Thoughts on Titanic

I went to see Titanic 3D Saturday night. I’ve long had a fascination with the ship and sinking, and saw the movie a couple of times when it first came out. Between the centanary of the sinking, and the re-release of the the movie, I’ve been thinking about Titanic a bit lately.

Titanic 3D

First off, the movie. The main reason for seeing it again is to be able to see it in a theater again. The love story is good, but of course, it’s really a vehicle enabling director James Cameron to get all over the ship, and to tell the story from the viewpoint of someone who was on the ship (instead of the lifeboats) all the way to the end.

Part of the reason I’ve seen the movie so many times (me, who almost never watches movies) is that I picked up a special issue of Cinefex devoted to the making of the movie. The first third details the construction of the special studio built (!) in Rosarito Mexico for the movie, the second third, the main effects work done by Digital Domain, and the last third, the work “farmed out” to other effects shops when Digital Domain was overwhelmed by the amount of work.

One of the things that floored me back then, and still does, is that almost all of the non-principal people seen on the ship are computer generated. All the people waving goodbye in Southampton, the mobs swarming the deck and falling off as the ship sinks… all CGI. Also, all the water is CGI.

On the other hand, the ship is almost all practical models– they built a huge set covering about 90% of the starboard side, a 1/20 scale model of the entire ship, (about 44 feet long) and larger scale models of the stern for the end scenes. This is probably something that would have been done CGI if they were redoing the movie from scratch nowadays. The one effect that plays false to me– and still does– is when the ship splits in two.  Although they show the deck planking splitting, and the hull cracking, there isn’t the kind of deformation and shearing you’d expect to see– it just breaks off and drops, and this is an artifact of using a physical model.

So is the movie better or worse for the 3D? Neither, really. For the most part, it doesn’t really feel “3D-ish”– the stereoscopic effect is only pronounced in a few places. For the most part, your attention is on the story, which is where it should be. There are no editorial changes — just a change to a starfield at the end of the movie to satisfy astronomers who told Cameron he’d gotten it wrong (who cares).

The Olympic Class Ships

What a lot of people don’t realize is that Titanic was one of three near identical ships  built by the White Star Line for the North Atlantic ferry route. The first was RMS Olympic, launched in 1911, then Titanic, and a third ship, Britannic, launched after Titanic sank. White Star had chosen to de-emphasize speed in favor of size and luxury in its ships. In order to have the desired frequency of sailing, three sister ships were needed. Like all White Star ships, the three Olympic class ships all had names ending in “ic”. (Cunard ships of the time had names ending in “ia”, like Mauretania).

Only Olympic ever completed a peacetime voyage, and even she had several incidents. Titanic’s maiden voyage was delayed, because Olympic had collided with a Royal Navy ship, the Hawke, and needed repairs. During World War I, Olympic rammed and sank a German U-boat, and in 1930, she collided with, and sank, the Nantucket lightship.

Olympic was heading back to Europe from New York when Titanic sank, and while she attempted to respond, she was too far away. When she got back to England, her crew struck, and refused to sail again on her until enough lifeboats were provided. In 1913, she was withdrawn from service and refitted to correct some of the design deficiencies that lead to the sinking– the double bottom was extended up the sides of the hull, and the watertight bulkheads were extended higher.

After World War I, Olympic enjoyed a bit of a renaissance. Having lost her sisters, she was paired up with a couple of German liners taken as war reparations after the war. Her coal fired engines were replaced with oil fired engines, and enjoyed some popularity because she was a near twin for the lost Titanic. She was finally scrapped in 1937, though some of her fittings live on in a hotel in England.

The Other Unlucky Sister

The third Olympic class steamer was the Britannic. She was launched just before World War I and never saw peacetime service. Instead, she was requisitioned as a hospital ship. Like Olympic, she received the revised double hull and higher bulkheads. She also got a set of special life boat davits, designed to enable boats on the other side of the ship to be launched in the event of a steep list, though with her funnels, this turned out to be less than practical.

Britannic served for a little under a year as a hospital ship before hitting a mine, blowing off the whole bottom of her bow. She sank in less than an hour, despite attempts by the captain to beach her. Only 30 men died in the wreck; one of the survivors was Violet Jessup, who had also survived the Titanic disaster. Jacques Cousteau visited the wreck in 1975, and it’s been visited by a number of expeditions since.

What Ifs

For me, one of the most fascinating things about the Titanic disaster are the what-ifs. Like Apollo 13, it’s a whole chain of things that went wrong.

  • If she hadn’t been steaming at top speed, she probably wouldn’t have run into the iceberg.
  • If the moon had been out, the berg would have been seen in time.
  • If the sea had been less calm, there would have been waves breaking around it, making it more visible.
  • It had been a warm spring, generating more icebergs.
  • There was another ship, the Californian nearby. If its radio operator hadn’t gone to bed 15 minutes earlier, he would have heard the distress calls.
  • If the captain of the Californian had acted on the rockets they saw , he could have assisted.
  • The rudder was too small for the size of the ship.
  • There had been no lifeboat drills.
  • Not enough lifeboats, though enough to satisfy government requirements.
  • The second officer stopped the central propeller, which inadvertently decreased the effectiveness of the rudder.

There are two positive things to remember about all this. First, a lot of lessons were learned the hard way. Up until that time, lifeboats were regarded as shuttles between the sinking ship and ships giving assistance. It was thought that modern ships wouldn’t sink fast enough to require a complete evacuation with no relief nearby.  A second lesson was that 24 radio watches were necessary on all ships. Thirdly, an iceberg patrol was established, and the shipping lanes were shifted south. Fourth, it was definitively established that rockets launched from ships were meant as distress signals, and had to be responded to.

The other positive thing to remember is that Titanic was not fully booked when she sank– she could have been carrying around 900 more people–and ships were getting bigger. It’s easy to envision a scenario where the disaster we know was averted, and the lessons from it not learned, until an even worse one ensued.

3 thoughts on “Thoughts on Titanic

  1. I never knew you were such a titanic fan. Very interesting facts. Would you believe that I’ve never seen the movie? I know how it ends!

  2. This is a terrific article, and very informative! We tried to avoid all the Titanic hype as the centennial came and went, but it was an impossible task. But this article offered interesting, thoughtful aspects I had never read about before, and provided much more understanding of the ship, its background and its sister ships. Thanks! RF

  3. Ralph,
    Olympic and Britannic are both interesting stories in their own right. Britannic is in just over 300 feet of water, just within reach of technical divers, and there have been several expeditions to her in recent years. Hopefully, they’ll turn up at the Sea Rovers show one of these years.

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