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James Cameron - Telling stories in new ways

Oscar-winning director James Cameron is no stranger to revolutionising his craft. The Drum’s Stephen Lepitak catches up with the man behind Titanic and Avatar to discuss the impact of disruptive technologies on storytelling.

Having watched pretty much every film this man has ever directed (including Piranha Two: The Spawning) this reporter found the opportunity to interview the film director with the fearsome reputation a little unreal.

Expectations of a grumpy tyrant obsessed with his own visions – as has been repeatedly reported from his own sets – were in place, but in truth when James Cameron enters the press room at SapientNitro’s IEX conference he is relaxed, 
in good spirits and enthusiastic to talk about 
his craft. Cameron, who delivered the conference’s keynote address on his experience of storytelling, is a man who fully embraces the use of ground-breaking technology within his films as well as through his explorative dives to the wreck of the Titanic, and to even greater depths of the sea.

As he outlined in the keynote speech, disruptive technologies including motion capture techniques used in Avatar have taken film making to the “cusp of the possible”.

Cameron is known as a technological maverick in his movies, but is confident that the technology should be used purely for the purpose of storytelling and is confident that his use of 
special effects does not pull the audience out of being immersed in the worlds and environments he creates.

“The hardest thing for a filmmaker, when you’re watching a film you’ve been working on for several years and you know every frame, is keeping the objectivity of a new viewer who is seeing it for the first time. Every decision has to be made from a blank slate,” he explains.

Avatar, which saw the creation of an entirely computer-generated planet and its inhabitants through blue pixelated reactions of the actors playing the characters, has become the largest grossing film of all time, beating Cameron’s award-laden love story Titanic into second position since its release in 2009.

He reveals that the film makes the largest technological leap from others he had worked on. “No one could tell us how to do it, which made it worth doing for that reason alone. It was spooky, but we were three years and $350m in before I saw the first shot to convince me that we had a movie – and that’s not bullshit.”

Emerging technologies

Despite being open to technological advancements, Cameron is no fan of the second screen. “I want people to sit down, stop texting and watch the fricking movie,” he states with absolute clarity.

“That’s not to say that people will, but we should give them the choice. If they want to have peripheral information, if they want to be sharing and it’s not disturbing other people in a group viewing context, then by all means let’s explore that. I personally wouldn’t like it.”

Despite this, Cameron acknowledges the power of different trends in media consumption, saying: “If that’s the trend and it’s how people want to consume their fiction, then I’m all for it. The more we can enlarge the false reality that we create and give fans more access to it by whatever means, the better.”

When asked about his views on the forthcoming release of Google Glass, Cameron is unconvinced that it will impact on the cinema viewing experience, but believes that as a technological advance “it’s a step in the 
right direction”.

Nor does he believe it will have much effect on the evolution of storytelling. “Certainly there will be different types of stories that become associated with that and could see collaborative story involvement that has multiple stories and choices that are an overlay of fictional narrative and real world experience. People have been experimenting with this stuff for a long 
time. None of those things really fit the movie-making paradigm.”

He is convinced that the fundamentals of storytelling will remain true no matter which technological breakthrough is made. “That isn’t to say that there won’t be additional ways of telling stories with multiple storylines and I would look to those types to surround the movie which would be in the central position. You have to have a source that remains in the primary position, and that to me would remain movies.”

Where does product placement fit in with Cameron’s approach to storytelling? While he doesn’t believe that such a commercial strategy would work for any of his fantasy films, he says: “If I was working on a contemporary film then I’d product place the hell out of it. I would try and do it in an intelligent way where the campaign would be released in parallel with the movie.

“We did have that with Avatar – not any placement but we had product campaigns with McDonald’s, LG, Samsung and Coke Zero.”

Of those product campaigns, which he claims added around $100m to the Avatar marketing budget remotely, he says that the importance of such deals was to help cement the film and its title within the public’s consciousness in a very short space of time.

“To release a film that cost as much as it did, we had to build a brand in three months, which is why we pulled out all the stops for the promotional partnerships that we did.”

And the good news for those brands is that two more Avatar movies are currently in production, and are likely to be greeted even more gleefully by major brands looking to tell their own stories in chorus to Cameron’s latest vision.

Featured by The Drum