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‘Avatar’ director James Cameron’s Paris exhibition displays childhood drawings

PARIS (AFP): James Cameron, renowned for his directorial prowess in films like “The Terminator,” “Aliens” and “Titanic,” is unveiling an exhibition in Paris, highlighting his lesser-known talent in the realm of pencil and paper.

“The Art of James Cameron” is at the Cinematheque Francaise until January.

The 69-year-old met Agence France-Presse (AFP) there to discuss the childhood origins of his films, his thoughts on artificial intelligence (AI) and a few teasers about the third “Avatar” film due in 2025.

“Drawing was everything. It’s how I processed the world. I was reading, watching films, taking in all the storytelling, and I just had to tell my own. I remember very distinctly (aged 8 or 9) going to see the film ‘Mysterious Island.’ And I was so amazed by the big creatures and the giant crab, but I didn’t go back and draw ‘Mysterious Island.’ I drew my own version with different animals,” he said.

“I remember being very serious about disciplining myself in high school to draw in different styles. I created my own comics. I thought maybe I’d write a novel and illustrate it. They didn’t have graphic novels yet, but I was thinking in panels … so I was really thinking in shots. The transition into filmmaking was really pretty easy,” he added.

His early drawings also inspired his Hollywood blockbusters.

“(My first ‘Avatar’ drawing) was done when I was 19, so that was 50 years ago. That drawing led me to think about a bioluminescent world, and I wrote a story about that in the late 1970s. In the early 90s, when I founded a visual effects company and we were trying to do computer-generated characters and creatures, I needed a script about another planet. So I returned and found that artwork, and that became ‘Avatar’ – in 1995,” he said.

A page from
A page from “Tech Noir: The Art of James Cameron” book that shows Cameron’s drawings in the “Avatar” franchise. (Photo courtesy of Amazon)

“The Terminator image came to me in a dream. I was sick; I had a high fever, and in that fever dream, I saw a chrome skeleton emerging out of a raging fire. I drew it right away. And then I thought, ‘How did he get in the fire? What did he look like before?’ And I knew instinctively that he looked human before the fire,” he elaborated.

“I had dreams as a kid of going through watery tunnels at high speed, like a circulatory system, that wound up in the abyss. I had a nightmare about being in a room where the walls were covered with hornets that would kill me, and that became the scene in ‘Aliens’ where she runs into the egg chamber,” he remarked.

Cameron laments the decline of traditional drawing methods, expressing a preference for the tactile experience of putting pencil to paper and highlighting the value it adds to artistic expression.

“I think it’s important for people to unplug from time to time. It’s important to spend time in nature, to spend time with yourself, to quiet the mind. People are very creative, but if you’re constantly being bombarded by other people’s creativity with movies and games, the constant flood of media tends to stunt it. Drawing is becoming a lost art. Even the artists who work with me now don’t usually put pencil to paper. They think of me as the dinosaur because I come in and draw something. But I have to feel it in the lines and textures,” he said.

He also expressed concerns about the various forms of artificial intelligence, particularly artificial general intelligence and advocated for caution in its development:

“The problem is there are multiple flavors of AI, some of which aren’t here yet. Artificial general intelligence is a giant question mark. I think we should definitely pump the brakes on that.”

A page from
A page from “Tech Noir: The Art of James Cameron” book that shows Cameron’s drawings. (Photo courtesy of Amazon)

“In terms of generative AI, that’s really interesting because the data they scrape is all the imagery that human beings have ever created. We’re putting our subconscious mind out into the world, and it’s coming back to us through these images. That’s why they’re so compelling: It’s really us writ large. We’re going to learn something about consciousness and about art,” he said.

“But there’s no original. There’s no paint on a canvas. You can use gen-AI to create music but can’t take it on the road. I think the human artist has become more important. Music will have to be about the actual moment of performance,” he added.

Describing “Avatar 3” as a transitional phase in the overarching story, he said:

“In movie three, we’re in a transitional state between fighting for the survival of Earth and Pandora. We’re exploring other cultures on the planet and solidifying the bad-guy story. There are a bunch of new things that happen to the Sully family, and we drop in one important new character who becomes a major part of the story. You’ve got to remember this is a story arc that goes from one to five, and we’re right in the middle.”

“But I can promise this: Whatever you think it’s going to be, it isn’t.”