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James Cameron Discusses 3D Movies, Sea Exploration at Beijing Film Festival

Film director James Cameron walks with his wife Suzy Amis on the red carpet during the opening ceremony of the second Beijing International Film Festival at the National Convention Center in Beijing, April 23, 2012.
Film director James Cameron walks with his wife Suzy Amis on the red carpet during the opening ceremony of the second Beijing International Film Festival at the National Convention Center in Beijing, April 23, 2012.

Hollywood film director James Cameron is visiting China for the Second Annual Beijing International Film Festival. He sat down with VOA’s Stephanie Ho to talk about creating films for international audiences, the value of shooting movies in 3D and his deep sea diving adventures.

Listen: Stephanie Ho's interview with filmmaker James Cameron

VOA: How do you respond to critics of this renewed interest in 3D who call it a gimmick?

Cameron: You're asking the wrong person about whether 3D is a gimmick. I'm actually shocked people ask me that because if I thought it was a gimmick, I'd be the biggest idiot in history, to be so dedicated to developing 3D equipment. Every single thing I've ever said in public about 3D is about quality, is about the quality of the experience - whether it's a converted film like Titanic, or whether it's a native-shot film. So, it's really, I think, about delivering a quality product to the screen, and why is 3D better? Well, because we're not a race of Cyclopes. We have two eyes. We see the world in 3D. It's the way we perceive reality. Why wouldn't our entertainment be in 3D? It's absolutely not a gimmick. It's an alignment, it's a calibration of our entertainment industry, to the way in which we actually sensorally perceive the world. And, it's absolutely inevitable that eventually, all or at least most of our entertainment, will be in 3D. I'm not talking about next year. I'm talking about 20 years, because that's how long it took to do color. People used to ask, “should this movie be in color? Should that movie be in color? These are okay in black and white, over here, but these should be in color.” We don't ask that question any more. Color is ubiquitous. All entertainment is shot in color, and I believe that eventually all entertainment will be shot in 3D.

VOA: What do you say to Chinese filmmakers who wonder why they have not made films that have had broad international appeal as movies that Hollywood has produced?

Cameron: I encounter this in every country I go to, and at least as of right now, for global consumption, Hollywood - you've got to think, Hollywood is not a place. It's not even American product. Who are the practitioners in Hollywood? I'm Canadian. John Woo's Chinese. You have French, German, Italian, filmmakers are from everywhere. They're not American filmmakers. It just happens that Hollywood is kind of the arbitrary ad-hoc base of operations for global movie-making. It could have been anywhere, and it may ultimately shift to somewhere else, but that's where it is right now. And, every country I go to, they say, well, why isn't our cinema accepted around the world, the same as Hollywood movies. Well, it's because filmmakers go from your countries to Hollywood to make movies for global consumption.

Zoe Saldana and Sam Worthington in a scene from "Avatar"
Zoe Saldana and Sam Worthington in a scene from "Avatar"
VOA: When Avatar was released in China, some viewers believed the story had a political message that was objectionable to the Chinese government. Did that affect you or the film in China at all?

Cameron: It wasn't something I would have censored myself on, before the fact. I was making certain statements in that film about our relationship with the natural world, and how we're essentially destroying it and treating it as an inexhaustible resource, which it's not. And how we need to have the same respect for our natural world here in earth, as the Na'vi do on their world, on Pandora. That's really the message of that film. And I think that resounds in every country around the world, but especially in industrialized countries like China and countries of Europe and North America and so on, places where - especially in China, I guess, where resource depletion is a major issue, where pollution is a major issue, and so on, and the quest for eight percent a year GDP growth, and so on. It's not a condemnation of anybody. It's really a caution that we all, collectively on this planet, need to do two things. We need to respect Nature, conserve it, care for it, because it's our life support system.

And two, we need to respect each other, we need to see each other, understand each other, so that we can work together, because the challenges that we face as a species now can only be solved by international cooperation, for the first time. That's never been the case before, in all of human history. We are, right now, in a turning point in human history, where we face collective, global problems, with respect to climate change and resource depletion, and so on, that are going to require cooperation at levels that have never existed before. Can we do it? I don't know. There's very little evidence that we can. But on the other hand, we're pretty smart and pretty resourceful.

VOA: While Avatar had more universal themes, do you ever consider consciously incorporating more specific ideas or characters in your movies, such as a Chinese theme, to appeal to Chinese audiences?

Cameron: I don't do that. Look, I don't contour my films for France, or China or Russia, or really the U.S. market for that matter. I just have certain perspectives, as a human being. I have certain artistic statements I want to make. I work in English because that's about the only language I speak fluently. Second choice might be Italian, but that might be even more limiting. But certainly if I do a Chinese co-production, which again is only a possibility, that's something we're looking at, but if I were to do that, it might be in a little more “front of mind,” some of the issues that are really on the minds of Chinese people.

The point is, and with respect to the Avatar films, we all face the same issues - where we going to get our resources? Where are we going to get our energy? What are the consequences of unrestrained growth? And what are we going to do about it? And how do we live in a world that had limits on what Nature can provide to us, in terms of sustainable services? How are we going to do this? I think China faces those problems at least as much as North America and Europe. So all the developed nations are facing exactly the same issues. Brazil now is joining the pack. This is the major problem of the 21st century. We all face it together. So, I don't think I have to contour it to the Chinese people for it to be relevant here.

VOA: Are you surprised by the intensity of Chinese Avatar fans? Some have renamed a mountain here after one in the movie.

Cameron: It's interesting, I went back and checked on that, and they did, and it happened when Avatar had only gone about a third of the way through its run here. It was already a huge hit and there was a lot of interest in it, and I guess it was the local tourism board down there, actually, renamed a mountain - it's in Hunan province -- it's not someplace I've been to, but I've certainly seen all the photographs - we used them as reference for the design of our mountains in the film, the floating mountains as well, although I don't think they really float.

VOA: What can we expect from your Mariana Trench project?

Cameron: We've basically explored the surface of our planet. We've even explored acoustically and with autonomous vehicles and so on, a lot of the deep ocean, but not the deepest spots, the so-called hadal depths. Hadal depths are from 20,000 feet down to 36,000 feet, and they exist in these trenches. So, what are these trenches? Did someone go in and gouge them out with a big backhoe? No. The trenches exist because they're sites of subduction, where one crustal plate is moving underneath another, and pushing down. And that's why they're so deep. And there two reason why it's important to explore them.

One, is the biology story, which is there are unknown organisms down there, that exist on our planet, that we don't know about, essentially alien creatures, and science needs to know more about them. The other story is the geology story, because where these plates move over each other, there's enormous releases of energy. And we see it with the earthquakes, all around the Pacific Rim. And if you look at the tsunami that was so devastating in Japan recently, that started in a subduction zone, in one of these hadal trenches. So, we need to know more about this. And there isn't enough government money to do the research.

Governments just aren't spending money on the research. So, part of the purpose of the project was to show that a small, dedicated team of engineers, working privately, could create a vehicle that exceeded the reach and capability of all the governments in the world. All the previous deep-diving, human-occupied submersibles were built by governments. You know, the French Nautile, the Russians' Mir 1 and Mir 2, the American Alvin, which is not even in service right now, and now there's a new Chinese Jiaolong Sea Dragon vehicle, which will be the deepest diving of that class. But it can't go as deep as we would.

VOA: Without giving anything away, what was the most amazing thing you saw down there?

The film is going to be less about what was seen, because what was seen was a very, to the eye, a very barren lunar desolate place. It's all about the details, of what life is there? What is the science story? What does it mean when you see these tiny amphipod creatures down there that have adapted to a pressure that's more intense than any where else in the world? And what did it take to build the vehicle - to design it, build it, test it and get it to function at that depth, for a little group of people working in a tiny commercial space in Sydney, Australia? It's really a story of the technical accomplishment, what it took, to do that, as much as the science story.

Well, yeah, did we discover new species? Yes, absolutely. And we had a team of scientists there, and they were very excited about what was found in the samples that came back. But I think what people are going to be most interested in is seeing what it took in human terms to actually go to a place that remote - in the same way that you'd be interested in a story about going to the moon.

VOA: There have been reports that you, American oil billionaire Ross Perot and Google co-founder Larry Page are planning an asteroid mining enterprise.

Cameron: I think it was a little bit overstated, my involvement. I'm not an investor in that. I'm on the advisory board, because I'm interested in lots of projects with respect to entrepreneurial space, as well as space, science and research. In the past, I've worked with [NASA's] Jet Propulsion Laboratory, I was a very tiny part of a big team that developed the camera system that is on the Mars science lander, the laboratory, the Curiosity Rover, that's in transit right now, to Mars. So, the idea of mining asteroids is a great idea.

We're going to be a resource-depleted planet, that's going to be voracious for metals and rare earth minerals and things like that, which we can harvest from within the solar system. And there's logic to getting them from asteroids, because you don't have to lift them out of a gravity well - like, mining on Mars doesn't make sense, mining on the moon makes very little sense, because you have to lift everything out of a gravity well to get it to earth. But anyway, that's something that I'm only a tiny part of.

VOA: But your name is on it, as an advisor?

Cameron: I was asked, as I left a party a few days ago, if I would be on the advisory board, and as I walked out the door, I said, “sure.” That is the sum total of my involvement to date.