Recently, Insight Editions released the book Tech Noir: The Art of James Cameron
to display the journey of the artist’s evolution by giving a look into his personal art archives, including rare never-before-seen works from his private collection. The book showcases many of the ideas that lead to aesthetics of some of his most successful films, such as The Terminator
, and Avatar
, as well as work from unrealized projects and everything in between.
During a recent roundtable interview promoting the book, Cameron talked to Jamie Ruby of SciFi Vision about the feeling of getting to see his designs on screen for the first time in a succesful film such as The Terminator
and how it gave him confidence to do even more. “I think that gave me the confidence to then go and hunt much, much bigger prey,” said Cameron. “I moved up to going after mammoths after that. So, I went from The Terminator
, a sequel to a beloved film that had a huge global impact.”
The director continued that because the director of the original film Alien
, Ridley Scott, was largely popular at that point, many people tried to talk him out of it, but he didn’t listen, and he did it in his own way. “They said, ‘[I]f you make a good film, everybody's going to credit Ridley, and if you make a stinker, it's because you're not Ridley.’ I literally had serious producers, knowledgeable people, try to talk me out of it, but I just stuck to my guns and said, ‘Yeah, but I like it. I'm just just a fanboy.’...I just wanted to do my version of it, but the cheekiness is, my
version of it, not slavishly doing just a continuation of Ridley’s style and story.”
Cameron told the site, however, that he doesn’t have time to do all the art anymore in his films and has to rely on other artists as well, but it doesn’t matter to him, because he considers the art to be the film itself. “The art wasn’t the art behind the film…I guess I equated the art and design as being like the screenplay; it all fed to the final piece…ultimately the film is the thing.”
In Cameron’s hugely successful Avatar
, the sequel of which will be coming to theaters next year, the director took different ideas from previous projects and combined many of them to create the aesthetic that it became. According to the filmmaker, that’s not an abnormal thing. “I think all writers do that to some extent,” Cameron told SciFi Vision. “They put all of their life experience and everything they've ever had and then find some narrative that as an aggregator or an attractor pulls the ideas together. Then, they start to sort of take on their own life in that specific narrative.
“There was no sense of oddity in taking my idea of the bioluminescent world or some of the technologies, the ideas of linking directly from the mind. All those ideas had precursor. You're always trying to express things that fascinated you earlier in life.”
The writer and director of the film expanded to explain that he basically “threw it all in a blender” to come up with the film and added CGI. “My goal in [doing] that was to create some kind of phantasmagorical kind of story to take place on another planet, a place where we would require CG to create the creatures and at least parts of the environments and the main characters. The reason for that is because I was the head of a new startup called Digital Domain, and we were trying to make our bones advancing CG character development and CG world building and all that.”
Cameron added that he enjoys getting to use the old ideas. “Whenever I can find a way in one of my films to get one of these ideas up on the screen, or many of them in the case of Avatar
, I look forward to that. That's what makes it fun.”
For the rest of the interview, including how a Spider-Man film would have differed if he created it, how his artwork has evolved over the years, and much more, please read the full transcript below and be sure to read Tech Noir: The Art of James Cameron
, available wherever books are sold. Zoom Interview
Tech Noir: The Art of James Cameron
December 4, 2021
I was reading in the book how you took a lot of your old ideas from other projects and things and put them into Avatar
. So, my question is, when you did that, did you have a hard time kind of adjusting the aesthetic to make it fit into one film?
Well, it’s interesting that Avatar
was basically kind of like leftover stew: when you go to the fridge and you find stuff, and you put it all in and make a new dish.
My goal in [doing] that was to create some kind of phantasmagorical kind of story to take place on another planet, a place where we would require CG to create the creatures and at least parts of the environments and the main characters. The reason for that is because I was the head of a new startup called Digital Domain, and we were trying to make our bones advancing CG character development and CG world building and all that.
So, it was very kind of mercenary in a way. I just went back and harvested from all I had created, you know, planet stories that seemed to fit. I threw it all in a blender and came up with Avatar
. We knew that a lot of later it would actually become kind of its own story. I mean, I think all writers do that to some extent; they put all of their life experience and everything they've ever had and then find some narrative that as an aggregator or an attractor pulls the ideas together. Then, they start to sort of take on their own life in that specific narrative.
There was no sense of oddity in taking my idea of the bioluminescent world or some of the technologies, the ideas of linking directly from the mind. All those ideas had precursor. You're always trying to express things that fascinated you earlier in life. Whenever I can find a way in one of my films to get one of these ideas up on the screen, or many of them in the case of Avatar
, I look forward to that. That's what makes it fun.
…What are you drawing today? Are there any themes or ideas that you've kind of held on throughout the years, and how has a young James Cameron evolved into who you are today? I'm just kind of curious [what your] thought processes are and what you are doing in your free time?
…I think that I’m kind of shocked by how much I haven't changed. A lot of the ideas that were nascent for me and my teams around the environment and my kind of dystopian view of humanity and so on has all sort of remanifested itself recently. Most of my time when I’m not working on Avatar
is spent working on sustainability issues, like food choice and animal agriculture and farming and the farming work that we do to develop new ways of doing things that are organic and better for the land and so on. We have projects on that here in New Zealand where I am now and in Canada. So, I'd say that anytime that I have free from working on the Avatar
films, I’m…trying to make make a difference from a sustainability standpoint. I don't do art for pleasure right now, other than just sort of doodling while I'm on stage. And of course, what I’m drawing is robots and creatures and fantastic outfits for characters and that sort of thing. It's a constant melange of science fiction and fantasy kind of imagery, not that different. I mean, so the point is, I don't know if I've evolved at all.
It seems like your love has stayed the same, but it's kind of brought in everything you've done throughout the years. I think that's great. You’re still the same James as you were.
Yeah, I mean, I think technique has evolved. I mean, my primary outlet as an artist right now is cinema, so the technique for that has evolved enormously over the last twenty or so years, in terms of the actual processes. The aesthetic filter hasn't changed that much. I've learned a lot more about lighting and about lenses as you do as you go along and then applying that into what's now completely virtual realm in a lot of ways. We've schooled ourselves and done a lot of development in the technology that lies at the interface between real live action shooting and CG and simulated worlds and how to mesh them together. That's an evolution of process, not necessarily of vision and imagination. I think the aesthetic filter slowly evolves [in] terms of lighting and framing and the way you compose shots and the way you compose scenes.
But once again, what I’m saying is we’ve all dealt with the two dimensional platform into the moving narrative, and that's an ongoing process, but the big jump was obviously thirty years ago or so when I abandoned my drawing and painting and just put all my focus on on movies, and then got the best artists to work with me. I don't know if that was a conscious decision, but it was made sequentially across Terminator
, where I designed everything, to Aliens
, where I designed 30% of it, to The Abyss
, where I designed 10% of it, to everything after that, where I didn't design any of it, other than I prefer to always have one creature, one thing in every movie that I design myself, so I can be part of the team or the club, so to speak.
I was really excited to see a couple of pages in the book, [and] I'm looking at it right here next to me about Spider-Man, because I'm a huge fan and a huge fan of yours. You call it the greatest movie that you never made. We've had a lot of Spider-Man movies at this point. I'm curious why you feel it would have been the greatest movie that you never got to make and how your version would have been different than all the versions that we've gotten?
Well, look, I think it would have been very different. In the treatment that I wrote - with Stan Lee's blessing I want to say. Stan and I got to be pals around that process. It was one of his personal favorite characters, and I didn't make a move without asking him permission. So, going with the biological web shooters as being part of his biological adaptation to radioactive spider bites made sense to me. I mean, I came to Stan, I said, “Look, this kid, it’s Spider-Kid. The first thing you’ve got to get your mind around is it’s not Spider-Man. He goes by Spider-Man, but he’s not Spider-Man, he’s Spider-Kid. He's Spider-High-School-Kid. He's kind of geeky and nobody notices him and he's socially unpopular and all this stuff.” So, it was a great metaphor. The whole superpower thing was, in my mind, a great metaphor for that untapped reservoir, that potential that people have built in themselves. Always also, in my mind, it was a metaphor for puberty and all the changes to your body, your anxieties about society about society's expectations, your relationships with your gender of choice that you're attracted to, all those things. So, I wanted to make something that had a kind of gritty reality to it. Superheroes, in general, always came off as kind of fanciful to me. I wanted to do something that would have been more in the vein of Terminator
[where] you buy into the reality right away. So, you're in a real world; you're not in some mythical Gotham City - Superman, the Daily Planet, and all that sort of thing where it always it always felt metaphorical and fairy tale like. I wanted it to be it's New York. It's now. A guy gets bitten by a spider. He turns into this kid with these powers, and he has this fantasy of being Spider-Man, and he makes a suit; it's terrible. Then, he has to improve the suit. His big problem is the damn suit. You know, things like that. I wanted to ground it in reality and ground it in that kind of universal human experience.
I think it would have been a fun film to make. It basically got caught kind of just in a crunch where Carolco…requested late to buy the rights. It was languishing. I mean, Marvel had sold it to Canon; Canon was this low budget kind of piece of junk outfit, and they never made it or knew how to make it. Nobody had thought of Spider-Man I think as a movie at all. So, when I found out that it was at Canon, I got a Carolco to buy it. Then, Carolco went bankrupt, and then all of a sudden, it was a free ball and tried to get Fox to buy it, but, apparently, the rights were a little bit clouded, and Sony had some very questionable attachment to the rights, and Fox wouldn't go to bat for it. [They] just wouldn’t go to bat for it; they didn't want to get into a legal fight over it. I'm like, “Are you kidding me? This thing could be worth, I don't know, a billion dollars, you know, [now] $10 billion later. But I'd also sort of made a decision after Titanic to just kind of move on and do a couple things and not labor in the house of others’ IP. So, I think that was probably the kick in the ass that I needed to just go make my own stuff.
In the book, there's sort of this gradual progression from pencil drawings to more complex artwork. Then, obviously, in your film career, you're sort of known for pushing technology and even developing new technologies. I wonder if you think that that's born out of a desire to sort of paint with new brushes, so to speak, as you go along?
Yeah, I think it's a combination of wanting to understand new techniques and new media. It's also an issue of wanting to perfect one skill, because you never - there's no way to be perfect in art, because it's entirely subjective, but you can know yourself, that you're frustrated with your own handiwork. Only an artist can judge their own work. And if I'm frustrated with my handiwork, I'm frustrated that the image that I'm getting on the paper or on canvas is not what was in my head, I'm gonna work harder at that. To me, that challenge was in a way fueling the process of drawing and painting; it was its own reward for me.
You know, eventually I was able to start to commercialize it. I think you can see from even the earliest stuff that I was never going to be applying art in the sense of, you know, gallery shows and collectible artists and all that sort of thing in the sense of fine art, because I was too narrative focused. It was always purpose driven, trying to tell a story and trying to create characters. It was never kind - in my mind, it was art for art's sake, but you can see that it was a narrative process for me. So, I think I found my rightful place in using that as a skill base to move into cinema.
But yeah, I think you're right. It's always being unsatisfied, right? being unsatisfied with your own work, thinking, “Well, I got something good there, but it wasn't quite what I had in mind. Maybe I should do another one, do another one, do another one.” And you're doing that when you're making a film as well; you're trying to improve the toolset. I look back at The Abyss
, for example; there were some very good ideas in that film [that] we just didn't know how to execute. We took a swing for the fences with the CG character that's in the middle of the film, that's this kind of intelligently controlled, water tentacle, and I think we did something kind of amazing and dreamlike there, but the rest of the effects in the film weren’t really up to that level of innovation.
So, it all kind of fell short to me, in my own mind, but I think that's a good thing. I think that's a good place to be, to be dissatisfied, to be always dissatisfied. You know, way back in the day, I think people like Arnold Schwarzenegger talked about, “Stay hungry,” you know, “Stay hungry for better,” and I think that every artist does that to some extent, or you stop, or you’re just recycling your own your ideas. I laughingly say to my team on Avatar
that I only had four or five good ideas, and I just keep recycling them, [laughs]
but really, what I'm trying to do is expand on them and make them better.
…[There is] this story of yours that I adore. I probably tell it so often; I feel like it's my story. I would love to hear your point of view of the Aliens
pitch, where allegedly you wrote “Alien” on the board, dropped an “s” after it and then made dollar signs.
Yeah, it's true. It just popped into my mind in the moment. It was actually on the back of a script or some kind of presentation document. It might have been the treatment; I can't remember. I was sitting with the three producers. We were in the office of the then head of 20 Century Fox. I said, “Guys, I got an idea for the title, and it goes like this.” And I wrote “Alien” in large block letters. Now I put an “s” on the end, and I showed it to them. I said, “I want to call it Aliens
, because we're not dealing with one; we're dealing with now an army. That's the big distinction. It's very simple; it’s very graphic.” And I said, “But here's what it’s going to translate to,” and then I drew the two lines through it to make the dollar sign. That was my pitch, and apparently it worked, because they loved it the title; they never questioned it.
I wonder why your next one isn’t called Avatars? [laughs]
JAMES CAMERON: Avatars
with a dollar sign. [laughs]
Well, I mean, there's a time in your career to be cheeky, I think. Well, technically, in Hollywood, that's all the time, but, I mean, there's a time to be exceptionally cheeky, which is when they don't know who you are yet, and there's this constant demand and pressure of people wanting to be seen, wanting to be heard, wanting to be hired, wanting to be trusted; sometimes you have to do kind of slightly outrageous things and do it with a kind of twinkle in your eye. I think I think they respect that, because it makes them think about how they got where they are.
That will forever be one of the greatest stories ever told.
Well, it worked. Here we are 37 years later, and Aliens
is still around.
…Jim's archive is 1700 pieces. So, this is a sample of Jim’s archives…What surprised you, and what are some of your favorite works in this book?
Well, look, I think what surprised me was the thing I opened with is how little some of my ideas have changed: some of the things that drive me now, my passion for the environment, my sort of dystopian view of the human race’s impact on the planet, all those things, but a lot of those ideas were formed very early on. They have a lot more detail around them now than they did then, but the impulses are the same.
I mean, what’s Avatar
, but a creative core about our relationship with nature and technology, and I'm still laboring on that now in my 60s, and those were ideas that drove me when I was seventeen, eighteen in high school…So, that kind of surprised me. I think that with the kind of organizational work that you and Kim Butts did, and Chris Prince did around sort of finding an organizational principle for the book, it sort of put it all into perspective for me, the evolution of ideas over time. So, it sort of makes you think, you know, “What creates that moment in time when you're fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen years old when your brain is coalescing around a lot of these things. What were the inputs then?” It makes me want to go back and look at what the world was like at that time. Of course, there was Jacques Cousteau; there was the Apollo program; it was a real golden age of literary science fiction. Dune
, for example, was written in 1965. I think I read it in the late 60s, and, obviously, Arthur Clarke and Robert Heinlein and all those guys, and the turbulence of the world, civil rights movement, Vietnam War, they always say that the big pushes in evolution are probably very true for the human race that have not been the easy times or the flush times, but they've been the times of trial and tribulation that force adaptation. So, those were some of the surprises for me.
When I look at some of the work now, there's obviously a lot of testosterone pumping through the decision making process there, and some of those earlier, of that high school stuff, I make no excuses for that; I was a typical teenage boy in that regard. So, there's a lot of objectification of women; it's a bit cringy for me, but that's kind of how I was celebratory, but I also look at the exceptions to that where women are powerful. Yeah, sure, they're hot, but they're powerful. They're sorcerers; they’re commanding officer of a starship, or this or that, and those were kind of not the archetypes in movies and comic books - maybe more comic books; women were more powerful in comic books in the 60s than they were in movies and television shows, that's for sure. Although it was changing even at that time with Uhura, for example. Racial stereotypes were being broken; female stereotypes were being broken. So, it was a very, very fertile time. So, I guess I was lucky. I guess I was the right kid in the right time in that regard.
…You talk about director's vision, but you've also put so many visuals in your films as well that you've designed. Can you just talk about what it was like for you the very first time you saw the world that was in your head on the big screen in a big blockbuster movie? What was kind of running through your mind at that moment.
Well, I don't know if Terminator
was a big blockbuster, but that was the first time that happened. I think it was considered a success and an unexpected one, so let's take that as an example.
So, I had done the vast majority of the design work on that film, and to see it up on the screen realized was pretty cool. I think that gave me the confidence to then go and hunt much, much bigger prey. I moved up to going after mammoths after that. So, I went from The Terminator
, a sequel to a beloved film that had a huge global impact. If you think about how cheeky that was to try to come along after Ridley Scott, who was considered a master at that point in time, because I came along, I think, six or seven years later after his film. He had already done Blade Runner
, and he was doing other things. So, a lot of people try to talk me out of it. They said, “Look, if you make a good film, everybody's going to credit Ridley, and if you make a stinker, it's because you're not Ridley.” I literally had serious producers, knowledgeable people, try to talk me out of it, but I just stuck to my guns and said, “Yeah, but I like it. I'm just just a fanboy.” We didn't even have that term then, but I was just a fanboy, and I just wanted to do my version of it, but the cheekiness is, my
version of it, not slavishly doing just a continuation of Ridley’s style and story.
So, I don't think I would have had that confidence if I hadn't seen it happen once on a small scale with a $4 million, you know, down and very fast paced kind of entry film. Then, after that, it was kind of the sky's the limit, once you've done that once.
But I also learned there just aren't enough hours in the day as a director, and you’ve really got to rely on other artists; you’ve really got to bring in the best talent. So, I also took a note [from] Ridley's book on that, which was [to get] the great designers get…people that that you can trust and that you admire. To me, the art was the film. The art wasn’t the art behind the film in the same way that the script - you know, I didn't want to be a writer; I wanted to be a screenwriter. The screenwriter’s essentially invisible. So, I guess I equated the art and design as being like the screenplay; it all fed to the final piece. To me, they were - I don't know if you know this, but in the book, there were a few places where I did studies for a painting, right? Well, to me, the painting stood and the studies were thrown away. So, to me, in a sense, the art behind the movie, even though I love it, I love studying other people's art, that feeds up to the screen, and ultimately the film is the thing.
Then, as a filmmaker, I have to then honor the design that's flowing into it with my choice of shot. So, I don't share a movie that's all just tight close ups and everything out of focus in the background…You're not going to see any production design if you do that. So, it then feeds back and influences your style. As a director, you use shorter lenses; you spend time on the environment, not just on the character. I see a lot of films that are directed by actors, and they tend to shoot everything [close], because they just want that human emotional experience, and they they ignore design. There are all kinds of filmmakers that might even criticize that sometimes that's the right choice, but it's a question of honoring the art, whether it's your own art or whether it's the art team that you put together.
In the book you write repeatedly about a lot of the images came to you in dreams, and very famously [with] The Terminator
, of course, you had like a fever dream, and that was the first time you saw that. I'm curious how often you have these kinds of dreams that are ideas or images that you find worth you know, using and you know, are there because to me, they would seem very valuable. Have you investigated how [you] produce these dreams? Is there a particular way of sleeping or thinking that makes them happen? I'm very curious about these dreams and how you recall, how you document them as well?
Well, I'm not a I'm not a scientist or a neuroscientist, but I know that the jury's still out on the science of dreams. There are experts on on sleep and dreaming and neuroscience that say that dreams are just junk. They're just chopped salad; they’re just random noise. There are others that say, “No, it's an actual cognitive process. It's a storytelling process.” And I believe in that. I believe that there's a storytelling engine in the mind that allows us to make sense of the chaotic inputs of life. And we don't remember like a video recorder; we remember a narrative that we create with a few key images and a little bit of a story synopsis. It’s the story that we remember, because we can't go back and replay tapes; we don't have enough onboard storage to be like a surveillance system that runs for seven years at IMAX levels of detail. So, what we remember is these little mnemonic stories with a few key snapshots stuck in, and we just retell that story to ourselves. So, wherever that engine is, wherever it resides, it's probably distributed across our neural cortex. It's constantly working. It's working while we're awake, and it's working for parts that are asleep, mostly during REM sleep, and I think it's making stories. My dreams are a rich source of image creation, I think. And often I'll have something that either wakes me up, or that I wake up fresh out of that dream, because that's when the alarm goes off, and I'll take a moment, and I'll remember. I'll just remember the setting or remember the pictures, remember the theme, because we also dream and feel it. It's not just what was said or what was being seen. It's what you feel when you get a sense of dread or that sense of elation. You remember that emotion associated with that image.
Then, maybe later I'll be trying to solve a problem in a story and that idea will come back to me.
So, I consider dreams to be my own private streaming metaverse that I can inhabit freely, and it's all mine, mine, mine to do whatever I want. The only problem is I don't have control over it; I'm just going for the damn ride. It's only totally when I wake up that I have control over it, and I can put it into a story that makes some sense.