James Cameron - Building Better Worlds
Total Film|February 2022
In new book Tech Noir, James Cameron opens his extensive archives and reveals the hand-drawn designs that fuelled his earliest work. Currently in post-production on Avatar 2 in New Zealand, Cameron hopped onto Zoom with Total Film to discuss the art of moviemaking.
By Jordan Farley

HIGHLY EVOLVED

Cameron spent most of his childhood in Chippawa, Canada doing two things: reading science-fiction novels and drawing. The influences on, and evolution of, his style – plain to see in Tech Noir – led directly to a career as a filmmaker.

“In those early years, you could see a steady progression of technique. That’s just about drawing all the time, and you get better. Your eye-to-hand coordination; your ability to convey lighting, composition and so on. It peaked in my mid-twenties. And then my artistic expression shifted to cinema. But all those lessons were there. How do you compose an image? What has the greatest narrative impact? I go back to learning to draw from comic-books. I think that’s a really good proving ground for any artist that wants to go into filmmaking. I went in through the side-door of design. I worked as a production designer and art director for a while. And then I jumped to directing. But I think that all of that drawing and painting technique… I know that I was really exercising all those muscles long before I got to have a crew and cameras and actors. When I was doing all that drawing and painting, I think I was secretly – or not even consciously – wanting to be a filmmaker. But it wasn’t easy back then. When I was in my twenties, if you had a camera, and you could record sound, and you could synchronise the sound and the picture, that was a big deal. Today, we don’t even think twice about it, the tools are quite democratised. But filmmaking seemed a little far away from me. I was just building muscle, doing drawings and paintings, and telling stories visually.”

WORLDS APART

Before The Terminator, Cameron developed ambitious, planet-hopping sci-fi Xenogenesis. Only a 12-minute proof-of-concept short was produced, but many of the film’s ideas, evident in Cameron’s original art, found their way into his later work.

“I just read the script recently, and it’s actually not that bad a story! You could see that I was fascinated by space travel, and especially the huge physical challenge of travelling to other star systems. I think I’ve maintained that as a motif throughout my science-fiction body of work. I thought: in my science-fiction films, I’m going to start with the engineering, and let that drive the design. So the way I formulated my working process [on Xenogenesis] is still what I apply today. I give myself a lot of permission in Avatar. I just remind people, ‘Hey, it’s a world with floating mountains.’ If that doesn’t give you permission to do anything you want, I don’t know what does. There’s a point where I like to have one little thing I can point to in every movie, and say, ‘I did that one.’ So in Avatar, it was the Viperwolf, which I had a very specific idea for, and the head of the Thanator. I said, ‘Alright, I’m going to distil this down to the essence of veracity.’”

NEW NIGHTMARE

In Cameron’s grungy genre classic The Terminator, the filmmaker coined a phrase that has been applied to much of his work – ‘Tech Noir’ – and designed the T-800’s iconic hyperalloy endoskeleton following a fateful fever dream…

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