Q&A: James Cameron
Part-scientist and part-artist, the Canadian filmmaker talks about his experience of combining science and arts.
- February 9, 2011
- By Lakshmi Pratury
Director of Titanic and Avatar, the two highest-grossing films of all time, Canadian filmmaker James Cameron is not only a film director, producer, and screenwriter, but also a science groupee and an inventor.
Born in Ontario, Canada, Cameron worked several jobs such as truck driving before he entered the film industry and today he is one of the highest grossing directors of all time in Hollywood, USA. Cameron is famous for making movies that are an amalgamation of science and arts.
Curator and host of the INK Conference, Lakshmi Pratury interviews Cameron at India’s first INK (innovation and knowledge) Conference, held in association with TED from December 10–12, 2010, at Lavasa, Maharashtra. The INK Conference is an annual event that aims to open minds to new possibilities by bringing together individuals with eclectic backgrounds under one roof. Technology Review India features the excerpts of the interview.
Pratury: How do you find a way to do the scientific exploration when you make movies?
Cameron: I am not a scientist but I have always loved science. I studied physics in college and there was a time when I was torn between sciences and arts. Obviously I went to the arts but I always wondered about that path not taken. When I was making the film Titanic, we actually did a deep ocean exploration of the wreck for that film and I got the bug and knew I wanted to do more of that. Over the next many years we did six additional expeditions using deep ocean robotics to do forensic studies of wreck sites like Bismarck. We also did a number of expeditions to the hydrothermal vents under the sea. So instead of a typical paradigm of a documentary company piggybanking on a grant-funded science cruise or expedition in progress, we actually get a film funding, set up our expeditions, invite scientists to participate with us, and then film their activities and do documentaries about their processes.
I really believe that the human salvation lies in finding the truth about the natural world and our world through scientific method and so I am not a scientist rather I am a science groupee. What I wanted to do with the Titanic and Avatar was to try to make science appealing and even aspirational, specially to the kids and specifically to those working in the U.S. where we are falling behind in science and technology, engineering and math. I tried to kindle curiosity in kids about science and actually show them a model of scientists—as people of passion, people of great curiosity, great caring, understanding, and those as fully rounded people and not the geeks in white smarts that scientists are usually portrayed as in Hollywood films. I don’t think Hollywood has served science well and that’s what set me down to this path.
You have been involved in some of the most advanced deep ocean technologies. Tell us about some of your latest adventures at the depths of the ocean.
Only about two percent of the bottom of the ocean has been explored and imaged and the rest of it we understand only through roughly coarse data from the bathymetry and sonar images. So we don’t have an idea of what is down there. You have to go down and look. For example, biology and marine biology community had no idea about the chemosynthesis-based hydrothermal vent communities until they just happened to go and look down in the mid-ocean ridge. But they had the symmetry that showed some fog zones and that there might be symmetry of sea geology.
Very little is known about really deep trough systems—the subduction zones, Mariana Trench, Tonga Trench, and other trenches. We are building a vehicle in Sydney, Australia, to basically explore these deep trenches. It is a pilot and a one seater and so I and some of the other engineers will undergo the pilot training and we’ll flip a coin to see who goes first. It is quite challenging to build a vehicle that can function at that depth. It is much easier to build a hardware to go into space. It is 36,000 feet down there and so the vehicle has to withstand the pressure. The big technical challenge is that how do you make something float when it is being crushed by 16,000 pounds per square inch of pressure. The types of forms that you use, even at Titanic depth, don’t work as they crush. So we had to develop our own deep syntactic form that could work at full ocean depth. We had to study material science for the metal that we used for the pilot sphere. It has been four-years of engineering challenge. We are now over all of our big hurdles and are beginning to assemble the vehicle. We are confident that we would be making the dives anytime in the first quarter of 2011.
You create a system on your own for every movie you make. Where did this excitement of building it on your own come from?
I was making robots from cardboard boxes when I was a kid. I always had this in me that when I can imagine a machine and how it works, I have to go build it. I am not satisfied with just the thought experience. I have to build it to see if I was right and if it would really work and that’s where systems that we use have come from.
Have you changed over the years since Titanic?
I think so. I am mellower than I was. The expeditions taught me something about leadership and team building that I didn’t know before. The film industry doesn’t do that very well and certainly not from the chair of the director. There you get positive feedback for bad behavior. But the expeditions don’t allow that. When you are on a ship with a handpicked team, you are at sea and you depend on these other people to the extent of even your life. You treat them with respect and they treat you with respect. It gave me a different sense of how leadership works, specially in small teams and when you are innovating and when you are on a frontier. We certainly felt that on the expedition project. When I wanted to do Avatar I took those lessons and I think I applied them most of the times.
Avatar is a visually stunning film. Where does that trait come from or how have you developed that aspect?
You are talking about the science, engineering, and all that. That has always been a counter point for me to the art side. That was my dilemma in college. I was an artist who could draw, paint, and write. I didn’t know where all this was going. I was able to synthesize all this into a single set of tasks as a filmmaker. I can synthesize the technical aspects with the artistic process. I enjoy the process as it involves painting, writing, and working with talented artists. Normally, for an artist, the end would be drawing, painting, or writing, but for me, these are the starting processes. If I would have become a writer, a novel or a play would be the end product, but now it’s the beginning of a long process. So I use all of those impulses, each one of which individually could have been a career.
How do you deal with business?
When I started as a filmmaker, I didn’t have any clue about business. It was very adversarial process. It evolved with founding Digital Domain. I learnt it the hard way and realized that every movie is a startup. So now I see studios not as enemies but as partners who are working with enterprises.
Aren’t you interested in building a technology company in the non-digital domain?
I am very interested in renewable energy. What happens in the world at a global level in the next 15-20 years is going to be determined by energy and transitioning of energy startups and renewables. The challenge is how we incorporate all this into global economies and the way governments manifest their energy strategy. I want to do something in that sector. It’s not clear as to what I would do but I would put in my resources and focus my extracurricular energy here.
How do you define success?
I guess success is when people are listening and there are some measurable change in consciousness.
What do you think of India?
It’s interesting. I wanted to come to India for so long. I heard about the 4,000 years old culture, architecture, spiritualism, and mysticism of India. I find it really fascinating now that I have visited India. It’s the energy of the place and the rapidly changing high-tech modern India that fascinates me.