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James Cameron

Film4 James Cameron's Avatar

The Oscar-winning director of Avatar, Titanic and The Terminator – and the self-declared King Of The World – is one of Hollywood's biggest dreamers. Film4.com lays out what you need to know about James Cameron.

WHO IS HE?

The son of an electrical engineer and an artist, Cameron was born in Ontario, Canada in 1954. He went from being a college drop-out and truck driver to become the director of the two highest-grossing films in history (Titanic and Avatar).


WHY SHOULD WE CARE?


Not only is Cameron the second-highest grossing filmmaker of all time (Steven Spielberg holds the record), but as co-creator of the advanced stereoscopic digital filming equipment used on Avatar - the 3D Fusion Camera System - he continues to lead the field in ground-breaking cinema technology. Whether you think the man can write for toffee these days, however, is moot.


CAREER IN A NUTSHELL

After dropping out of college in 1974, Cameron worked various day jobs while screenwriting and teaching himself about special effects on the side. He got his foot in the door as a model maker at Roger Corman studios, then went on to become an art director and production designer, before making the switch to directing. The Terminator, his second film, topped the US box office for a fortnight – all the more impressive when you consider that Cameron and Austrian star Arnold Schwarzenegger were virtual unknowns at the time. Cameron's sci-fi success continued with Aliens, The Abyss and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Then he surprised the world (and wowed the Academy) with Titanic, an epic romantic twist on the disaster movie. After 12 years tinkering with cameras under the sea, Cameron unleashed Avatar onto the world, which trumped Titanic as both the most expensive and highest-grossing film of all time.


WHAT DO THEY TELL YOU AT FILM SCHOOL?


Raise the bar, for starters. Or just create a whole new bar for yourself, as Cameron explained to The New Yorker: "If you set your goals ridiculously high and it's a failure, you will fail above everyone else's success". Don't bother listening to naysayers either: while Cameron was making Titanic, whispers that the film was going to be a bigger disaster than its subject's maiden voyage nearly caused Cameron to have a breakdown. Months later, he was sweeping the Oscars and being credited with singlehandedly keeping Hollywood afloat.

Oh, and, crucially, don't even bother with film school - Cameron is self-taught.

FILMS YOU SHOULD SEE:

  • Avatar

    AVATAR (2009)

    So why all the fuss? It's just another multi-million dollar blockbuster, right? One simple reason for the white-hot pre-release excitement about Avatar was because it was Cameron doing genre stuff again, albeit on a mega-blockbusting scale. And you can add to that weight of expectation that came with Avatar being the film he'd wanted to make since before Titanic  as well as the world's first look at his long-heralded game-changing 3D cinematography. So, did Cameron's trademark mixture of wit, action, intelligence, character and effects survive intact after his long sabbatical? Yes and no: the film's a technical marvel, but the Pocahontas-in-space narrative could hardly be more hackneyed.

  • Titanic

    TITANIC (1997)

    Alright, so the love story is tedious and overwrought. And it manages to be mildly offensive towards working-class Irish people. But you know what? Show us a mainstream film outside of Jurassic Park or Lord Of The Rings that matches the actual sinking sequence for sheer big-screen spectacle. Some questioned whether this was the film that as noted a sci-fi director as Cameron should have made next, but there's no denying that he succeeds in what he sets out to do. And it made all that money back, and then some  plus a record-equalling haul of 11 Academy Awards.

  • The Terminator

    THE TERMINATOR (1984)

    It's ironic, considering the reputation that Cameron would go on to earn for huge-budget sci-fi blockbusters - including with this very franchise - that The Terminator is so far removed from the template you'd expect from him. Low-budget, violent and dark as hell, it also uses surprisingly few of the trappings of the sci-fi genre compared with the films that would follow. What it did demonstrate at this early stage was that Cameron was capable of making intelligent and gripping action cinema, as well as getting the best out of some truly superb visual effects teams. And however often it's been said, it bears repeating that Arnie was never better cast than in the role of an extremely well-built machine.

TRADEMARKS

Cameron is, of course, a master of the popular action blockbuster, correspondingly renowned for his own super-sized ego. So it's perhaps suprising that his films are as full of macho women as they are men: Ripley in Aliens, Sarah Connor in Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Rose DeWitt Bukater (hey, she's tougher than her name) in Titanic.


INFLUENCED BY

Cameron has spoken of being brought up on "a steady diet of science fiction", lapping up the likes of Arthur C Clarke and A.E. van Voght. He cites Stanley Kubrick – in particular, 2001: A Space Odyssey, which he reportedly watched 10 times as a kid – and George Lucas' original Star Wars, as major career influences - the latter caused him to quit his day job as a truck driver, convinced he could beat Lucas at his own game.


AWARDS

Cameron's legendary Oscar haul came with Titanic in 1997 - it received was nominated for 14, matching the record set by All About Eve in 1950, and won 11, matching the record set by Ben-Hur. Avatar was nominated for nine, but had to settle for three comparatively minor technical wins, as Cameron's own ex, Kathryn Bigelow, beat him to both Best Picture and Best Director for her indie action movie The Hurt Locker. It's perhaps the greatest example of David slaying Goliath in Oscar history.


TRIVIA


Renowned as a slave driver, Cameron reduced Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio to tears when he insisted the cast pee in their wetsuits to save time while filming The Abyss. Meanwhile, he was happy to let Kate Winslet think she was actually drowning in order to get the best out of his leading lady on the set of Titanic.

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