Day 7- James Cameron. Before Avatar, a curious boy

“In whatever you’re doing, failure is an option, but fear is not.”

A beautiful closing statement from James Cameron which could be applied in a multitude of instances in life. In this talk, the director reminds us of the importance of imagination, stating that curiosity is the most powerful thing we own.

As a child, Cameron underwent an hour long bus journey to school each day. He spent most of this time immersed in a science fiction book, imagining fantasy worlds which he later drew or painted. Children at that time weren’t exposed to video games, computer generated imagery or the vast range of images present in the media today and so he had to pick much of the imagery for these alien worlds he created out of his head.

In the sixties, Jacques Costeau’s programmes on diving and the rich underwater world he explored began to excite Cameron. He realised that while he might never go to space, he could one day see the exotic, otherworldly marine environment. As he says, ‘Nature’s imagination is boundless compared with our own meagre human imagination.’ The teenage Cameron persuaded his father to buy him scuba diving lessons and eventually he received his certification in a pool in Buffalo, New York, hundreds of miles from the ocean. Since then, he estimates he’s spent about 3000 hours underwater.

As an adult, Cameron chose the career of a filmmaker as he felt it was the best way to reconcile his urge to tell stories with the urge to create images. He created a series of science fiction movies, including ‘Terminator’, ‘Aliens’ and ‘Abyss’ (which featured the first ever movie soft surface computer generated animation character.) According to Cameron, Arthur Clarke’s law states that an sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. This explains the reaction of audiences to characters such as the liquid metal dude in Terminator 2.

With the intention of further pushing the boundaries of filmmaking and leapfrogging the analogue processes, Cameron set up the company, ‘Digital Domain’, which for a while in the early nineties gave them a competitive advantage. When Cameron initially came up with the idea for ‘Avatar’ in the mid 90s, the company lacked the technology to create a world in which the characters and human emotions were all computer generated. So he shelved that project and decided to make ‘Titanic’.

‘Titanic’ is a perfect example of the possibility for imagination to create reality. Cameron convinced the movie studio to fund a trip in a Russian submersible to the wreck of the Titanic. He shelved his Hollywood life for a while and decided to become an explorer. They created robotic vehicles to explore the interior of the ship, which nobody had managed to do before. Cameron followed his love of the deep sea with an interest in space and later became heavily involved with NASA. He’d come full circle from being a science fiction fan as a kid, to actually doing science work for real. Between ‘Titanic’ and ‘Avatar’, Cameron made numerous documentaries on his explorations, mainly for the joy of the task itself. He used many of the lessons from this period to lead his team better during the making of ‘Avatar’. He tells us that over the four year production period of ‘Avatar’, they became a family, working as they did in uncharted territory, creating new technology that didn’t exist before. The end result was a film which many describe as Cameron bringing back the ocean organisms and putting them on the planet of Pandora.

Neither of the storylines in ‘Titanic’ or ‘Avatar’ are high concept, yet this talk reminded me of the boundaries Cameron pushed to make both films. Many of his statements aren’t original, yet as people we continuously fail to follow our dreams. Cameron has done so, with the drive, intelligence and commercial sense he is blessed with and has been extremely successful. If you have a creative mind that needs to be kick-started into 2013, you could do a lot worse than to take a leaf out of his book.


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