Director’s Chair Introduction: James Cameron

by Tony Cogan · December 19, 2022 · Director's Chair · No Comments

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Deadline: 14th January 2022

Hello everyone, it’s time to showcase the director for November’s directors chair and, with the release of Terminator: Dark Fate, I thought it would be good to look at the director that started the series, James Cameron.

Now Cameron got his start in special effects and art direction, doing some effects for Escape from New York and being the art director for Battle Beyond the Stars. During his time as an effects artist, Cameron was hired to do the effects for Piranha 2 and, when the original director of the film quit, Cameron took over. Whilst it was an arduous process for Cameron, with Cameron having difficulty communicating with a crew that didn’t speak English and being locked out of the editing room, it still gave Cameron his first shot at directing. Whilst filming Piranha 2, Cameron had a nightmare about an invincible robot sent from the future to kill him, which grew into The Terminator.

Following the success of Halloween, Cameron decided to write The Terminator, wanting to sell the script so he could direct it. Whilst he had difficulty in finding producers willing to fund the film with him as director, Cameron eventually got into contact with Gale Anne Hurd, who bought the script for $1, allowing Cameron to direct. Whilst originally expected to be short lived in theatres, along with there being a battle with the MPAA over whether the film would be rated X or R, when The Terminator was released it was a critical and commercial success, jump starting Cameron’s career.

After The Terminator, Cameron was approached to write and direct a sequel to Ridley Scott’s Alien, the success of The Terminator allowing Cameron and Hurd to develop the film the way they wanted to, with Cameron using the Vietnam War as inspiration for the film. Despite clashes between Cameron and the crew, including the original DP walking off after an argument between him and Cameron over the lighting of the Alien nest, and the relatively low budget for the film, Aliens was released to critical and commercial acclaim, receiving several Oscar nominations, including Best Actress for Sigourney Weaver. On a personal level, I consider Aliens to be my favourite film, and so I have respect for Cameron for creating such a masterful piece of filmmaking.

After Aliens, Cameron started to explore a fascination of his: the ocean. With The Abyss, Cameron had the idea of showing extraterrestrial life underwater. The on-set experience though was a nightmare, the perfectionist nature of Cameron angering the cast and crew, along with many of them being driven to exhaustion by the extensive scenes filmed underwater, with stars Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio later disowning the film because of the arduous experience of filming it. Despite the behind the scenes issues, it was another critical and commercial success and helped to advance computer effects through the CG used to create the aliens.

In the late 1980s, discussions started to be held for a sequel to The Terminator to be made. Whilst there were technical issues that prevented Cameron from being able to make the film he wanted to previously, the effects for The Abyss were the proof of concept needed to allow Cameron to move ahead with Terminator 2. At the time of filming, Terminator 2 was the most expensive film ever made, with a budget 15 times the size of the original. On release, Terminator 2 was hailed as one of the greatest action films ever made, becoming the highest grossing film of 1991 and became the first film to earn more than $300 million internationally. It was also critically praised, earning 6 Oscar nominations, winning 4 of them. Cameron later returned to Terminator 2, directing a theme park attraction based on the film, Terminator 2: Battle Across Time 3D, and supervising a 3D conversion of the film in 2016.

After Terminator 2, Cameron made True Lies, another success for him, following that up with Titanic. Titanic was one of the most expensive films ever made, due to the extensive, large scale models needed to replicate the Titanic and its impact on water when it sank, along with recreating the ship in CG and utilising a massive water tank to shoot the scenes showing the Titanic sinking. The film marked a departure for Cameron in terms of the tone of the film, with Titanic being a romantic epic. The film became notorious before release, generating headlines for the film running over budget and exceeding its schedule. Despite the delays to the film creating fears it would be a disaster, along with a lukewarm response to the film at the Tokyo Film Festival, upon release, Titanic exceeded every expectation. It became the highest grossing film of all time, becoming the first film to gross more than $1 billion at the box office, along with joining Ben-Hur as the second film to win 11 Oscars, the highest number of Oscars a film has won. Whilst Titanic was a success, there was a backlash to the film, with many videos online making fun of the film and the supposed “plot holes” present in the film, but these videos don’t detract from the connection people have to Titanic and the enduring legacy of the film.

After Titanic, Cameron went a bit more quiet over the next few years. Whilst he planned to direct an adaptation of Spider-Man, the project fell through, paving the way for Sam Raimi’s films, with Cameron also turning to TV, creating the show Dark Angel. It was also during this time that Cameron started to really explore his fascination with the ocean, directing 2 IMAX documentaries during this time: Ghosts of the Abyss, focusing on the wreckage of the Titanic, and Aliens of the Deep, looking at life in the deepest parts of the ocean. Even when he returned to blockbuster filmmaking, Cameron’s fascination with the ocean continued, becoming a National Geographic explorer-in-residence and becoming the first person to accomplish the trip to Challenger Deep, the deepest point of Mariana Trench alone.

In the mid-2000s, Cameron made his return to blockbuster filmmaking, with two projects he wanted to make. One was an adaptation of Yukito Kishiro’s Battle Angel Alita and the other was an original script of his, Avatar. Whilst he intended to make Alita first, he decided to switch the order around, making Avatar first. Cameron eventually decided to step away from directing Alita, handing the reigns to Robert Rodriguez, although he still acted as a producer, with Rodriguez’ film being released earlier this year. Cameron later gave his reason for making Avatar first as being to spread the films environmentalist message.

Even after he decided to make Avatar, it still took Cameron a few years to make the film in order for CG technology to advance to the level Cameron wanted it to be, with this mainly being the case for the motion capture technology needed to create the characters in the film. Cameron also originally intended the film to be released in 3D only, but scaled it back to allow conventional screenings to be held. Upon release, despite jokes about the perceived derivative nature of the plot (the common joke being Dances with Smurfs), Avatar was a massive financial success, surpassing Titanic as the highest grossing film of all time and becoming the first film to gross more than $2 billion. Avatar’s record as the highest grossing film remained in place until it was surpassed by Avengers: Endgame in 2019.

Cameron is remaining in the world of Avatar for his next few films, working on 4 sequels to the film, with Avatar 2 and 3 being filmed simultaneously. Filming of the sequels was delayed as Cameron chose to focus on the underwater world for the first sequel and had to wait for technology to advance to a level to film motion capture scenes underwater, including creating head cameras for the cast and developing a mix of motion capture suit and wetsuit along with cameras that would solve the issue of water refraction. Avatar: The Way of Water has just been released, and has received positive reviews, highlighting the technical skill and worldbuilding, but criticising the script. At this time, it has received multiple award nominations for Best Picture and Best Director, including being named one of the best films of 2022 by the National Board of Review and the American Film Institue.

As a reminder, the films of Cameron’s you can cover are listed below.

  • Piranha 2: The Spawning
  • The Terminator
  • Aliens
  • The Abyss
  • Terminator 2: Judgement Day
  • True Lies
  • Titanic
  • Ghosts of the Abyss
  • Aliens of the Deep
  • Avatar
  • Avatar: The Way of Water

I look forward to reading what you send me.