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James Cameron — childhood drawings and dreams inspired Hollywood blockbusters

“The Art of James Cameron” is at the Cinematheque Francaise until January. 

Cameron says he first drew an Avatar character when he was 19
Cameron says he first drew an Avatar character when he was 19 - Copyright AFP Sam Yeh
Cameron says he first drew an Avatar character when he was 19 - Copyright AFP Sam Yeh
Francois BECKER

James Cameron, the mastermind behind “The Terminator”, “Aliens” and “Titanic”, has an exhibition opening in Paris Thursday showcasing his lesser-known skills with pencil and paper.

“The Art of James Cameron” is at the Cinematheque Francaise until January.

The 69-year-old met AFP there to discuss the childhood origins of his films, his thoughts on artificial intelligence and a few teasers about the third “Avatar” film, due in 2025.

How important was drawing when you were a child?

Drawing was everything. It’s how I processed the world. I was reading, watching films, taking in all the storytelling, and I just had to tell my own. I remember very distinctly (aged eight or nine), I went to see the film ‘Mysterious Island’. And I was so amazed by the big creatures and the giant crab, but I didn’t go back and draw ‘Mysterious Island’. I drew my own version with different animals.

I remember in high school being very serious about disciplining myself to draw in all kinds of different styles. I created my own comics. I thought maybe I’ll write a novel and illustrate it. They didn’t have graphic novels yet, but I was thinking in panels… so I was really thinking in shots. The transition into filmmaking was really pretty easy.

How did these early drawings inspire your films?

(My first ‘Avatar’ drawing) was done when I was 19 so that was 50 years ago. That drawing led me to think about a bioluminescent world and I wrote a story about that in the late 70s. In the early 90s, when I founded a visual effects company and we were trying to do computer-generated characters and creatures, I needed a script about another planet, and so I went back and found that artwork, and that became ‘Avatar’ — in 1995.

‘The Terminator’ image came to me in a dream. I was sick, I had a high fever, and in that fever dream, I saw a chrome skeleton emerging out of a raging fire. I drew it right away. And then I thought: ‘How did he get in the fire? What did he look like before?’ And I knew instinctively that he looked human before the fire.

I had dreams as a kid of going through watery tunnels at high speed, kind of like a circulatory system, that wound up in the abyss. I had a nightmare about being in a room where the walls were covered with hornets that would kill me, and that became the scene in ‘Aliens’ where she runs into the egg chamber.

Are kids today losing these skills due to technology?

I don’t think we can go back, but I think it’s important for people to unplug from time to time. It’s important to spend time in nature, to spend time with yourself, just quiet the mind. People are very creative but if you’re constantly being bombarded by other people’s creativity with movies, games, with the constant flood of media, it tends to stunt it.

Drawing is becoming a lost art. Even the artists that work with me now, they don’t usually put pencil to paper. They think of me as the dinosaur because I come in and draw something. But I have to feel it in the lines and textures.

Are you worried about artificial intelligence?

The problem is there’s multiple flavours of AI, some of which aren’t here yet. Artificial general intelligence is a giant question mark. I think we should definitely pump the brakes on that.

In terms of generative AI… that’s really interesting because the data they scrape is all the imagery that human beings have ever created. We’re putting our subconscious mind out into the world, and it’s coming back to us through these images. That’s why they’re so compelling, because it’s really us writ large. We’re going to learn something about consciousness and about art.

But there’s no original. There’s no paint on a canvas. You can use gen-AI to create music, but you can’t take it on the road. I think the human artist becomes more important. Music is going to have to be about the actual moment of performance.

Can you give us an update on ‘Avatar 3’?

In movie three, we’re in a transitional state between fighting for the survival of Earth and of Pandora. We’re exploring other cultures on the planet, and solidifying the bad-guy story. There’s a bunch of new things that happen to the Sully family… and we drop in one important new character who then becomes a major part of the story. You’ve got to remember this is a story arc that goes from one all the way to five, and we’re right in the middle.

But I can promise this: Whatever you think it’s going to be, it isn’t.

Written By

With 2,400 staff representing 100 different nationalities, AFP covers the world as a leading global news agency. AFP provides fast, comprehensive and verified coverage of the issues affecting our daily lives.

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