Monday, November 29, 2010

James Cameron: ‘explorer by heart, filmmaker by trade’

The Transformational Canadians program celebrates 25 living citizens who have made a difference by immeasurably improving the lives of others. Readers were invited to nominate Canadians who fit this description. Over several weeks, a panel of six judges will select 25 Transformational Canadians from among the nominees.

Nominations remain open until November 26. Submit yours today.

James Cameron, film director and producer, has been selected as one of 25 Transformational Canadians.


In executive suites across the country, James Cameron’s much-publicized September visit to Alberta must have set tongues a-clucking. After calling the province’s oil sands a “black eye” for Canada, the supremely confident Hollywood director had been invited to come see them for himself.

Mr. Cameron ended his brief tour – which included meetings with local politicians and aboriginal leaders – by calling on the Alberta government to do a better job of managing oil-sands pollution. To his credit, he showed a sophisticated knowledge of current conservation efforts. And as a native of Chippawa, Ont., Mr. Cameron couldn’t be written off as a Yankee megastar delivering Canadians a patronizing lecture on the environment.

For the creator of the Terminator series and the groundbreaking 3-D blockbuster Avatar – which has a strong environmental message – ecological collapse is a central feature of the apocalyptic vision that drives his art.

“All life on Earth is connected, in ways which human science is still grappling to understand,” Mr. Cameron told author Rebecca Keegan in an interview for her 2009 book The Futurist: The Life and Films of James Cameron. “We have taken from nature without giving back, and the time to pay the piper is coming.”

Mr. Cameron articulates his grim outlook in films that are visually transporting but anchored in gritty and believable characters. His work has changed how people see the world – and transformed cinema. It’s also made him one of the planet’s most powerful and successful directors, with some US $6 billion in box-office receipts. Avatar and 1997’s Titanic – which won Oscars for best picture and best director – are the two top-grossing movies in history.

Anyone who runs a business has good reason to respect Mr. Cameron, 56, who got where he is through ingenuity and hard work. By all accounts fearless, he’s wrung incredible feats from his crews and actors – though not always kindly. He’s also survived for most of his career without the services of an agent.

Transplanted to California when his family moved there in 1971, Mr. Cameron broke into film by working as a model maker for low-budget icon Roger Corman. His first directorial success came in 1984 with The Terminator, which earned US $78 million on its slender US $6.4 million budget. With female lead Sarah Connor – played by Linda Hamilton, the fourth of Mr. Cameron’s five wives – this sci-fi classic ushered action-movie heroines into the mainstream.

A polymath who is equal parts artist and engineer, the famously exacting Mr. Cameron went on to push the boundaries of filmmaking technology. In the 1989 deep-sea epic The Abyss and 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day, he and special-effects shop Industrial Light & Magic brought realistic computer-generated characters to the big screen.

In the early 1990s, Mr. Cameron co-founded Digital Domain, which is now a leading provider of computerized visual effects for feature films. After following up Titanic with a string of underwater documentaries, he revitalized and revolutionized 3-D movies by taking Avatar audiences to the luminous planet Pandora. A blend of live action and computer animation, Avatar was shot using a new 3-D camera system that Mr. Cameron helped invent.

“I’m an explorer by heart, a filmmaker by trade,” he explained to Ms. Keegan. “There is nothing that Hollywood can offer more tantalizing or powerful than the chance to explore a place nobody has ever seen.”

For someone with a reputation as a tyrannical boss, the gun-loving auteur sounds positively moderate on the subject of leadership. “I think Canadian leaders tend to, you know, be less personal, less mud-slinging. I’m not saying they’re devoid of it, but I think they’re less prone to dirty politics,” Mr. Cameron told The Globe’s Josh Wingrove during his Alberta visit. “We’re just a little bit more decent in the way we get things resolved.”

On that note, Mr. Cameron also admitted that he used to be hotheaded and rude on the set – a leadership style he now regards as counterproductive. “You have to inspire people to do their best by respecting them,” he said. “Even going into a room where you know going in that you’re probably going to disagree with almost everything the other person says, if you respect them, you’ll still find some way to be constructive. And if you don’t, then you can yell at them.”

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