James Cameron grew up in Chippawa Ontario. Every Friday, he would run to the pharmacy to pick up his allowance. He’d then race home, tear through the new comics, and take out a notepad and try to create his own. “I would never re-draw panels,”Cameron says Rolling Stone, “but I’d look at them and then do my own. That was always the process. Even at that time, I was trying to distinguish copying from original art.”
His art back then, which was also inspired horror and science-fiction films, also included a comic that he called Space MummyA strange pumpkin-headed creature and a cyclops fighting a dragon with swords. His collection grew over the years to include more advanced drawings, such as Albert Einstein’s and those of astronauts. It also includes early sketches of the Terminator and the Alien Queen, which he began making his own movies. Aliens, and even Jack Dawson’s drawings from Titanic.
Most of these works have never been seen by the public — but that will change, on December 14th, with the release of Tech Noir: James Cameron’s Art of James Cameron. The book features drawings from the filmmaker’s entire life, though it concentrates on work he created for his films. Cameron provides commentary for all of the art, and there’s a foreward by Guillermo Del Toro.
Cameron called us up from Wellington, New Zealand, where he’s hard at work on the upcoming Avatarmovies to talk about it. He also assured us that Avatar 2This year’s release is actually imminent, and will be completely different from the previous one.
How is New Zealand going?
Great. We’re living the dream down here. We were Covid-free for about 18 months, but now it’s in the country. It’s not effecting us in the country now other than we’re being cautious.
Why did you feel that now was the right time to share your art?
Maria Wilhelm was my colleague, and I was discussing the book with her. I can’t really take credit. Kim Butts and her friend Kim, a designer, created a show that included all of my deep ocean notes as well as technical drawings taken from the sub. That’s a touring show that’s in Edmonton, Canada, but it started in Australia.
I had some of my artwork included in the show. Titanic sketches. It was just created. “What else have you got?”It was as if, “I’ve got stuff going back to third grade, basically. A lot of design work done for the films, especially the early films. Like on Terminator, I didn’t have any money for a top designer, so I just drew everything myself.”
It was as if, “It’s all in boxes. You’d have to go through it.”Kim literally managed the entire mess. Kim literally went through the entire mess and photographed it all. You can see from what’s collected in the book that she included phone doodles and all sorts of back-of-the-envelope type stuff. I said: “You think there’s a book?”Raoul Goff, Insight’s founder, was a great friend. [Editions]Because we had worked together on a book called Exploring The Deep. He stated, “Hell yeah, there’s a book.”They just have to get on with it.
What made you want to save all of this stuff? Most people don’t have their art from high school, let alone third grade.
[Laughs] I don’t know. My art was always kept safe. It was just a record of my ideas and I didn’t think it would be of any value to anyone else. I just had a small box with all my artwork in it. I’d love to say “all of it,”But I saved only about half.
Did you ever consider becoming a comic book artist in your teen years?
Yes, absolutely. Marvel comics are the source of my art education. It is also influenced by the artists of that period. That’s how I learned to draw figures. As you can see, a lot of it was influenced by Jack Kirby. [Jim]Steranko and the guys, as well as Spiderman comics (and Fantastic Four comics).
You can find many drawings in the book from your 1979 short movie. Xenogenesis. It’s amazing to see, in 12 minutes and on a super low budget, all these ideas you later explored later when you had the means to make them into something more.
We didn’t know what we were doing — we were teaching ourselves filmmaking at the same time as we were doing it. It was ambitious, of course. Visual effects was what we were primarily teaching ourselves. I wasn’t wasting a lot of time on character development. We couldn’t afford actors. It stars Bill Wisher, who I later worked with on the writing. Terminator 2. He’s a screenwriter now. I don’t know if the young lady [Margaret Umbel]ever continued to act. I suspect not.
We were only interested in visual storytelling and visual narrative. It was. “How do we take our art and turn it into something?”We were using stop motion and painting on glass as well as all the tricks I’d read about in books. We tried to figure it out.
I was just looking at your Terminator drawings, and I was thinking it was such a clever idea — but it would be so hard to sell today since it wasn’t based on existing IP. Would you believe it would be impossible to sell the movie right now?
I’m not sure that a first-time filmmaker and writer could sell a wholly original idea. An established director can either choose a new IP or create it. You would need a slightly different combination.
It was simple: we did it for nothing back then. The film was produced for four million dollars less than the original budget. We tried every trick that we could, even some I had learned. XenogenesisRoger Corman, and all the things I have learned from him. It was easy because we did it cheaply.
The minimum requirements for visual effects are more important to audiences these days, I believe. We certainly couldn’t get away with a lot of those tricks now. We’d have to do it visually. On the other hand, the visual tools have become much more accessible than they were back in the early days. Digital Domain was founded in 1992. It required supercomputers to accomplish this stuff. It was huge graphics. These effects can now be done in fairly inexpensive apps for your laptop. If people are willing and able to work hard, they can achieve amazing effects. You can achieve this kind of effect with a very small budget.
It’s interesting in your drawings and early movies that women are often the center of the action, and not just eye candy as they were in most movies and TV shows of the era.
Yeah. Many of those drawings were drawn between the ages 14-18, so there was plenty of objectification. But I also think what you’re not seeing is [Alberto]Vargas girl pinup imagery. You’re seeing Amazon warriors and superheroes and that sort of thing, strong characters. You will also find portraits of women that are interesting.
I think I have always loved strong female characters in any form of fiction, comics included. I’d read a book a day back then, literally, since I was on a one-hour bus trip into town in the morning and back. I’d have two reading hours a day, every single day of high school. I’d read a book a day.
Do you think you really benefited by growing up before video games, before cellphones, before the Internet — since you were forced to use your imagination more and draw more instead of just staring at a screen all day?
I want to tell you “yes.” But I don’t want to take a holier-than-though stance of, “I was born back in the day when men were men, and we had more imagination.”Children today are more stimulated by imagination. Some young artists may feel overwhelmed by this stimulation. “I’ve got nothing to say since it’s all been said. Everything I can imagine in my head, I can already see. I can go somewhere in a game and see utopian worlds, dystopian worlds.”
We were hungry then for everything. Science fiction book covers, comics were very important…Movies didn’t come along that often that really blew you away with imagery. You had to design your own. It was the reading process for me. It was the reading process that I remember most clearly. Star Wars. I didn’t think, “Wow, this is something I never could have imagined.” I thought — and I don’t want to take anything away from George Lucas, because that single act of creation spawned a whole generation of visual effects movies and artists — but what I saw on the screen was what I had seen in my head already. I was watching space dogfights. I was witnessing laser battles. I could see stuff exploding. And I was listening to fast, electronic music — keyboards by Rick Wakeman, Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, really fast electronics stuff.
I used to love to play BattleshipWith a friend in high school math class, or when we were bored to tears in history class. The battleship that we made was a grid paper drawing of space ships, fighter craft, and stations. He’d signal across to me the coordinates and the weapon and I’d plot it on my graph. I would have been killed if he hit my battlecruiser. Our version of the scene was literally what we were doing. BattleshipAs a science-fiction movie.
[So} when Star Wars came along…of course I was blown away since nothing like that had ever existed before. But I was also blown away by how right I was. “Hey, that shit I was seeing in my head for the past few years, people are buying it! People are loving it! Maybe I better got off my ass and start doing something.” It was the kick in the pants for me to actually become a practitioner.
The Spider-Man drawings in the book for the movie you nearly made in the Nineties are fascinating. Do you regret the fact you didn’t get the chance to make it?
I don’t know. Look, it’s a very healthy franchise. Would I have done something so weird and twisted that it wouldn’t have taken off? I don’t know. I had a very specific take on it. Stan Lee liked it. He and I got to be fast pals around it. I’m not saying we were drinking buddies or anything, but he was always friendly with me and he enjoyed where I took it with the biological spinneret on the wrist being a metaphor for puberty. That’s because he’s not Spider-Man — he’s Spider-Kid. It took them a long time to catch up with that idea.
Do I regret it? No. I don’t regret much. I’m pretty happy with how things worked out. I think if I had done that, I wouldn’t have done Avatar, for example. That’s a complete act of creation from a blank page. There’s a point where you want to stop laboring in someone else’s house and get on with your own stuff.
I’m fascinated by your approach to sequels — Terminator 2 AliensTwo of the best sequels are ever. Are there any pitfalls you believe most filmmakers fall into when creating sequels to their films?
I think what you see with most sequels is they’re thinking..Harry PotterThis has sort of messed up the whole thing because everybody now thinks in seven or five parts. Maybe that’s not all bad if people want to see them, but get they get more risk adverse in how much they want to shake the tree of what the original one was. In a sense, they’re kind of getting high on their own supply. “Everybody loved our characters and our story, let’s do one just like it. Let’s continue those characters.”
That’s opposed to, “Let’s knock it over. Let’s knock over the beehive and see what happens.” AliensDifferent than Ridley [Scott]Though I tried to pay tribute to his cinematic style, it was not what I had in mind. But it’s a very different story starting from a very different premise — one of PTSD, one of potential revenge or facing one’s fears. It was more militaristic and action-oriented. It was very, very different.
The DNA of the original film was also used in the color palette, the creepiness, and how the camera moved. I was a student of his, but I told a completely different story. It’s the same thing with T2.I tried to keep the film’s style intact, but wrote it big enough to make the Terminator a hero.
It is essential to create an atmosphere that balances expectations with surprise. How do you give them what they want, but still take them somewhere they didn’t expect. It’s a tricky piece of business. I’m doing it again now with Avatar 2. I think I’ve found that balance. I might lose some people to the curves. [but]Others may be able to gain from my efforts. We’ll have to see.
I think people are assuming it’ll be the same general story as the first Avatar, even though that’s never been your approach.
Oh, it is so notThe same story as the original Avatar. In the rain forest, it is not a boy-girl relationship. It’s not that.
I can vividly recall the build-up and release of Titanic,When all articles were about it being over-budget and months late and that it would likely sink like the ship, It was the same for Avatar: “It looks weird. It’s just these blues creatures…”
Is there any part of your personality that enjoys people doubting you?
I just hope…all I’ll say is that I hope I have enough people betting against Avatar 2For it to be a success. [Laughs] So far, there doesn’t seem to be any dearth of them. If that’s part of the equation, then we’re well on track.
Is December 2022 the official release date?
It’s so firm. It would likely take a comet hitting Earth or a global pandemic. [laughs]It’s a crazy science fiction scenario, but it is unlikely to occur.
Und ist Avatar 3For December 2024, firm
Yeah. I would say that’s a good pin in the calendar for right now. We’ll see how Avatar 2What it does and where it takes you. Our original plan was to work parallel. A2 A3At the same time. Weta Digital already works on this issue. Avatar 3, so we’ll see how much bandwidth I have over the coming year to meet our schedule on A3.
Clearly, A2Priority is it. Once that is done, everything else will follow suit. The story is the priority. The main reason for the delay was my writing of four scripts. Literally, I wrote four shooting scripts. They are all there. They’re all in a file drawer. We’ve already shot A2 and we’ve shot A3 and we’ve shot a bit of four. But we’ve got to shoot the rest of four and all of five. These are ambitious and massive films.
But let’s talk about the art book. I don’t want this to just be a weaselly way of getting me to talk about Avatar. [Laughs]
That’s fair. Let me know about the TitanicThe book contains drawings. I don’t think most people realize just how many drawings you see in the movie were actually created by you.
Well, Jack’s portfolio was just me imagining that I was Jack at that point in time. I looked at some of the art of the time, but it’s just my drawing, my style, which would probably have been a little iconoclastic at that time. However, there was a lot more iconoclasm happening at that time with Picasso artists and others like them. This is something I mention in my film.
They were like art aficionados and they went with a lot of people. “Well, we happen to know where that Picasso is. It didn’t sink with the ship.” But it’s not, if you look carefully. It’s not Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. It’s painted as if it were a study or something in a series inspired by that one. It should be identifiable as Picasso. And so the art aficionados — they can go to hell. [Laughs]