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Good Characters And Cool Stuff—James Cameron On The Evolution Of Storytelling

James Cameron talks about the essence of storytelling, the role of tech in his films, and his creative relationship with his audience and critics.

He might be Hollywood’s highest-grossing director, but when it comes to his choice in movies James Cameron is an everyman.

"My tastes have always been pretty blue collar. I never went to film-study classes. I went to the drive-in. So I figure, if I like it, somebody else is going to like it, " he says. The Avatar and Titantic director is speaking to us backstage at SapientNitro’s iEX conference in London. The event, which took place last week, featured Cameron as a headline speaker on the theme of storytelling.

Currently working on the next installments of Avatar, Cameron is in the vanguard of research in 3-D and filmmaking technology. Technological advancements aside, he believes the fundamentals of storytelling won’t change any time soon.

"I think the future of storytelling is: You think of some good characters and you have them do some cool stuff that you can relate to and go through hell and come out the other side of it changed in some positive or negative way, and then it ends," he says, with a chuckle. He acknowledges that methods of conveying stories may evolve, such as multiple plot lines or interactivity, but, for him, the movie will remain at the core.

He’s happy to let the technology drive the narrative though. During the filming of Terminator 2, he began to consciously introduce elements into the script that would spur technological development. For Titanic, the creation of groundbreaking new equipment to enable deep-sea explorations of the interior of the ship was more fun than actually making the film, he says. It’s an admission, he acknowledges, which would be heretical for most film directors.

This interweaving of the story with technological advancement clearly continued with 3-D sci-fi epic Avatar, the highest-grossing film of all time. The next two Avatar sequels will use pioneering underwater motion capture. Cameron is also involving the Avatar setting designers in the writing process for the first time.

Despite Cameron’s success, his detractors are always front of mind when he is making a movie. "I always feel like I carry an audience around in my mind and I can hear them arguing with each other, " he says, adding that he can even anticipate their "nasty bullshit blog comments." Torturous though it may seem, Cameron uses these inner critics as a device to keep a sense of objectivity on a film shoot, asserting: "The audience don’t owe you anything. Their internal conversations will be the same as those blog comments."

In person, Cameron has an unassuming, relaxed manner, which belies the determination that propelled him to the top of the film business, and, more recently, to the bottom of the sea. Deep-sea exploration has been a fixation for him since shooting Titanic. In March, he dove 36,000 feet beneath the sea to the Mariana Trench, the deepest known place on earth. The findings of the underwater expedition will be the subject of an upcoming documentary he’s making for National Geographic. Cameron is somewhat irked by the popular notion that his deep-sea diving is providing the inspiration for the Avatar films. It is quite the contrary, he argues: "I need the movies to pay for my diving."

He is also keen to distinguish between the native 3-D photography of Avatar and 3-D conversion, which he calls "2-and-a-half-D." "There’s a lot of bad 3-D out there," he says. "It’s almost not even worth having to wear the glasses unless they really take the time and spend the money to make it right."

When done right, there is no movie that wouldn’t benefit from 3-D, Cameron believes. "It’s like the difference between mono and six-track sound."
But surely he doesn’t apply that notion to all-time greats, such as Casablanca? "It’s hard to say. It [Casablanca] might well have been better. If it had been made in color, which was possible at the time but they chose not to, it might have had even more power in its day."

Casablanca in color? Cameron is clearly unafraid of courting that heretic label. But perhaps once you’ve made the biggest films of all time and been to the deepest place on earth, there’s not much that can scare you.

Read also: 6 Lessons In Creativity From James Cameron

[Photo by Joel Ryan | AP Images]

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1 Comments

  • Jose Rubio

    His stories are usually atrocious mashups of genre tropes and filled with groan-inducing cliches. This is not a man who knows how to tell interesting stories; he just has the ability to bring together great, vast teams of visual effects artists.