James Cameron, the sea-loving director with an eye for detail

Growing up in landlocked Niagara Falls, Ontario, James Cameron idolized French marine explorer Jacques Cousteau. A science fiction fan fascinated by space travel, Cameron found something otherworldly about the dazzling underwater imagery of Cousteau’s television specials.

“Cousteau’s shows got me excited about the fact that there was an extraterrestrial world here on Earth,” he said in a 2010 Ted Talk.

Cameron, 68, has been thinking about oceans and alien worlds ever since. He directed in the 1980s Foreigner and the deep sea epic The abyss. came later titanic (1997), at the time the highest-grossing film of all time – until Cameron broke his own box office record with the 3D sci-fi epic avatar, which grossed $2.8 billion upon its release in December 2009.

his latest movie Avatar: The Way of Water, is Cameron’s ultimate exploration of an alien underwater world. Thirteen years in the making and estimated to be $350 million, much of the sequel’s action takes place in the oceans of Pandora, the lush moon inhabited by blue, 10-foot tall Na’vi humanoids.

The director is known for his lavish high-budget productions a The way of the water is a classic Cameron company. “We knew we had a daunting challenge creating Pandora’s oceans,” says Dylan Cole, the film’s co-production designer. “For one thing, our director, James Cameron, knows more about the ocean than anyone else.”

That’s not a huge exaggeration. An avid diver and marine explorer, Cameron filmed the wrecked remains of Titanic and Bismarck. He has even navigated a submarine of his own design to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest place on earth.

No wonder he spared no expense in filming the underwater scenes The way of the water. Cameron could have opted to shoot them ‘dry for wet’, meaning the actors would appear on stage and sea effects would be added later. “But Jim wanted truth in her performance,” explains Jon Landau, the film producer who has worked with Cameron for decades. “So we decided to build a giant water tank that the actors could go in and act out their scenes.”

The tanks were 30 feet deep and a giant wave machine was built to create two-meter peaks. A freediving expert, Kirk Krack, was brought in to help the actors hold their breaths for long distances. Actress Kate Winslet was able to go about seven minutes without breathing using a technique called static apnea.

It’s this attention to detail that defines Cameron’s filmmaking. “I think it is [a search for] Perfection,” says Landau. “Jim does something until he gets it right.”

Rich Gelfond, CEO of Imax, witnessed Cameron’s pursuit of perfection first hand. The director spent three months in Gelfonds’ offices studying every detail of how 3D cameras work – lessons he would later apply in the Avatar films.

“For a lot of people, it’s the best movie of all time [two] Opportunities would suffice, but Jim keeps raising the bar,” says Gelfond.

But despite his history of spending big and making more, some in Hollywood are wondering if his sophisticated methods will pay off in the streaming era. The new film, which runs about three hours, opened last Friday and has grossed $550 million at the global box office — a good performance but not enough to be profitable so far.

When he was a teenager, Cameron’s father moved the family from Canada to Brea, California, about 90 minutes southeast of Hollywood. Cameron left high school without a degree and began an existence that seemed to resent the office life of his father, an engineer.

He worked for a time as a tool and mold maker, drove a truck, and married a woman who worked as a waitress at Bob’s Big Boy – the first of his five marriages. “I just became this worker,” he told The New Yorker in 2009. “But I’ve always been thinking as an artist, so I’m painting, drawing, writing, thinking about visual effects and film.”

He eventually found his way to legendary B-movie director Roger Corman, who helped launch the careers of future directors like Francis Ford Coppola. Cameron designed the spaceships for Battle beyond the starsa war of stars Rip off that Corman admired.

Cameron had found his calling. “Filmmaking was the best way to balance my need to tell stories and create images,” he said in 2010. He would go on to help shape Hollywood in 1984 The Terminator, the sci-fi classic starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton. Cameron made the film on a tight budget of about $6 million, but it grossed $80 million at the box office.

Almost 40 years later, he’s still at it. Cameron has plans for a total of five avatar films; the third has already been shot and the fourth picture is being worked on. And even if the film industry remains shaky due to the impact of Covid and the popularity of streaming, Cameron plans to deliver films that want to be seen in cinemas.

“Why does Jim make films? For an audience,” says Landau. “Every creative decision Jim makes, shot by shot, is meant to be seen on the big screen. He’s never lost that 16-year-old who loves going to the movies.”

christopher.grimes@ft.com

https://www.ft.com/content/0c727808-8400-456e-9a30-5b28d1b616ac James Cameron, the sea-loving director with an eye for detail

Adam Bradshaw

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