James Cameron: “Simply do it. Simply pick up a camera and begin shooting something.”

James Cameron
James Cameron

Toronto: James Cameron was born in the Canadian town of Kapuskasing in Northern Ontario. Chafing at his engineer father’s strict discipline, Cameron became the master-builder of his playmates, enlisting his friends in elaborate construction projects such as go-carts, boats, rockets, catapults, and miniature submersibles. His mother, a painter, encouraged him to draw and paint. When he was still in his teens, she assisted in organising an exhibition of his work in a local gallery. Inspired by the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, he began experimenting with 16-mm film, photographing model space ships he had constructed.

Cameron’s family relocated to Fullerton, California, when he was 17 years old, and he enrolled at Fullerton College. Unsure of his path in life, torn between art and science, he dropped out of college, married a waitress, and worked as a truck driver for the local school district. After the film Star Wars reawakened his interest in filmmaking, he quit his job. He pursued his own course of study in the University of Southern California library, reading up on special effects, optical printing, and front and rear projection technology. He spent his meagre savings on photographic equipment, building his own dolly track and experimenting with beam splitters in his small suburban house’s living room.

His wife and friends questioned his sanity, but he borrowed money from friends to produce a short film, which he showed to low-budget maestro Roger Corman. In his horror films, Corman hired Cameron as a model builder and production designer. Cameron told Premiere magazine, “Three weeks after I started, I had my own department.” “I was hiring people, and everyone else at the company despised me.”

After two years with Corman, Cameron got his first crack at directing, but it almost turned out to be his last. The producer of Piranha II: The Spawning fired Cameron abruptly, claiming that the footage he shot was unusable. Cameron followed the producer from Jamaica to Rome, snuck into the editing room after it had closed, and recut sections of the film himself.

While in Rome, he conceived of the film that would make his name, The Terminator. Major studios picked up the script, but Cameron insisted on directing it himself, which killed the deal. He eventually sold the rights for one dollar to producer Gale Anne Hurd on the condition that he direct it himself. Cameron’s boundless energy won over Hemdale Films CEO John Daly and star Arnold Schwarzenegger. Cameron wrote screenplays for Rambo: First Blood Part II and Aliens while waiting for Schwarzenegger to become available.

Cameron won the director’s chair for Aliens after the international success of The Terminator and went on to direct The Abyss, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and True Lies. Titanic, directed by James Cameron, who is well known for his high-testosterone action blockbusters, drew eyebrows when he offered it as an intimate love story, although one with mind-blowing special effects. As the film’s production ran months behind schedule and millions of dollars over budget, industry insiders predicted an ignominious failure. Titanic shattered box office records around the world and swept the Academy Awards, winning an unprecedented 11 Oscars, including statuettes for Cameron as Best Director and the film as Best Picture.

Cameron’s reputation as a driven perfectionist has become Hollywood legend, but he accepts it with grace as he calmly plans each film. In 2009, he unveiled his most ambitious project to date: Avatar, a four-year-in-the-making science fiction epic. Avatar was the first big-budget action film to be shot in 3D, using innovative camera technology, Cameron developed himself. It was based on a script Cameron wrote in 1994. In its first three weekends, the revolutionary film grossed more than $1 billion. It broke box office records in all formats when it was released simultaneously in IMAX, 3D, and conventional widescreen. Within a few months of its release, Avatar’s box office receipts surpassed those of every other film ever made, including James Cameron’s Titanic.

Cameron’s films’ success has allowed him to pursue a variety of other interests, including deep-sea exploration. As a National Geographic Society (NGS) Explorer-in-Residence, he was instrumental in establishing the Deepsea Challenge project in collaboration with the NGS. Cameron himself has set a record-breaking voyage to the deepest point on Earth as part of the project.

Cameron travelled in the Deepsea Challenger; a custom-designed submarine described as a “vertical torpedo” outfitted with 3D cameras, powerful lights, and a hydraulic robot arm. After testing the sub in the New Britain Trench off Papua New Guinea, Cameron headed for the Mariana Trench in the Western Pacific, east of the Mariana Islands and south of Guam, where the Pacific tectonic plate subsides beneath the Mariana plate to its west. The Challenger Deep is the deepest point in the Trench, a narrow canyon, and is estimated to be 6.78 miles (35,800 feet or 10.91 kilometres) below sea level, though some data suggest it may go even deeper.

Cameron descended alone on March 25, 2012, travelling for more than two hours from the dazzling light of the Equator to the chilling darkness of the Deep. Cameron spent nearly three hours driving across the ocean floor, exploring a desolate landscape almost as barren as the moon. Cameron had encountered large amoeba-like jellyfish and anemones in the New Britain Trench, but in the Deep, he only found inch-long, shrimp-like amphipods. Although a hydraulic system failure prevented him from collecting as many samples and capturing as many images as he had hoped on this first voyage, the technology of the Challenger vehicle proved effective enough to allow return trips to the Deep. Future expeditions will collect soil samples, the microbial life of which could reveal important information about the origins of life on Earth and the possibility of life on other planets.

Cameron, the filmmaker, also reached a watershed moment in 2012, with the long-awaited release of a 3D edition of his 1997 classic Titanic. Whatever surprises James Cameron has in store for the future, his work as a filmmaker and explorer has already touched the lives of millions.

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