James Cameron on New Art Book, The Future of the ‘Avatar’ Franchise
As a kid growing up in Chippawa, Ontario, James Cameron used to run to the drugstore every Friday after getting his allowance and blow it all on Mountain Dew and Marvel comic books. 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 tells 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 from back then, which was also inspired by horror and science fiction films, included a comic he called Space Mummy, a freakish pumpkin-headed creature, and a cyclops battling a dragon with a sword. Over the years, his collection grew to include more sophisticated drawings like Albert Einstein, astronauts, and the human anatomy. And once he started making his own movies, it features early sketches of the Terminator, the Alien Queen from 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: The 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 Avatar movies to talk about the book. He also assured us that Avatar 2 is indeed coming out next year, and that it will be very different than the original one.
How are things going down there in New Zealand?
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 like now was the time to share all your art?
I was talking to my colleague Maria Wilhelm, who was the architect behind the book. I can’t really take credit. Working with her friend, the designer Kim Butts, they put together a show of all my deep ocean notes and technical drawings from the sub. That’s a touring show that’s in Edmonton, Canada, but it started in Australia.
Some of my artwork was put into that show, including some of my Titanic sketches. It just came up. “What else have you got?” I was like, “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.”
I was like, “It’s all in boxes. You’d have to go through it.” Kim literally curated the whole mess. She went through and literally photographed everything. 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?” We had a good relationship with Raoul Goff at Insight [Editions] because we had done a book with him called Exploring The Deep. He said, “Hell yeah, there’s a book.” And they just got to work on it.
What compelled you to save all this stuff? Most people don’t have their art from high school, let alone third grade.
[Laughs] I don’t know. I just always saved my art. I never really thought it would be valuable other than to me, just as a kind of record of my chain of ideas. I literally had a box and just shoved all my artwork into it. I’d love to say “all of it,” but I probably saved just about half of it.
In your teenage years, did you ever think about working as a comic book artist?
Yes, absolutely. My art education comes from Marvel comics, it comes from the artists of that time. That’s how I learned to draw figures. You can see a lot of it is influenced by Jack Kirby and [Jim] Steranko and those guys, and Spiderman comics and Fantastic Four comics.
The book has many drawings from your 1979 short film 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. Of course, it was wildly ambitious. What we were mainly teaching ourselves was visual effects. I wasn’t wasting a lot of time on character development. We couldn’t afford actors. The actor in it is Bill Wisher; I worked with him later on the writing of Terminator 2. He’s a screenwriter now. I don’t know if the young lady [Margaret Umbel] ever went on to acting. I suspect not.
We were just interested in visual storytelling, visual narrative. It was, “How do we take our art and turn it into something?” We were using stop motion and paintings on glass and all the tricks I had read about in books. We were trying to figure out how to do it.
I was 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. Do you think it would impossible to sell that movie now?
I’m not sure that a first-time filmmaker and writer could sell a wholly original idea. I think you can have an established director select a new piece of IP, or create one. It would require a slightly different combination.
The key to it back then was we just did it for nothing. The movie was made for four million dollars below the line. We were pulling out every trick we could think of, including some I learned on Xenogenesis, and everything I learned working for Roger Corman. The trick to it was we just did it cheap.
I think audiences are a little more selective these days in terms of the minimum requirements for visual effects. We certainly couldn’t get away with a lot of those tricks now. We’d have to do it visually. But on the other hand, the visual tools are much more democratized now than they were in the early days. When I founded Digital Domain in 1992, it required practically supercomputers to do that stuff. It was giant graphics. Now you can do them in relatively cheap apps on your laptop. So if people are willing to put in the time, they can do pretty incredible effects today. I want to think you can do that sort of thing pretty low budget today.
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. A lot of those drawings were done between the ages of 14 and 18, so there was a fair amount of objectification going on there. But I also think what you’re not seeing is [Alberto] Vargas girl pin-up type imagery. You’re seeing Amazon warriors and superheroes and that sort of thing, strong characters. There are portraits of women as interesting people mixed in.
I guess I just always liked strong female characters, whether that was in comics or science fiction novels that I was reading. 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 say “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.” I think kids today have a lot more imaginative stimulation. It could have the effect of giving some young artist an almost overwhelming sense that, “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 for anything then. 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 create your own. For me, it was the reading process. I remember very distinctly when I saw 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 seeing space dogfights. I was seeing laser battles. I was seeing stuff blowing up. And I was listening to fast, electronic music — keyboards by Rick Wakeman, Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, really fast electronics stuff.
I used to play Battleship with a friend of mine in high school in math class or when we were bored to death in history class. The battleship we did was, we took grid paper and we drew space destroyers and space stations and fighter craft and all that sort of thing. He’d signal across to me the coordinates and the weapon and I’d plot it on my graph. If he hit my battlecruiser, I was toast. We literally were doing our version of Battleship as 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 and Aliens are two of the greatest sequels ever. What pitfalls do you think most filmmakers fall into when they make sequels?
I think what you see with most sequels is they’re thinking...Harry Potter kind of messed it all up because now everybody is thinking in five parts or seven 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.” Aliens was different than what Ridley [Scott] did, though within it I tried to pay homage to his cinematic style. 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 highly militaristic, it was much more action-oriented. It was a very, very different film.
At the same time, I tried to use the DNA of the first film in terms of the color palette, the spookiness when it needed to be spooky, how he moved the camera. I went to school on him, but I told a different story. It’s the same thing with T2. I tried to honor the style of the first film, but just write it large, and turn it on its head and make the Terminator a hero.
I think you have to create this dynamic equipoise between the audiences expectations and the element of 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 may lose some people in the curves, [but] I may gain others. 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 not the same story as the first Avatar. It is not boy meets girl in the rain forest. It’s not that.
I have a vivid memory of the build-up to the release of Titanic, when all the articles were about how it was over-budget, months late, and would probably sink like the ship. It was the same with Avatar: “It looks weird. It’s just these blues creatures…”
Does any part of you almost enjoy people doubting you, so you can turn around and surprise them?
I just hope…all I’ll say is that I hope I have enough people betting against Avatar 2 for 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 the release date of December 2022 firm?
It’s so firm. It would probably take a comet hitting the Earth, or for example, a global pandemic [laughs], just a wild science fiction scenario out of the blue, for that not to happen.
And is Avatar 3 firm for December 2024?
Yeah. I would say that’s a good pin in the calendar for right now. We’ll see how Avatar 2 does and where it takes us. Our original plan was for us to work in parallel on A2 and A3 at the same time. We are, to some extent: Weta Digital is already working on Avatar 3, so we’ll see how much bandwidth I have over the coming year to meet our schedule on A3.
Clearly, A2 is the priority. We get that right, and everything else will fall like dominoes in its own time because the story is all there. Part of the big delay was me writing four scripts. I literally wrote four shooting scripts. They all exist. 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 gigantic and hugely-ambitious 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. Tell me about the Titanic drawings in the book. 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. But there was a lot of iconoclasm going on at that time with Picasso and artists like that, which I even mention in the film.
A lot of people, like art aficionados, they went “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. We wanted it to be recognizably Picasso. And so the art aficionados — they can go to hell. [Laughs]