James Cameron in conversation – on Avatar, Terminator, Stan Winston and what he’s been doing for the last 12 years

James Cameron with Craig Grobler

IN a great guest blog, Scyfi Love’s man in London Craig Grobler – aka @ckc1ne on Twitter and a top bloke all around – tells of meeting up and spending three hours in the company of James Cameron ahead of the release of his latest blockbuster, Avatar.

In that time Cameron and Craig talked about the origins of his most famous creation, The Terminator, his hopes for Avatar and the technology behind it, the death of Stan Winston and what the future may hold.

Big thanks to Craig for what is a tremendously detailed and involving blog post, so sit back, relax, take the phone off the hook and read on …..

James Cameron in conversation

story-teller; (stawr-ee-tel-er) n.

– A storyteller is someone who tells or writes stories.

– One who relates anecdotes.

James Francis Cameron (born August 16, 1954) is a Canadian film director, producer, screenwriter and film inventor. His writing and directing work include The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Aliens and Titanic. To date, his directorial efforts have grossed approximately US$1.3 billion in North America (adjusted for inflation) and close to US$3.5 billion worldwide. After several feature films, Cameron turned his focus to documentary filmmaking and the co-development of the digital 3-D Fusion Camera System. He returned to feature filmmaking with the epic science fiction film Avatar, which made use of the Fusion Camera System technology.” – From Wiki (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Cameron)

I HAVE been a fan of James Cameron since about 1985 when my mind was melted by The Terminator. At the time The Terminator was like nothing we had seen before – fresh, original and a budget that kept it edgy.

Mashing together science fiction memes, The Terminator tapped into man’s fear of technology by bending genres, clever raw visual effects and the merging of complex plot elements into a neat rollercoaster ride. I still rate it as one of my favourite films of all time; it’s one of those films that are so fresh it pulls the carpet out from everything that has gone before.

I had seen and enjoyed some of his previous works (at the time had little to no idea that he was involved) such as Roger Corman’s 1980 Battle Beyond the Stars, Kurt Russell’s outstanding 1981 Escape from New York, his directorial debut Piranha II: The Spawning, Galaxy of Terror and Android in 1982.

Since The Terminator, Cameron has gone on to conquer the world.

I have enjoyed most of his recent works, but The Terminator will always epitomize James Cameron and science fiction for me.

Clearly the work of a man consumed by his passion, with little budget and a lot of talent the man created a genre, a cultural icon, a sci-fi phenomenon, groundbreaking special effects, a merchandising Empire, a cult following, a successful line of sequels (I didn’t say good), one of the most memorable quotes in cinema and careers for himself and his team.

All this from a screenplay he sold for $1 with the condition that he could direct it.

Love or just tolerate his films, I think it can be agreed that the world he creates on screen to support his tales are believable and immersive. He is a brilliant film all-rounder who loves what he does.

A lot is made about his love of technology and technical detail, but above all he is a master storyteller that creates a believable environment to enable his vision.

I admire James Cameron’s dedication to getting it right. I am also mildly obsessed with the process of creativity, specifically the process of story development from concept to screen.

So when the opportunity to meet Jim Cameron and hear him in conversation about his life in pictures came up I didn’t need to be asked twice.

What were James Cameron’s early influences?

Cameron was born near the Arctic Circle moving to Niagara Falls when he was about two, two and a half. His time in this location embedded a deep respect for nature and the outdoors.

This combined with the influence of his father,, an engineer made him a bit of a science geek. Water, nature and man vs. nature are all constant themes throughout his films. As an aside, his love of the ocean became apparent, he has clocked 2,500 hours underwater, 500 of those hours in a submersible.

Early on he loved the works of film legend Ray Harryhausen (remember the stop motion in the climax of The Terminator?) this lead to “Whenever he saw something that made a strong impression on him he would draw it, as well as embellish it and create his own story around it.”

2001 was another trigger point for him; he would have been about 14/15 when he saw this. The slit scan scene inducing vertigo and causing him to wretch. He had seen nothing like 2001 before and created a desire to emulate technique. This was a direct influence on him making models and setting them up for filming with his dad’s camera. A friend had a still camera so they started experimenting with stop animation.

At this point I should mention (as you may be unaware) that James Cameron started his film career as a miniature model maker at Roger Corman Studios.

How was The Terminator born?

I had heard various versions of how The Terminator came about and was keen to hear in Cameron’s words how The Terminator unfolded.

James Cameron, in Craig's pictureDuring a stressful period editing Piranha II: The Spawning in Rome “he was having weird dreams of a chrome skeleton/ death image coming out of a fire, kind of like a Phoenix”. He sketched it and around this nucleus he created a story that included what it was, where it came from and who it was after. It all fell into place.

From this idea, when he got back to LA and was sleeping on a friend’s coach he talked an agent into representing him.

The agent’s response to his idea of a hit man from the future that comes back to kill a girl who is nobody in the present, but will be important in future events? “Terrible idea, don’t do it.”

He added: “The producers wanted me to talk to O.J. Simpson for the role of The Terminator and Arnold Schwarzenegger for the role of Kyle Reese. I didn’t want to cast either of them but didn’t feel comfortable blowing off the studio heads’ idea either.”

At the time he did not think that people would have believed a nice guy like OJ could be a ruthless killer. So he went to pick a fight with the relatively unknown Conan instead. Schwarzenegger was charming, passionate and loved the script. He was liked for the Kyle Reese part but the whole time Cameron was talking to him he was thinking he was perfect for The Terminator.

What is The Terminator about?

I couldn’t say it better than Cameron himself:

James Cameron talking about The meaning behind The Terminator from Craig Grobler on Vimeo.

What has James Cameron been doing in the 12 years since the release of Titanic?

There is something very real, yet in a science fiction/fantasy kind of way, about exploring inner space. He always wanted to go to space which he wasn’t able to do, but he could go to the bottom of the ocean.

So he wound up working with the Russian submersibles on six deep ocean expeditions over a five-year period, making four documentary films in that time

He was having an amazing time and “perfecting” the 3D technique at the same time, shooting both Ghosts of The Abyss and Aliens of the Deep in 3D. He was also raising a family, which the kind of commitment he has when making a film would not have allowed him to do.

James Cameron in conversation

Avatar

I had been careful to avoid all written information about Avatar as I want to see it fresh and unencumbered with expectations on the 3D IMAX screen, as intended.

Sure, I was fortunate enough to see early previews on a regular digital 3D screen, the 3D IMAX screen and Hi Def Zune via Xbox in 2D.

As an aside I was surprised as I preferred the quality of screen movement of the BFI’s smaller 3D screen to the IMAX. I thought that the characters’ motion seemed to be a little clearer where as the IMAX’s version seemed a little blurred particularly on fast movement.

For the record I am a fan of the IMAX and believe that any film can be made better by screening it at the IMAX. If it’s in 3D at the IMAX it’s bound to be great. I’m hoping that this issue relates directly to the preview versions themselves rather than the BFI having better projection facilities.

But this post is not about Avatar, rather the road to Avatar.

Although unconfirmed – it does seem as if James Cameron wants to make a virtual reality film. Not a film about virtual reality but a film that immerses its audience in the film itself. I guess this the final atmospheric/environment barrier stopping an immersive audience experience. With Avatar he has almost achieved this.

Bearing that in mind Cameron has been supporter of the immersive experience/3D as early as 1996 when he created the T2 3-D: Battle Across Time ride for Universal Studios Theme parks (a bad 2D copy of the show intro can be seen here).

In 2003 he mentioned in various interviews that he was “going to do everything in 3D now”.

With piracy on the rise, competition from the online world and the increase in quality of home entertainment systems, cinema visiting market share has been shrinking. Clearly he sees 3D as a great way “to reinvigorate “the spectacle of cinema”.

More on Avatar

Avatar started off as an idea as early as the mid 1970s. The story was written in 1995 as his dream project that he always wanted to do, a fantasy story taking place on another planet with cool creatures; it was intended as the ultimate creature movie.

The design alone was attractive enough for him to be involved, but the technologies required for photorealism were still years off.

So he went off and shot Titanic, and after Titanic his company was supposed to have all the answers as how to shoot Avatar.

Their response was that it wasn’t possible without a lot of money and time.

Cameron knew that computer graphics would get where they needed to be for Avatar to be created – it was just a question of when it would be.

When it looked like the CG was mature enough Cameron started shooting in 2005. It took Digital Domain two years to get the performance capture pipeline to where it needed to be, before starting to work with actors in 2007. Two major advances (there are more) that Cameron’s Avatar has brought us are:

Perfcap: The human body has 200+ muscles; over half of them are in the face.

A mistake that previous motion capture techniques had laboured under was capturing the movement of bodies but not being able to capture the key emotional touch point – the human face. The resultant dead eye effect mooted efforts.

So Cameron’s team invented a “facial image-based facial performance capture system” – in essence a head rig worn by the actor with a camera accurately photographing the detail of facial expressions in close-up, 100% of the time (including eye movement). Cameron coined the phrase “performance capture” as opposed to motion capture. Abbreviated: Perfcap, which works neatly as each Perfcap rig is individually modeled on the actor’s skull cap.

Simulcam: To truly understand Simulcam, one needs to know that Cameron’s team created a virtual world that was filmed from the inside. Imagine taking a camera into a 3D virtual environment like a game and making a film.

To be honest this is pretty much how regular 3D rendering works anyway, however the Simulcam system allows filmmakers to view a virtual scene (exotic jungle, strange planet, airship interior) in real time, while simultaneously viewing the actor’s virtual character in real time as they perform their scenes.

This is exciting stuff and may change the way films are made moving forward.

How has Stan Winston’s passing affected him personally & professionally?

When I asked this question, James Cameron was visibly touched and thanked me for asking it.

Stan Winston and James Cameron first worked on The Terminator together and had been friends ever since. They continued their relationship working on Aliens and Terminator 2 before forming Digital Domain and working on Titanic.

Cameron and Winston had a shared dream to create the most realistic characters and CG was a key to achieving this.

Winston had been struggling with cancer for some years and became very ill prior to the making of Avatar. When the first footage of Avatar had been completed, Winston was too ill to come around to see the results.

So Cameron loaded it onto his laptop and went over to his house, but unfortunately Winston was too ill to see anybody.

Winston died the next morning without seeing the result of what they set in motion with their shared dream of [realistic] CG characters.

“Stan’s company was integrally involved in the creation of the characters; they actually formed a new company called Legacy in Stan’s honour to carry on the legacy of everything he had created,” Cameron said. “His passing is a great loss because he would have stayed active and creating new creatures from his imagination for the next 20 years if he could.”

What are the next big challenges in filmmaking?

Well, earlier on talking about Avatar, Cameron said: “In terms of CG we have successfully created water, fire, smoke, creatures, musculature and faces and although the characters in Avatar are not strictly speaking human, they are driven by human actors, so the human emotional aspect has been created within the characters.

“We always figured that was the last hurdle or the Holy Grail of CG and we have done that now.

“There are a couple of little things we still need to work out, but it is sort of all there now as a vocabulary. We are only limited by what you can imagine, by what the artist can imagine, how they actors do the performance and the story you want to tell.

“[However] making Avatar we made a lot of mistakes, went down some blind alleys and meandered a bit and it took us a lot to work out exactly how to do everything. I think the next big challenge honestly is a process challenge.

“For me it is a challenge of being able to get the same end result as Avatar in less time, more efficiently for less money. And we’ll do that be carefully analyzing what we have done and cleaning up the process.”

When asked about the idea of real in relation to how realistic Pandora looks, e responded with the idea that real is meaningless now and the lines between CG and photography will continue to blur.

What will he be working on next?

I asked James Cameron point blank what he will be working on next, even throwing in how he had alluded to both the terms “Innerspace” and “Fantastic Voyage” during his talk.

His response was that he’ll be waiting for the dust to settle from Avatar before moving on and his lip are sealed.

Earlier on Cameron had spoken about how he lays his seeds deep and having them pay off later. He also said that he pitched the concept of Avatar to the studio with the idea that they were going to spend money on the first one, but on the second one we’ll be able to advertise that, and we can focus on the story and they went for it.

For Avatar Cameron’s team created a huge library of assets that can now be used at a much smaller cost, as the majority of the work has already been done.

It seems the sky is the limit, but ust where that sky is is still open to debate!

Final thoughts

In the three hours I was in James Cameron’s company – including a one on one chat – he came across as a passionate, insightful and affable storyteller with a contagious smile. Nothing like the ego driven megalomaniac that we have come to expect.

I think that the biggest surprise for me was the way he viewed Avatar’s release.

I may enjoy it, I may not – that remains to be seen. Either way I had assumed that Avatar was going to be a phenomenal success and possibly the biggest film ever made, etc, etc.

It did sound like although Cameron had put his best into it and had made his dream project the way he wanted to – he was aware that its success is not a certainty. He seemed genuinely relieved and pleased that early reviews had been positive.

I’m really glad that I finally met one of my heroes.

His passion for storytelling may not have diminished and each of his projects may be a huge challenge, but too be honest, I would have loved to have met Jim Cameron 25 years ago when he was less established, full of fire and working on smaller less polished creative projects. I guess cream will always rise to the top though.

And now I’m off to watch The Terminator again!

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2 thoughts on “James Cameron in conversation – on Avatar, Terminator, Stan Winston and what he’s been doing for the last 12 years

  • VFX in Venice

    on

    The article says:

    “When it looked like the CG was mature enough Cameron started shooting in 2005. It took Digital Domain two years to get the performance capture pipeline to where it needed to be, before starting to work with actors in 2007.”

    For the record, following TITANIC, Jim worked with his own team — not Digital Domain — on the AVATAR project. Jim sold his interest in Digital Domain in 2006, and is no longer associated with the company.

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