James Cameron's Craft: Blockbuster Special Effects You might define the films of James Cameron by listing two characteristics: state-of-the-art special effects and huge box-office receipts. Cameron discusses the special effects in his films Titanic, The Terminator and Avatar — and explains how he came up with his innovative filming techniques.

James Cameron's Craft: Blockbuster Special Effects

James Cameron's Craft: Blockbuster Special Effects

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James Cameron worked with a Cirque du Soleil choreographer to make his Na'vi characters appear graceful onscreen. WETA/20th Century Fox Corp. hide caption

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WETA/20th Century Fox Corp.

The official budget of Avatar was $237 million, with an additional $150 million built in for promotional activities. Mark Fellman/20th Century Fox Corp. hide caption

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Mark Fellman/20th Century Fox Corp.

The official budget of Avatar was $237 million, with an additional $150 million built in for promotional activities.

Mark Fellman/20th Century Fox Corp.

James Cameron was working as a truck driver in 1977 when he quit his job and, in his words, "started making little films."

Those "little films" got the attention of someone working for Roger Corman, the producer and director known as the "King of the Bs" — as in B-movies. Corman, who has over 100 low-budget films to his credit, including Little Shop of Horrors, Attack of the Giant Leeches and Last Woman on Earth, taught Cameron the basics of creating special effects with almost no money — lessons that Cameron then applied to his blockbusters Titanic and Avatar.

"What you learn in those early films is that your will is the only thing that makes the difference in getting the job done," Cameron tells Terry Gross. "It teaches you to improvise and to never lose hope — because you're making a movie, and the movie can be what you want it to be ... it's not in control of you; you're in control of it," he says.

"Even though visual effects are not what we use now — there's no film, or glass painting," Cameron says, "the basics of storytelling don't change."

Avatar, Cameron's latest box-office hit, was conceived in the mid-'90s, years before the high-tech special effects and cameras Cameron used to create his virtual world existed.

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"Avatar comes from a childhood sense of wonder about nature and reading sci-fi and imagining other worlds," says Cameron. "I grew up in a little town in Canada and spent all of my time in the woods, hunting snakes and frogs and doing drawings of protozoa."

The film, the first in history to gross more than $2 billion worldwide, takes place on the fictional moon Pandora. The people of Pandora — a fictional tribe called the Na'vi — inhabit a lush, pristine rain forest untouched by industrialization. When humans discover that the Na'vi live above a very valuable, very rare natural resource, they travel to the moon to mine the mineral, and the film's main character, a paraplegic marine named Jake Sully, manipulates a genetically engineered human/Na'vi hybrid as a way of learning more about the indigenous culture.

The film combines different genres — the Western, the sci-fi film, the war flick — all of which, Cameron says, were consciously chosen.

"The Iraq stuff and the Vietnam stuff is there by design — and references to the colonial period are there by design," says Cameron. "At a very generalized level, it's saying our attitude about indigenous people and our entitlement about what is rightfully theirs is the same sense of entitlement that lets us bulldoze a forest and not blink an eye. It's just human nature that if we can take it, we will. And sometimes we do it in a very naked and imperialistic way, and other times we do it in a very sophisticated way with lots of rationalization — but it's basically the same thing. A sense of entitlement. And we can't just go on in this unsustainable way, just taking what we want and not giving back."

Cameron says that Avatar is also a comment on "the huge gap or shortfall between what you can imagine and what you can actually do."

"We go from this state as children where we don't know what we can't do. You fly in your dreams as a child, but you tend not to fly in your dreams as an adult," he says. "In the Avatar state, [Jake] is getting to return to that childlike dream state of doing amazing things. ... In a funny way, it's actually kind of a comment on the way we find expression for our imagination."

This interview originally aired Feb. 18, 2010