• Brett Cramer

James Cameron's Sequencing in TITANIC

James Cameron should be studied more. He's a great formalist setpiece director. He's also amazing at sequencing, which refers to the order of shots that comprise a scene. It also dictates how long or short you hold each frame.

Cameron –– also an Oscar-winning editor –– intuitively knows all of this better than most directors. He also knows how to make a setpiece compelling by choosing what to focus on. He's particularly interested in the mechanics of how things work, which is why his scenes have so much technical detail.

The iceberg collision in TITANIC focuses on a mechanical process instead of mindless action. This isn't the empty spectacle that you see in modern tentpoles, with CGI characters flying around the screen with no regard for the basic laws of physics. Here, the action has real weight. This is mainly because of what he chooses to focus on with sequencing: turning the ship's steering wheel, shutting the dampers, closing the emergency doors, etc. It's a manual process based on real physics instead of weightless action.

The sequence starts around 3:42:

If you break the scene down, you can figure out the rough order of sequencing:

1) Notify the bridge of the iceberg

2) Turn the ship hard to starboard

3) Close the dampers

4) Stop the engines

5) Reverse the engines

6) Turn the ship hard to port (to bring the back of the ship around)

7) Shut emergency doors

8) Escape the boiler room

Each of these beats gets their own series of shots. Furthermore, each location on the ship gets its own focus: the bridge, crow's nest, engine room, boiler room, main deck, etc. Cutting between multiple locations and characters on the ship could be confusing. But when done right, it creates suspense, tension, and visceral excitement.

Remember that this scene is about a bunch of people trying to steer a huge boat. That does not sound exciting on paper. It's all directorial craft –– specifically sequencing and editing –– that makes it work.


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