The DGA’s 75th Anniversary celebration of game-changing directorial excellence continued on Tuesday, September 27 with A Tribute to James Cameron. Director Jon Favreau (Iron Man, Cowboys and Aliens) and 1st AD Josh McLaglen (Titanic, Avatar), joined Cameron for a Q&A celebrating his award-winning career moderated by 75th Anniversary Committee Chair Michael Apted.
“Cameron is a galvanizing force and has stretched the boundaries of film by not only reinventing the way we watch movies, but how we create them” said Apted, welcoming the audience to the DGA theater complex in Los Angeles. After the participants took the stage, the discussions were fueled by clips from Cameron’s body of work hand-picked by Favreau and McLaglen.
Favreau’s selections highlighted Cameron’s Aliens (1986), The Abyss (1989), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), and his IMAX 3D documentary Aliens of the Deep (2005). Speaking of Cameron’s impact on his own work, Favreau expressed admiration in looking at these films and picking them apart to see the innovation from shot to shot. “For the first time CGI was used to act,” said Favreau, “It’s the cherry on the sundae.”
Cameron was quick to reply “the cherry was all we could afford,” explaining that on 1986's Aliens there were no composites: the effects were achieved completely in-camera.
The major risk for The Abyss was the fact that a key scene hung entirely on unproven technology. It was the first time those kind of special effects were used on film. “That felt like the future,” said Cameron. ”I wanted to put something on screen that the audience hadn’t seen before. I remember 2001: A Space Odyssey was a transformative experience for me, and I wanted to do for other people what I’d experienced as a kid.”
Terminator 2: Judgment Day was revealed to be another product of the technical limitations of its time, containing only 42 shots of CG—a fact that elicited audible surprise from the audience.
As Cameron’s 1st AD, McLaglen had a unique perspective on his selection of clips, having worked on the DGA Award-winning epic Titanic (1997) and the DGA Award-nominated Avatar (2009). McLaglen chose the pivotal sinking scene from Titanic as well as two from Avatar — the first introduction of the avatar and the banshee battle on Pandora.
Recalling the challenges of creating moments that would become special effects milestones, McLaglen marveled at what he called the “intensity and intelligence” of working on a Cameron set. Not only did the sinking of the Titanic employ upward of 2,000 extras, the film also contained over 6,000 stunt shots. “That scene is largely live action,” explained McLaglen, and only a select few shots actually used special effects.
“That human touch is what grounds the effects,” said Cameron who emphasized the importance of the ‘human touch’ and its function on Avatar. “You have to have something real camera—you have to feel the human hand.”
Cameron explained he first wrote the treatment for Avatar in 1995, but it wasn’t until he saw the performance capture technology used in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings that he was inspired to action. “I thought, ‘If they can do that, then I can make Avatar.’”
Avatar is now famous for its pioneering use of 3D technology, which required the invention of two new cameras: a new 3D camera for the live action, and a virtual camera for performance capture. “It was three years before we were able to see the first close up of our leading lady,” said Cameron. “It was like building the first airplane and watching it fly.”
Cameron explained that he wanted to celebrate the imagination of nature as well as human imagination. “Emotional quality wasn’t compromised [by the technology], it was enhanced. With performance-capture, I’m looking at the acting. Much of the job of being a director is recognizing the magic when it happens. For me, it’s not about being a ‘visionary.’ You’re just there to tell the truth.”
Cameron was also quick to acknowledge the pivotal role of the directorial team. “You pick your team carefully. A director doesn’t do it, the team does it….The most joyful thing is the business of collaboration. I put a lot of emphasis on the team… Avatar was a family and I’m looking forward to getting that family back.”
In rounding out the evening, Apted asked Cameron what was his personal game-changer. “Star Wars,” replied Cameron. “That’s what converted me from being a spectator to a practitioner. I was allowed to dream with my eyes wide open and it was suddenly possible to get the images in my head on to the screen.”