James Cameron’s films have blazed a trail for their artistic realization and for advanced visual effects, setting numerous performance records in the United States and internationally. Titanic held the record for the highest grossing film in history for 12 years, only surpassed by Avatar, which maintained that record for another decade.
Cameron’s films have also earned numerous nominations and awards. Most notably, Titanic received 14 Academy Award nominations and won 11 Oscars, both records, including Cameron's three Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Editing.
Cameron’s career expresses his passions – filmmaking and oceans exploration and technology, the latter part of the environmental advocacy interwoven in much of his creative work. He wrote, produced and directed The Abyss, which broke new ground in underwater cinematography and lighting. His attraction to the deep ultimately drew him to the Everest of shipwrecks: Titanic. In 1995, Cameron made 12 manned-submersible dives to the Titanic in preparation for his feature film, developing unprecedented filming, lighting and robotic equipment for use in the extreme pressures of the deep. Titanic fuelled Cameron’s desire to go even deeper. On 26 March 2012, he made a record-breaking solo dive to the earth’s deepest point, piloting the DEEPSEA CHALLENGER submersible he co-designed and engineered 11 kilometres (7 miles) to the bottom of the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench. Cameron continues to bring audiences new and compelling experiences of worlds real, alien and imagined.
Passing on the torch of creativity
What is your approach to mentoring?
You can’t force it on them. They have to want to hear what you have to share. The best way is to provide an environment to let them create within, and if they want your help, they’ll ask for it. And if they don’t, it’s better to just stay the heck back.
My high school biology teacher Mr McKenzie encouraged us crazy, fringe-type kids to express ourselves. My school had never had a theatre arts programme so we created one. We would stay after school for hours to create a stage, put in lighting, build sets to put on plays. He created the framework and let us go.
Mr McKenzie encouraged us crazy, fringe-type kids to express ourselves… he created the framework and let us go.
Would you agree mentoring is a two-way process?
One of my favourite filmmakers was Stanley Kubrick. I learned from him never to do the same thing twice. I made a pilgrimage to his house in England and got to tell him how important his work was to me. But he didn’t want to talk about his old stuff. He was making a new movie called A.I. and wanted to pick my brain about how we did the visual effects in True Lies because he knew that there was this new thing with digital composites.
I literally spent the day mentoring Stanley Kubrick. It was the most surreal experience. Stanley was like a sponge. Here is a guy who was almost 80 and still open and childlike, and all about the craft, all about learning how to do it and do it better.
What is the value of collaboration in filmmaking?
There’s this idea that the auteur shows up with a perfect vision, but it doesn’t work that way. Even somebody like myself who writes my own material, I come in with a hazy out-of-focus picture and then I work with the artists to refine that picture. Getting the feedback from other artists is the important thing. I love to surround myself with the most talented people available and then just riff, just jam, like a jazz combo.
Can you describe the process of how knowledge is transferred in filmmaking?
We build on the shoulders of the people who came before us. We see the example, it excites us and we say I want to do that, or my version of that. Then we have to pass on what we know to a new generation.
Every brush stroke an artist makes, every move of the camera, every line of dialogue any screenwriter writes, is based on the sum total of everything they’ve experienced. You can absorb movies, books, art, music, the experience of your life, it all goes into a blender, through the filter of your mind’s eye and comes out as something.
When I saw Ray Harryhausen’s movie Mysterious Island, I was on fire. I was in the third or fourth grade. I started drawing my own Mysterious Island comics because I didn’t want to just be a fan. I wanted to do my own version.
I learned to draw from Jack Kirby and other comics artists. I saw the comics and learned the poses. It was so different from classical art. They were telling stories in a series of pictures, just like cinema. I still think of the work that I do every day on the set as very much like that.
There’s a torch of creativity that gets passed down and there’s you standing there. You’ve got that torch in your hands for a moment. At a certain point you have to pass that torch on, and someone exploding with ideas and with passion and things to say that are relevant to their generation will take that torch and run with it.