Thursday, 26 May 2011

The Tale of Two TITANICS: a retrospective look at the VFX from A NIGHT TO REMEMBER and TITANIC

To my knowledge there have been around a dozen films dealing with the tragedy of the luxury cruise liner TITANIC which as we all know struck at iceberg and sunk to the bottom of the Atlantic, nearly a century ago in 1912.  The earliest cinematic entry  on this maritime disaster surfaced, so to speak, in 1915 as an Italian made interpretation of the historic event.  The illustrious German film industry produced not one but three versions of the disaster starting in 1927, and again in 1929 and once more, quite elaborately in 1943.  A number of other versions and variations followed, with several made for TV movies in the late 70's and early 80's, culminating in the much hyped and overblown James Cameron audience pleaser of the late 90's. (which once it concentrates on the issues at hand is admittedly pretty darned exciting....finally!)  Todays blog will look at two of the versions made in the 1950's  - one being the 20th Century Fox soaper, TITANIC starring Clifton Webb, and the other film the vastly superior 1958 British drama, A NIGHT TO REMEMBER, starring Kenneth More and David McCullum.

I have little background information on the making of either film other than some analysis on the effects shots as per my own observations.  There are a couple of behind the scenes frames here of the miniature ships used in both films and a little bit of on set process set ups.  The Fox film featured four matte paintings and alot of model work amid much Hollywood gloss and tedious subplots whereas the Pinewood film was strictly a gritty and believable no nonsense 'you are there' docu-drama with visual effects kept to a minimum - and the result is all the better for it.

By all accounts Darryl F.Zanuck spent alot of money on the '53 Fox version, though a more lacklustre execution of the events you'd be hard pressed to imagine, what with endless scenes of Barbara Stanwyck and Clifton Webb theatrically pushing and shoving for the best key light and gauzey filters.  Long time Fox visual effects man and former matte painter Ray Kellogg had by this time taken over the effects department from the retired Fred Sersen though Sersen was still engaged as a consultant.

Ray Kellogg (center)
The effects work is generally very good with some nice matte paintings adding ceilings, engine room details and a haunting iceberg laden ocean.  Miniature work is competent and well photographed, presumably by fx cameramen L.B Abbott, James B.Gordon, Walter Castle and Harry Dawes.  Among the matte painters on staff in 1953 were Lee Le Blanc , Matthew Yuricich and Emil Kosa jr.  Insofar as the models go, I don't know whether miniaturist Gael Brown was with Fox as far back as '53.  Process projection would have been the domain of Sol Halprin, while the ingenious use of travelling matte composite photography for placement of actors into a wholly miniature set - a Fox specialty under Sersen's reign - is beautifully done by the optical boys, one of whom was a young Frank Van Der Veer.

Pinewood special effects chief, Bill Warrington.
A NIGHT TO REMEMBER (1958) on the other hand is a pitch perfect and frighteningly realistic piece of dramatic recreation of the events that doesn't waste a minute of it's 2 hour plus running time.  Director Roy Ward Baker scores bullseye with this film one of, if not his overall best film. The cast are uniformly excellent, with  many familiar faces from UK cinema headed by the superb Kenneth More - probably Britain's Jimmie Stewart in everyman qualities and consistent credibility.

An excellent no frills script, tight editing and a highly effective documentary style look courtesy of lighting cameraman Geoffrey Unsworth.  Long time head of Pinewood special effects department, Bill Warrington took the bull by the horns by keeping the special effects always at the service of the true life event.  Warrington  (pictured here with models for the QUATERMASS films for Hammer) was a true legend among British effects people having had an extensive career in SFX from the formative years where he specialised in the then state of the art compositing process, the Schufftan Process Shot and gradually showing a flair for model work and mechanical effects, for decades at J.Arthur Rank-Pinewood where he would work with figures such as Albert Whitlock, Les Bowie, Peter Melrose and Cliff Culley on many pictures before striking out on his own.  Miniatures proved to be a skill which would see Warrington recieve the visual effects Oscar in 1961 for THE GUNS OF NAVARONE.  Bill kept active right up until his death in 1981 as special effects consultant for Spielberg on RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK.

Although information is hard to come by I'm certain that Pinewood's in house process man Charles Staffell would have had a hand in things here, and possibly George Blackwell with miniature work, which included motorised lifeboats and occupants.  The travelling matte shots at the end would probably have been handled by well honed experts Vic Margutti, Bryan Langley or maybe a new talent, Roy Field.
I vaguely recollect that future Bond optical effects man and cinematographer Robin Browne may too have been involved in the effects photography both here and on SINK THE BISMARK shortly after.

For those interested in all of the myriad TITANIC films, I'd recommend this site for much detailed info on these as well as practically every disaster movie ever made. Well worth a visit.

The 1953 version of event - with more of an accent on hystrionics and endless padding than disaster, with the eventual 'incident' almost appearing to be an afterthought.

Entertaining...just, but a pale comparison with the unforgettable 1958 rendition.

Opening shot of the infamous iceberg surfacing is very effective and menacing fx shot.

Miniature rear projection comp by Sol Halprin.

The left frame is one of the most effective miniature shots in the film, shot in daylight with well scaled waves and wake, though looks as if it's been 'borrowed' from the 1943 version made in Nazi Germany.

One of four matte shots in TITANIC, with this being a painted ceiling set extension.

Misc model shots, probably shot by L.B Abbott, Harry Dawes, Paul Mohn and James B.Gordon who were but four of the numerous effects cinematographers employed by Fox in 1953.

The moment of truth: miniatures and process, plus an effective underwater view of the ripping open of the hull.

The second of four mattes.  Among the artists in Kellogg's matte department in 1953 were Matthew Yuricich,  Lee Le Blanc,  Menrad von Muldofer,  Max de Vega,  Cliff Silsby and Emil Kosa jnr.

Now this is a classic old time Sersen trick, and one in which the department snapped up the effects Oscar for a decade earlier on CRASH DIVE - the skillfully composite whereby actors filmed on a vacant blue screen stage are travelling matted into an entirely convincing miniature set.  The Fox guys did this trick many times over the years in THE RAINS CAME, THE BLACK SWAN and others years before George Lucas decided he could make entire franchises with just a green screen and a couple of actors..

A complex split screen matte shot of the live action lifeboats added to a probable painted ship.  Thanks to Jim at  for this frame which I missed.

Effective process work.

And down she goes with what appears to be a large miniature Titanic and motorised row boats.

The closing shot features a matte painted composite.

A few behind the scenes pictures from TITANIC where we can appreciate the process screen set ups and a partially obscured glimpse of the large (approx 12 foot) model ship in the Fox tank.

Several miniature shots in A NIGHT TO REMEMBER  were actually re-used scenes originally featured in the 1943 German version, overseen by the Nazi regime.  The shots were often optically flopped to appear new., with this shot appearing in the 1951 Fox version as well!!  Many thanks to my pal Roger Todd for bringing all of these to my attention - the man's a genius when it comes to maritime miniatures in films.

Bill Warrington's model work from A NIGHT TO REMEMBER.  I read that the effects budget amounted to a mere 90'000 pounds on this show.

Unlike the Fox film, the Pinewood production doesn't muck around with subplot and extraneous padding and gets straight to the point, and stays there.  Here is an almost identical model-process shot to the 1953 film where the iceberg shatters across the deck.
Side by side frame comparison of the engine room flooding miniature sequence shows that several effects cuts from the 1943 German version of the tragedy were in fact reused for the 1958 British version, usually flopped in the optical printer.

The effects techniques applied appear to be the same for both films, with what appears to be motorised model lifeboats perfectly integrated with the larger sinking cruise liner.

Miniature Titanic interiors are flooded and then rear screen projected by Rank's resident process expert Charles Staffel.

Rare shots of the miniature tank shoot at Pinewood.  many thanks to my pal Roger Todd for being so helpful with these and other great behind the scenes imagery.

The pictures here would suggest that the model is around 30 feet in length.

More wonderful photographs of the miniature Titanic set up with technicians giving a good sense of scale here.

Miniature tank at Pinewood with what appears to be a completely cut away right hand side of the ship to facilitate electrical wiring and internal lighting requirements.

"The unsinkable Titanic.... well, you, er"

And down she goes to the icy, pitch blackness some 2 miles below.  The lower left frame is probably a travelling matte composite by either Vic Margutti or Bryan Langley, both key exponents of the blue screen process in Britain.

Although there is a one hour behind the scenes documentary on A NIGHT TO REMEMBER  I've sadly never managed to see it, with this one off frame from some on set fx footage all I have to show the miniatures and technician.


  1. Well,it seems that Cameron didn't imagine himself the most amazing shots of his adaptation ...

  2. I used to work with Vic Margutti, at the Travelling matte dept at Denham. A real genius and an excellent Boss.

  3. I'd be keen to chat with you more about Vic should you wish to email me. I will have a Rank/Pinewood FX special coming up shortly.

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  6. Your article begins with a reference to, "luxury cruise liner TITANIC". Titanic was a transatlantic passenger liner. A cruise ship is an entirely different kind of vessel.
    Thomas Hewn