As one of the foremost filmmakers of our generation, screenwriter/director James Cameron has taken us to the nightmare world of killer cyborgs in ‘Terminator’, on a bug hunt for LV-426 in ‘Aliens’, aboard the doomed ocean liner for ‘Titanic’ and to the exotic planet of Pandora in ‘Avatar’.
Few people are aware of his incredible artistic skills displayed in decades of concept art, pre-production sketches, storyboards and technical blueprints created for his Hollywood movie projects, both produced and unproduced. Now, a luxurious new coffee table book from Insight Editions collects nearly fifty years of Cameron’s artwork dating back to his high school days in Ontario, Canada.
“Tech Noir: The Art of James Cameron(2021) is a stunning 392-page volume weighing nearly seven pounds, packed with never-before-seen pieces from the visionary creator’s personal archives and curated by Cameron himself with insightful comments for each work.
It is a unique exploration of the filmmaker’s daydreaming and developmental process, expressed using pencils, pens and paint prior to making casting choices or rolling the cameras. Beginning in the 1960s, Cameron was obsessed with monsters, aliens, and spaceships cramming the pages of notepads and sketchbooks. Cameron started in the film industry in the 1970s after his family moved to Southern California. He made money making one-sheets for movies and wanted conceptual art for Roger Corman B-movies that would further enhance his skills.
“Tech Noir” collects a fantastic array of private and commercial art by Cameron where the seeds of his blockbusters and unrealized projects were sown, from amateur monster competitions and ambitious space operas to the evolution of classic hits like “Terminator”, “Aliens” and ” Avatar.”
Space.com spoke to Cameron from his studio in Wellington, New Zealand, where he’s putting the finishing touches on “Avatar 2” to learn how art became the catalyst for a career of boundless imagination.
Space.com: Art for you never-realizeThe space opera project “Xenogenesis” in the early 1980s is extensively covered in the book. Why was that such a crucial part of your creative development and have you ever dreamed of reviving it in some form?
James Cameron: Well, I recently read the script and it’s actually not that bad of a story. There are some good ideas in there. Now, forty years later, it is fairly trodden ground. Nothing that other people haven’t done in bits and pieces, I guess. But you could tell I was fascinated by space travel and the enormous physical challenge of traveling to other star systems.
I was studying physics and astronomy in college and I realized how difficult it would be and how many spacecraft designs in movies were pretty erratic. So I came up with the idea for a spaceship that had the engine part far away because of the radiation and so on. I could just go down that nerdy rabbit hole figuring out the technology, and I think I’ve maintained that as a motif throughout my science fiction body of work.
My example that I use is the LEM, the Lunar Module. We had all those movies that showed rocket ships that were pointy and had fins on the bottom. And so they landed and went to other planets. When we finally got to the moon, we got into the most improbable-looking device that a few decades of Hollywood designers never expected. But if you understand why it was, it makes perfect sense technically. So I thought in my science fiction shows I’m going to start with the engineering and let the design lead, and then we’re going to build that.
While I’m not really into “Xenogenesis”, the way I’ve formulated my work process is still what I practice today unless I’m doing something really imaginative. I give myself a lot of permission in “Avatar” and just remind people, “Hey, it’s a world of floating mountains, we can give ourselves permission to do improbable things.”
Although even there I had a reason for the floating mountains, that Unobtanium was a Type 2 superconductor and the Meissner Effect flux pinning would keep them off the ground if there was a magnetic field of sufficient strength. Yet for the average viewer it is a world of floating mountains. If that doesn’t give you permission to do what you want, then I don’t know what does.
Space.com: “The Abyss” is often a neglected Cameron classic that was a groundbreaking film in so many ways. What can you tell us about concept art created for it and will there ever be a high-definition 4K transfer?
cameron: Yes, we are done with the transfer and I wanted to do it myself because Mikael [Salomon] did such a nice job with the cinematography of that movie. It’s really, really beautiful cinematography. That was before I started asserting myself in lighting and asking the cameraman to do certain things. I would compose with the camera and choose the lenses, but I left the lighting to him. He did a remarkable job on that film that I now appreciate better than I did, even when we were making it.
I would also like to point out that once he looked at the dailies from the first day of the underwater lighting and that he went out and learned to dive. He came in the following Monday morning, the worst diver in the world, but he reinvented underwater lighting. He went for indirect lighting and he made everyone do things that were not only outside their comfort zone, they had never even thought of it. Suddenly, the underwater shots begin to conform to the surface photography.
So I recently finished the high definition transfer a few months ago, so presumably there will be Blu-rays and it will be streaming with good transfer from now on. I appreciate what you said about the movie. It didn’t make a lot of money in its time, but it seems to become very popular over time. The designers were Ron Cobb on one side and Steve Burg on the other, the chief designer of the NTIs, the non-terrestrial intelligence, the look of their city and bodies and faces. Steve was a man I worked with on “Terminator 2” afterward. He was still quite young at the time and quite new to design.
While Ron Cobb was pretty well seasoned. He had done “Blade Runner” and “Alien” and worked with me on “Aliens”. Ron did all the experienced technique of the underwater drilling rig. I’m sure there were people who saw the movie and thought we were just going to shoot on one of those underwater oil rigs that they have. What they don’t! But it looked real enough that you believed it was an actual facility. It looked like the real deal if there ever was such a thing.
Steve, of course, had to be completely imaginative and use very flourishing design language. I used the same motif as with ‘Aliens’, namely to cast seasoned artists for different design cultures. So there’s the human technology culture and then there was the alien culture.
Space.com: You said in “Tech Noir” how instrumental Jack “King” Kirby was to you as a young artist. What role did comics play when they were growing up in Canada and Orange County, California?
cameron: For me it was Marvel Comics specifically, and I think this really was the Golden Age of creation for Marvel. This was the period when Spider-Man came on and The Hulk came on and X-Men were new on the scene at the time. And I’m talking about when I was 14, 15, 16, in the late 1960s.
I loved comic books, it was a great way to learn how to draw. There was an artist who drew some of the early Spider-Man comics named Steve Ditko. And he did these great hands, just beautifully sculpted. And there were other artists who seemed to specialize in different things, like gestures. I just thought the Marvel artists were doing the interesting stuff for the most part. Jack Kirby was of course so versatile. He made alien machines that… I mean, where did that come from?
So I was inspired by all of that. This is at a time when science fiction in television and movies was still stone-aged in terms of that kind of broad-gesture design. So you had to look at fantasy art and there was no internet. You would see it in magazine covers. Frank Frazetta and artists like Kelly Freas. That’s why I always liked the science fiction paperbacks, because they had the good art. These days you can go online and spend days, weeks, years looking at all the fantasy art out there. But at that time there was very little of it. So you’ve studied them all and you’ve learned from them.
You can see a Kirby influence in my drawings. You can see when I’m deliberately trying to channel Frazetta with the brawny guys and gestural moves with battle axes and swords. I know all my reference points there as there were only a handful of world class artists. Today there is such a proliferation of them. It’s amazing how fantasy and science fiction art, both fan art and people doing it professionally, has just exploded.
“Tech Noir: The Art of James Cameron” is now available.
follow us on twitter @Spacedotcom or on facebook.