review it with Jim and ultimately Rob Legato had to be there to approve it because for the overall look of the film it would be Rob and Jim together approving the final work. So we would go to Digital Domain, we would set up these screenings with all the film that we could. Usually Jim’s comment, among other things, was always, ‘Darker, bluer.’ That was the reign of Cameron, ‘Darker, bluer, darker, bluer, darker, bluer. Can’t you get this any darker? Can’t you get anything bluer?’

vfxblog: Were you conscious during post production of the heavy scrutiny of the film in the media?

Camille Cellucci: Oh, yeah. Well, I should say yes and then I should say no. Going onto the film I really was very aware of that, I didn’t know quite what I was stepping into. Obviously the studio had tons of extra stress trying to get it done, and the biggest amount of stress was obviously on Jim to do what he needed to do. He has such an incredible eye and such an incredible ear. I mean, one of the stories to that, separately from visual effects, he’d catch so many things. He was so quick to see things that people had been working on forever, and he would see it in a millisecond and go, ‘I don’t understand why they’re not doing this,’ and it’s because people don’t see the way he sees.

I remember even on the sound stage when a helicopter lands on the ship, and brings Gloria Stuart. Jim was listening to the foley and he said, ‘Wait a minute. Tell me about the helicopter sound,’ and they said, ‘Well, it’s from the helicopter that you see in the film. It’s the same.’ Jim goes, ‘Yeah, but there’s something wrong with it.’ They got down to the bottom of it, and Jim said, ‘That helicopter isn’t flying! It’s sitting on the ground. Go record it flying.’

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vfxblog: Wow.

Camille Cellucci: We used to joke around and we’d go, ‘Hey, is that water salt water? Because it sounds different.’

But you know, it was an incredible filmmaking experience from every direction, and I just feel so fortunate when I’ve looked back over the people that I’ve worked with in my career that I had the opportunity to work with so many incredible people across the facilities. It was all encompassing, though. Literally on my answering machine it said, ‘I probably won’t call you back for six months, and it doesn’t mean that I don’t like you. It just means you’re not awake when I could call you,’ because I would get to the office at about 7:30am and I would get home about 12:30 at night, and that was pretty much every day, seven days a week.

vfxblog: Can we talk about some of your most memorable shots – I personally always loved the dolphins by Hammerhead and also VIFX’s engine room work.

Camille Celucci: Well, it’s funny that you mention the dolphins, because I love that dolphin scene so much, and you know, Jim is, an avid diver, and knows water inside out, and knows dolphins, and knows their movement, and knows all of that. We shot plates of real dolphins swimming in front of a ship to do those scenes. There was one shot that they didn’t get that we needed to tell the story. We didn’t tell Jim that we were gonna try to do a digital dolphin. It was kind of the secret with Hammerhead and us. We decided we would give it our best shot and make it as seamless as possible, and cut it in, and show him the sequence. That was the big deal. Like, ‘Guys, don’t talk to him about it, don’t tell him, don’t have him be looking for it. Just cut it into the sequence. Let’s see if we can make it run.’

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We were all there that day with Jamie Dixon from Hammerhead and everybody, and we’re all like, barely breathing because we don’t know whether Jim’s gonna absolutely kill us or he’s gonna love it. A lot of times with Jim there’s not really an in-between. So we were just holding our breath. I just remember us rolling it, and then he goes, ‘Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute. Okay, just run the sequence again.’ So we run it again and he just starts laughing. He just starts laughing. He’s like, ‘You guys and…’ – there were probably some expletives in that. He liked the shot. He ended up approving it. You know, I’m sure he had some notes and we made those notes, but he left it in the film and the sequence worked. Yeah, that was a scary moment.

The engine room sequence was interesting. My understanding is there was a moment where they maybe were going to cut the engine room scene, and Jim was absolutely not going to cut the engine room scene. He’d already been through that with The Abyss where they cut the wave sequence, and the movie wasn’t nearly as strong. I think he had more clout to hold his ground for what he wanted, but then part of engine room scene became a miniature sequence.

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So, Steve Quale, who’s just crazy talented, he was a second unit director and we ended up shooting a ship up here in the Bay Area with an engine room that was similar to Titanic’s. It had the same kinds of engine structure, and so they shot a bunch with that, and then of course Richard Hollander and Joyce Cox were at VIFX, and they really oversaw that sequence of the miniature that we had to build to then make it work with all of the different parts of that.

vfxblog: I remember one non-Digital Domain shot or shots which may have been done by ILM and it was about splicing two separate shots of the Titanic sinking into one. What I remember was it really showed how VFX could be about seamless and invisible work too, to really help storytelling points.

Camille Cellucci: I remember those shots because what happened was Jim was working on the sequence, and then he brought us in and said, ‘Okay, this is where we’re at with this sequence, but I don’t have these angles for these shots, and I feel the strongest way to tell this piece is to have some of those big shots where it slides all the way down the ship. So, we talked about which facility, and obviously at that point Digital Domain was flat out just trying to get the work done, so Jim said, ‘I think the only people I trust to do it is ILM because it’s so complicated to make those things seamless.’

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vfxblog: What are your memories of the reaction to the film once it came out? Did you anticipate such a big response?

Camille Cellucci: No. The film premiered in Tokyo at the Tokyo Film Festival, and that was its first showing in the world. We were at Skywalker Ranch and Jim was still watching the movie and still modifying shots, or adding a shot, or adding another visual effects shot. Everyone was working so hard, I was getting people toothbrushes, and pillows, you know? It was at a point where I feel like all of us were so tired and working so hard it was like the layer of skin that keeps us all together was no longer there, so something that at one point might feel like just a little pat on the shoulder feels like someone just punched you because you’re so tired.

So by that point, with the things we were seeing, we were thinking, it’s gonna be a good film. We think it’s good. We’re excited about it. There was also kind of this conversation going around that like, if you could buy stock in a person, all of us wished we could buy stock in Leonardo DiCaprio, because we knew that he was gonna skyrocket after that like no tomorrow, and he did.

So we were all super committed because we were committed to the story, and the thing about it that we also committed to was that this was a real story. These were real lives. These were people who died, and Jim, in the beginning, in the very beginning of the work after he did the dives to the actual site and all of that work and all the work in the opening that’s in there, and little things like adding a digital fish even though they got fish other places. That was a big deal getting a digital fish close-up in the camera at that point under water. But he took this footage over and showed it to the Digital Domain crew in the very beginning, saying, ‘Guys, this is peoples’ lives. These are peoples’ memories. It’s not just a made up movie. It’s not Terminator. I didn’t make this up in my brain. This is real and we need to honor the people who were there.’

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It was interesting. My dad, who was an architect, wrote a letter to Victor Garber, who plays Thomas Andrews, after watching the movie, because my dad was so moved by his performance, and as an architect you have this incredible responsibility for the building that you build, and he couldn’t imagine being in that role of going down with the ship and seeing something that you created and so many people suffering. So that part I think was also a big part of why people wanted to go the extra mile was sort of that sobering reality.

Years later I got a chance to meet Victor Garber, and I just happened to say, ‘I’m sure you got tons of letters, but my dad happened to write you a letter,’ and he said, ‘That was your dad!? He said, ‘Wait a minute, Cellucci?’ and I said, ‘Yeah!’ He said, ‘I have that letter on my mirror.’

vfxblog: Amazing.

Camille Cellucci: I remember talking to Jim a couple months into it because there was a moment where we were the number one movie, and song, and I think book all at the same time. We were number one at the box office for so many months, and I had gotten asked to do a college lecture tour, and the deal was that I couldn’t start until after the movie had fallen in its ratings at the box office. So I couldn’t actually do the tour until the fall, because it just didn’t fall. By the time it started to fall and make sense it was the end of the semester.

I said to Jim, ‘Did you have any idea?’ and he said, ‘No. There’s no way you can predict this kind of success.’ There’s no way. You do the best to make the best movie you can, but then sometimes there’s like a freak of, well, it feels like a freak of nature that somehow it just connected with people at the time in the moment, when it was released. All of those things. It just worked so very well. But you can’t predict those kinds of things, and none of us could have imagined the success that it ended up having.

vfxblog: Any other memories of working on the film that you wanted to share?

Camille Cellucci: There are two things. One was the song, and there was this big thing about, ‘I am not having an end credit song. I’m not gonna do the end credit thing.’ Jim determined. James Horner and Jon Landau, I think, were just like, ‘We gotta figure this out. We gotta figure this out.’

James Horner had this idea for this beautiful song, and he went and played it for Celine Dion, I think she was in Vegas at the time, and he went and played it on the piano, and she sang it, and he just recorded it on his DAT recorder. At one of the screenings they just said, ‘Don’t say anything. We’re just gonna play it.’ We were all prepared for Jim to have a fit, and they just put it on at the end of one the screenings for Jim only. Afterwards we’re all kind of wondering what he’s gonna say. He goes, ‘Okay. The song can be in.’

So then later I just remember being at the deli down the street, and we were in the deli. It was probably around very beginning of December, so the movie’s coming out in like, two weeks, and all of a sudden we all looked at each other and we went, ‘Are you guys hearing what I’m hearing? Are you hearing what I’m hearing? Oh my God! It’s the song! The song is playing on the radio right now!’ I felt like it was out of a movie in the midst of making a movie, like, you know, when the band goes out and hears their song. Not that it was our song or anything, but we all felt so personally attached to everything. We were like, ‘Oh my God! It’s on the radio!’ So, that was one of those crazy moments. Again, who could have imagined that that song would go on to the success that it is?

Then the other sort of fun, crazy story that’s more visual effects related is that, well, one of my missions on the movie was that we were going to have fun. We did some of these kind of goofy things just to blow off some steam and that kind of thing, but one of the things that I also knew that I wanted to do on that movie was, I wanted to wear one of those dresses.

So, we’re looking at the sunset scene where it’s this incredible sunset at the famous flying moment, and that sunset is real. Jim looked at the sky, and Russell Carpenter looked at the sky, and they were like, ‘You know what? This is gonna be an amazing moment. We’re gonna do the sunset. We’re gonna shoot it. We weren’t planning to do it today, but everybody get your act together because we’re gonna move over to this part of the ship.’

So they shoot it, and it’s amazing, but they don’t have all the angles, so then we build just a little piece on a stage of the front of the Titanic, and they shot a bunch of the pickups that they needed to fill out the scene. As they were watching it, I think it was actually Landau who said, ‘We’ve gotta get some action in the background there because this is looking fake. So what are we gonna do?’ And Landau says, ‘You know what? Let’s just get a couple extras. We’ll shoot some extras walking back in the back of the ship,’ and I put my hand up. He’s like, ‘Cellucci, what are you doing? We just want to shoot a couple extras, you know? We’ve got a crew going right now in the engine room. Why don’t you see if we can pick up a couple of extras on a blue screen and see if we can pull that off?’

I was like putting my hand up again, and Jon said, ‘Okay, what’s going on?’ I said, ‘I want to be there. I want to wear one of the dresses. This is my goal. This is my goal in life right now, Landau. I want to wear one of the dresses.’ So he says, ‘Oh God.’ So I did a fitting, I don’t know how late it was at night, nine o’clock or something. It was the week before I was doing it, and Steve Quale leans in my office and says, ‘So Cellucci, I hear that you’re gonna be an extra next week.’

I was like, ‘I’m wearing one of the dresses!,’ and he said, ‘Uh huh.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’m so jazzed.’ I mean, how often do you get to wear a dress like that? He said, ‘Well, I want to wear one of the suits,’ and so it is Steve Quale and myself walking in the background during that scene. It’s at the very beginning when Rose comes up and she says, ‘Hello, Jack,’ and he turns around and looks at her. That angle is back towards the ship. There’s just this little couple walking on the deck in the background, and that’s me and Steve Quale. It’s just one of those silly things you do to try to make light in the midst of the stress, and it felt like a dream to go back in time and take a stroll on the Titanic.

Since Titanic, Cellucci has worked on dozens of films including the Matrix sequels, Elysium, The Walk, and The Little Prince. Most recently she has been working as a producer at Google Spotlight Stories.

For more retro pieces on Titanic, check out vfxblog’s look back at Propeller Guy, and a story from a few years ago I wrote for fxguide that covered several vendors’ shots.