Cameron and Carpenter discuss how care and rigid procedures can result in optimum images.
While staunch advocates of the anamorphic process commonly deride Super 35 for qualitative reasons, even the harshest critics often temper their remarks with the words "except for Jim Cameron's films; he somehow manages to use it successfully."
This is not only a left-handed compliment to the director and the cinematographers with whom he has worked, but to Consolidated Film Industries. The Hollywood-based laboratory has provided processing and intermediate work on The Terminator, the Super 35 films Terminator 2: Judgment Day and True Lies, the 65mm special-venue production T2 3-D, and now Titanic.
When asked for the secrets to his success with the Super 35 format, Cameron responds with a laugh. "I'm not hiding anything. Super 35 is a very well-thought-out system, but there's a lot of responsibility thrown back on the director and cinematographer to follow it through on every step. You can't just walk away."
Russell Carpenter adds, "I've seen other Super 35 films that have looked pretty good, such as Top Gun. People have come up with some pretty exotic methods of reducing the grain and contrast problems in the format, like double-printing their IPs to cancel out the grain patterns, or using a resilvering process to keep the blacks dark. But that's pretty wild stuff none of which we do."
Selecting the best possible lab for Super 35 work is a vital first step. Despite his relationship with CFI, Cameron always does some research. "I make a film every two or three years, and in that time the labs might make some kind of adjustment in their procedures," he says. "So on every picture, I do a 'cook off' where I put together a test roll of B-negative sample shots from the film consisting of a day interior, night exterior, and anything else that is representative of the film. You want to give the lab footage that will potentially show grain, like shots with blank walls that are slightly above mid-gray scale. I then have each lab take that through their IP, IN and release-print stages, and A/B compare them."
Outlining the rest of his approach to the Super 35 process, Cameron notes, "It's very simple. First, make a beefy, beefy camera negative. It used to be that anything below a 45 [printing] light was a disaster. Now that most of the labs have retrimmed their point system, anything below a 35 light is starting to feel thin.
"Next, you can't make the image too dark when you're doing your answer-print timing. It's better to be a little light at that point. Then, when you're doing your formatting to anamorphic at the IN stage, you've got a nice fat IP to work from."
According to Carpenter, Titanic's IP, like that of True Lies, was made at CFI on Kodak's 5244 intermediate stock, utilizing a wetgate direct-contact printer at full aperture, running at 180 feet per minute. A precision ground-glass was used to focus the image through the liquid, while fine-grade filters made overall color compensations. The 2.35:1 anamorphic squeeze was not made at this point, as the IP would also be used to make prints in other aspect ratios.
"Super 35 is only going to look as good as it can due to the lens used in the optical process that reformats the film to anamorphic while making the internegative," Carpenter states. "You're at the mercy of that lens. At CFI, and also at Deluxe, they have excellent optical systems set up for doing this."
Kodak's 5244 was used again while making Titanic's IN, as the flat IP was reformatted to 35mm anamorphic on the lab's equivalent of an optical printer, running at 14 feet per minute. "The printing stocks Kodak has today are so good that I don't see a real tradeoff in terms of color saturation when you compare Super 35 to anamorphic," Carpenter adds. "Whenever you go through a printing process, you're going to get some degree of change in terms of contrast, but with the new intermediate stocks it's really negligible.
"I've heard that you see more grain in Super 35 because you're doing an optical process. In a contact print, a diffuse light source is used, but in an optical printing process like you use for Super 35, a more specular source is being used. You're therefore seeing more of the grain structure, so you have to present the very best, most pristine negative possible to the Super 35 process."
Toward this end, Cameron has devised a rigid procedure for protecting the negative once it gets to the lab. He explains, "In Super 35 you're dealing with a smaller image area on the O-neg, so you have to be more aware of the accumulated dirt and damage that happens to a negative every time it's handled and a print is struck. In the case of Titanic which cost $190 million and runs 20 reels the negative cost about $9 million per 1,000' roll. If you take into account what it would take to replace the roll, it has no price. So every time that hourly-paid technician at the lab gets that thing out of the vault and puts it on the printing machine, he's carrying $9 million in his hands. That's like carrying around somebody's baby; you're not going to play catch with somebody's baby too often, so why do it with your negative?
"Most labs will not let you see anything that did not work," Cameron adds. "So they'll do a hazeltine timing, make their first answer print, correct that and then make another one until they get something acceptable. That 'first' print you see may actually be the third or fourth one.
"In response to this, I actually have the lab sign an agreement before we start the answer-printing process stating that they will not make any print without checking with me first. This dramatically cuts down on the number of times that the negative is handled and runs on the machine; therefore, we have fewer scratches, less dirt and a lower potential for damage.
"Another thing we do for safety is to strike an IP immediately after we get a hazeltine timing, even before we make the hazeltine check print. It's just a quasi-timed IP, only meant for emergency use. I've never had to use one, but it's good to know that you have something other than the O-negative if something starts getting ripped up."
Titanic's 35mm anamorphic release prints will be struck from this IN on Kodak's T-grain 5286 stock, as will any 70mm prints. "CFI will take the film though timing and the IP, and then Deluxe will handle the release prints," Carpenter reports. "On True Lies, Deluxe did the 70mm prints and they were fantastic. Again, I think this goes back to the improved intermediate stocks we have now, such as Eastman's 5244. Between the 35mm prints and the 70mm prints, there was something like a 20 percent jump in quality and detail. I think they'd be nuts not to strike 70mm prints for Titanic.
"Other than watchdogging the process all the way through, the only other special thing I do is to make a very meaty negative," Carpenter reiterates. "But I'm also working with a director who is very involved in this process, and Jim is not one to say, 'That's good enough.'"