As one of the preeminent filmmakers of our generation, writer / director James cameron took us to the nightmarish world of the killer cyborgs in “Terminator”, to search for bugs on LV-426 in “Aliens”, aboard the cursed liner for “Titanic” and to the alien planet of Pandora in “Avatar” .
But few are aware of his incredible artistic skills exhibited in decades of concept art, pre-production sketches, storyboards, and technical plans created for his Hollywood film projects, both produced and non-produced. . Today, a new luxury book from Insight Editions brings together 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“Tech Noir: The Art of James Cameron“(2021) is a breathtaking 392-page volume weighing nearly seven pounds, filled with unpublished material from the visionary creator’s personal archives and curated by Cameron himself with insightful commentary for each work.
It is a unique exploration of the filmmaker’s daydreams and the development process expressed using pencils, pens and paints before any choice of casting or camera shooting. Beginning in the 1960s, Cameron was obsessed with the monsters, aliens, and spaceships that cluttered the pages of notepads and sketchbooks. Entering the film industry in the 1970s after his family moved to Southern California, Cameron made money making film sheets and wild concept art for B movies. of Roger Corman who would further perfect his abilities.
“Tech Noir” brings together a fantastic range of private and commercial art by Cameron where the seeds of his blockbusters and unrealized projects have been sown, from amateur monster contests 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 is putting the finishing touches on “Avatar 2” to find out how art became the catalyst for a career of limitless imagination. .
Space.com: Art for your never-realizeed The “Xenogenesis” space opera project in the early 1980s is featured extensively in the book. Why was this such a crucial part of your creative development and have you ever dreamed of resurrecting it in some form or another?
James Cameron: Well I just read the script recently and it’s actually not such a bad story. There are some good ideas in it. It’s a pretty busy field now, forty years later. Nothing others have done in pieces, I don’t think so. But you could see that I was fascinated by space travel and the enormous physical challenge of traveling to other star systems.
I studied physics and astronomy in college and enjoyed how difficult it would be and how many models of spaceships in the movies were quite fancy. So I had the idea of ââa spaceship with the engine section far away because of radiation and so on. I could just go down that nerdy rabbit hole to figure out the tech, and I think I’ve kept that as a motif throughout my sci-fi work.
My example I am using is the LEM, the lunar module. We had all these movies that showed pointy rockets with fins at the bottom. And that’s how they landed and went to other planets. When we finally got to the moon, we went into the most unlikely device that had never been anticipated by decades of Hollywood designers. But if you understand why this was so, it makes quite logical technical sense. So I thought in my science fiction shows, I’m going to start with engineering and let that guide the design, and that’s what we’re going to build.
Although I don’t really do “Xenogenesis”, the way I have framed my work process is still the way I apply today, unless I am doing something completely whimsical. I give myself a lot of permissions in “Avatar” and I just remind people, “Hey, it’s a world with floating mountains, we can give ourselves permission to do improbable things.”
Although even there I had a rationale for the Floating Mountains, that Unobtanium was a Type 2 superconductor, and the Meissner Effect flux pinning would keep them above ground if there was a magnetic field of sufficient strength. Yet, for the average viewer, it’s a world with floating mountains. If that doesn’t give you permission to do whatever you want, I don’t know what does.
Space.com: âThe Abyssâ is an often overlooked Cameron classic that was a pioneering film in many ways. What can you tell us about the concept art created for this and will there be high definition 4K transfer at some point?
Cameron: Yeah, we finished the transfer and I wanted to do it myself because Mikael [Salomon] did such a great job with the cinematography on this movie. It’s really, really beautiful cinematography. This was before I started asserting myself in terms of lighting and asking the cinematographer to do certain things. I would compose with the camera and choose the lenses, but I let him have the lighting. He did an amazing job on this movie which I enjoy better now than I do even as we were doing it.
I would also like to point out that he took a look at the dailies of the first day of underwater lighting and went out and learned to scuba dive. He came the following Monday morning, the world’s worst diver, but he reinvented underwater lighting. He went for indirect lighting and got everyone to do things that weren’t just outside of their comfort zone, they never even thought about it. Suddenly the underwater shots start to measure up to the surface photography.
So I just finished the high definition transfer a few months ago, so there will probably be some Blu-rays and it will stream with a proper transfer from now on. I appreciate what you said about the film. He didn’t make a lot of money back then, but he seems to be well appreciated over time. The designers were basically Ron Cobb on the one hand, and Steve Burg on the other, who was the lead designer of NTI, the non-terrestrial intelligence, the look of their city, their bodies, and their faces. Steve was a guy I worked with on “Terminator 2” after that. He was quite young at the time and relatively 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 of the manned technology of the subsea oil rig. I’m sure there have been people who saw the movie and thought we just went and filmed on one of those underwater oil rigs that they have. What they don’t do! But it looked real enough that you thought it was a real setup. It looked like the real deal if there had ever been such a thing.
Steve of course had to be completely whimsical and use a very flourishing design language. I used the same pattern I did on âAliens,â which involves choosing seasoned artists to create different design cultures. So there is the culture of human technology and then there was the alien culture.
Space.com: You mentioned in “Tech Noir” how instrumental Jack “King” Kirby was to you as a young artist. What role did comics play growing up in Canada and Orange County, California?
Cameron: For me in particular, it was Marvel Comics, and I think it was really the golden age of creation for Marvel. This was the period that Spider-Man appeared and The Hulk appeared and the X-Men were new to the scene at that time. And I’m talking about when I was 14, 15, 16 in the late 60s.
I loved comics, it was a great way to learn to draw. There was an artist who drew some of the early Spider-Man comics named Steve Ditko. And he made these amazing hands, just beautifully sculpted. And there were other artists who seemed to specialize in different things, like gestural movement. I just thought Marvel artists were mostly doing cool stuff. Jack Kirby, of course, was so multi-talented. He made alien machines that were … I mean where did it even come from?
So I was inspired by all of that. This is a time when science fiction in TV and movies was still in the Stone Age in terms of this kind of broad gestural design. So we had to turn to fantastic art and there was no Internet. You would see it in the magazine cover paintings. Frank Frazetta and artists like Kelly Freas. That’s why I always liked science fiction paperbacks, because they had good art. Today you can go online and spend days, weeks, years looking at all the fantastic art out there. But there were very few at the time. So you have studied everyone and you have learned from them.
You can see a Kirby influence in my drawings. You can see when I intentionally try to channel Frazetta with the muscular guys and the gesture movement with battle axes and swords. I know all my benchmarks there because there were only a handful of truly world class artists. Today there is such a proliferation. It’s pretty amazing how much fantasy and sci-fi art, both fan art and professional, has just exploded.
“Tech Noir: The Art of James Cameron“is available now.