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Weekend TV: Pittsburgh plays a role in the latest Discovery piece on Titanic

Friday, April 23, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

For a big ship that sank to the bottom of the ocean, Titanic has proved buoyant as a television star.

Of course there was the Oscar-winning movie that helped spur interest, but the spinoffs have been just as successful, including a series of Titanic specials on The Discovery Channel. "Titanic: Anatomy of a Disaster," which aired in April 1997, remains the highest-rated Discovery Channel program ever.

The fifth -- and probably final -- documentary, "Titanic: Answers from the Abyss," airs Sunday on Discovery. All five were produced in Pittsburgh by Stardust Visual, a company established by former WQED executive producer Greg Andorfer. Stardust produced its first Titanic documentary for Discovery in 1996, and they've been at it ever since.

Charlene Haislip has served as coordinating producer on each of the programs, and he explained the company was created by employees let go from WQED a few years ago. Andorfer, director of the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore, is Stardust's executive producer with David Elisco as producer.

The latest Titanic production looks at the work of marine forensic investigators who try to determine why ships sink.

"Here the body we're autopsying just happens to be a famous one, Titanic," Haislip said. "It's reverse engineering."

Just as investigators piece together a plane crash, the Titanic team re-created the ship "virtually" using a photo mosaic made of pictures of the sunken ship taken 21/2 miles beneath the North Atlantic.

The investigators sought to answer questions about the extent of iceberg damage, how the ship broke up, what happened when Titanic disappeared beneath the water and why the stern was badly damaged while the bow remained intact.

Discovery pioneered a new form of joint TV production and scientific exploration with the first Titanic expedition in 1996 that produced three TV specials. The second expedition last summer, which Haislip was on for 42 days, produced additional programs, including "Answers from the Abyss."

Discovery pays for the scientific expeditions and gets to televise whatever scientists uncover. Future Discovery projects include expeditions to find the Liberty-Bell 7 space capsule near Grand Bahama Island and a trip to unearth a woolly mammoth in the Siberian Arctic.

Haislip said if Discovery didn't fund these specials some bits of information would remain unknown. In "Answers from the Abyss" a test is done in a water tank to see how part of the ship sank.

"Believe it or not, commercial naval architects do not really know the sinking dynamic of ships that are supposed to float," Haislip said. "This piece of scientific information came out because some television company needed it to finish their documentary, and now it will be in the files forever."

For the Titanic specials, Stardust filmed dramatic recreations around Pittsburgh. These scenes were more prominent in earlier broadcasts, but there are still a few glimpses in Sunday's documentary.

Action in the belly of Titanic was filmed at the water treatment plant across from Waterworks mall. The boiler room scenes were filmed at the Allegheny County Fire Academy in Allison Park. Titanic interiors and stairwells were shot in the Pittsburgh Athletic Association in Oakland, and scenes of Titanic passengers bobbing in the water were filmed at an indoor pool at Franklin Regional High School in Murrysville.

Many local companies were subcontracted for additional work on "Answers from the Abyss," including Home Run Pictures (animation), Big Science (sound effects) and D'Elia Wittkofski (post-production). Journal entries and letters written by Titanic passengers were given voice by local actors.

Haislip admits the success of James Cameron's "Titanic" movie helped to spur the expeditions. One of Stardust's productions, "Titanic: Untold Stories," was purposefully scheduled to premiere around the same time as the movie, she said.

"The Cameron movie came out, and with the hoopla still going on, that had to have played a large part in their decision" to do a second expedition last summer, Haislip said.


When: It airs at 9 p.m. Sunday on Discovery.

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