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#311 James Cameron

Wed Jul 12 2023
James CameronFilmmakingExplorationOceanTerminatorAvatar


This episode features an interview with James Cameron, the director of Avatar and other groundbreaking films. Cameron's unique approach to filmmaking and his passion for exploration are highlighted throughout the episode. From his early career struggles to his success with films like Terminator and Titanic, Cameron's dedication and refusal to conform have set him apart in the industry. The episode also delves into Cameron's personal life, including his love for scuba diving and his commitment to ocean exploration. Overall, the episode provides a comprehensive look at the life and work of James Cameron.


Cameron's Unique Approach

James Cameron's refusal to conform to industry norms and his dedication to challenging projects have been key factors in his success.

Passion for Exploration

Cameron's fascination with the ocean and his commitment to ocean exploration have influenced his filmmaking and personal life.

Career Challenges and Successes

From early career struggles to breakthrough films like Terminator and Titanic, Cameron has faced obstacles but ultimately achieved great success.

Attention to Detail and Innovation

Cameron's attention to detail and innovative use of technology, such as CGI, have set him apart in the film industry.

Personal Growth and Self-Driven Education

Cameron's intense work ethic and self-driven education have played a significant role in his career development.


  1. Introduction
  2. Eight Sleep and Special Situations in Private Markets
  3. James Cameron - Filmmaker and Adventurer
  4. James Cameron - Personal Life and Career
  5. James Cameron - Unique Individual and Early Career
  6. James Cameron - Passion for Filmmaking and Self-Driven Education
  7. James Cameron - Early Career and Rise to Success
  8. James Cameron - Breakthrough with Terminator and Career Success
  9. James Cameron - Challenges and Successes in Filmmaking
  10. James Cameron - Pioneering CGI and Success with Terminator 2
  11. James Cameron - Independence and Exploration
  12. James Cameron - Titanic's Success and Personal Projects
  13. James Cameron - Exploration and Future Projects


00:00 - 06:54

  • One of the most unique things about this podcast is that all the founders of the companies that advertise on it are listeners themselves.
  • There is a private Founders AMA feed available for enthusiasts who want to ask questions directly to the host.

Eight Sleep and Special Situations in Private Markets

00:00 - 06:54

  • The founder of Eight Sleep, Mateo, is one of the supporters of this episode and he and the host live in the same city.
  • Using Eight Sleep has improved the quality of sleep for the host by allowing him to change the temperature of his bed.
  • The host recommends Eight Sleep as a no-brainer investment for better sleep.
  • A friend named Jeremy recently appeared on an episode called 'Special Situations in Private Markets' which is highly recommended by the host.

James Cameron - Filmmaker and Adventurer

00:00 - 06:54

  • James Cameron, director of Avatar, made history by diving solo to the deepest point in Earth's oceans, known as Marianna Trench.
  • Cameron's rival Victor Viscovo claims to have gone deeper but Cameron disputes it as 'making shit up'.
  • Cameron is not only a filmmaker but also a scientist and adventurer with an explorer's instinct and capacity.
  • The original Avatar required numerous new technologies invented by Cameron including cameras, digital effects, and language creation for animated creatures.
  • For Avatar 2: The Way of Water, Cameron started from scratch again with new cameras and motion capture systems for underwater shooting.
  • Cameron enjoys difficult challenges and believes it gives him a tactical edge over other talented filmmakers.

James Cameron - Personal Life and Career

00:00 - 06:54

  • James Cameron is attracted to difficult projects and believes it gives him a tactical edge.
  • Cameron and his wife live in New Zealand and gave up their home in Malibu during the pandemic.
  • Cameron has no friends but doesn't mind being alone.
  • His Malibu compound was known for its survival features like fast cars, security team, and guns.
  • Cameron wakes up early, kickboxes, and takes pride in working on big-scale films.
  • Self-doubt is not something Cameron experiences often; he believes belief comes before ability.
  • While working as a truck driver, Cameron taught himself filmmaking by studying at the library.
  • The idea for Terminator came to him in a dream, as did many other film ideas.
  • Avatar's concept also originated from a dream and saved him from lawsuits.
  • Zoe Saldana points out that Avatar is unique compared to Marvel franchises due to being the vision of one person.
  • Cameron has a limp due to having one short leg but it doesn't slow him down.
  • He used to have a temper but now gets upset only twice a year after observing Ron Howard's behavior on set.
  • Despite his temper, Cameron inspires loyalty among his crew members.
  • The process of building Avatar films is complex and others would be insane to attempt it without the success of previous movies.
  • Cameron can do any job on set but clarifies that he's not better than others at those jobs.
  • He has directed only two feature films in the last 25 years due to focusing on real-world problem-solving through ocean exploration.
  • Cameron's career in ocean exploration nearly kept him away from directing a film ever again.
  • Cameron's longtime studio, Fox, almost didn't want to make Avatar.
  • An executive at Fox begged Cameron to shorten the film before its release.
  • Avatar made all the money and Cameron knew why - it was a groundbreaking adventure that left viewers emotionally drained.
  • After Avatar, Cameron took a break but eventually decided to continue making films because he is a storyteller.
  • Cameron wanted to go to space but declined an offer for a shuttle flight after the Columbia disaster.
  • Cameron has no regrets about not going to space and feels he saved his own life by choosing not to go on that mission.

James Cameron - Unique Individual and Early Career

00:00 - 06:54

  • James Cameron is an incredibly unique individual who is unapologetically extreme.
  • Cameron's career has been built on questioning accepted wisdom and believing in the power of the individual.
  • He has a sharp mind and is considered formidable by his peers.
  • Cameron demonstrated a knack for assembling large groups in service of his own goals from a young age.
  • He likely has a genius-level IQ and was an avid reader from childhood.
  • Cameron never felt the need to follow the herd and refused to give in to others' expectations.
  • His refusal to conform is seen as a massive advantage for founders.

James Cameron - Passion for Filmmaking and Self-Driven Education

00:00 - 06:54

  • James Cameron's refusal to conform to the thoughts of others is a massive advantage for founders.
  • Cameron's fascination with Jacques Cousteau and scuba diving started in high school.
  • He learned scuba diving military-style, which built his confidence and resourcefulness.
  • Cameron's dad supported his career choice as a filmmaker despite wanting him to become an engineer.
  • Seeing Stanley Kubrick's film '2001: A Space Odyssey' inspired Cameron to pursue filmmaking.
  • Cameron studied the film multiple times to understand how it was made.
  • Moving closer to Hollywood, Cameron attended Fullerton Junior College while working blue-collar jobs.
  • He taught himself screenwriting and immersed himself in filmmaking education at the library.
  • Cameron's high agency is evident in his intense work ethic and self-driven education.

James Cameron - Early Career and Rise to Success

00:00 - 06:54

  • At night, Cameron would hang out with friends who shared his interests in movies.
  • He would go to the library and photocopy graduate student theses on filmmaking subjects, essentially putting himself through a graduate course in visual effects.
  • Cameron sent a demo film called exogenesis to Roger Korman, who had launched the careers of many successful directors.
  • Korman's low-budget productions gave young filmmakers an opportunity to make movies that nobody else would give them.
  • Cameron started as a model builder but quickly took charge and became the art director of a film.
  • He assumed he could learn any job and didn't let doubt hold him back.
  • Cameron discovered that mediocrity in others presented opportunities for him to step up and take on more responsibility.
  • He convinced Korman to let him be the second unit director and eventually got recruited as a director for another movie called 'Porana 2'.
  • After being fired from his first directing job, Cameron found inspiration for 'The Terminator' in the dark recesses of his mind.

James Cameron - Breakthrough with Terminator and Career Success

00:00 - 06:54

  • James Cameron, at 27 years old, broke and depressed, gets hired to direct the Terminator.
  • Cameron finds writing to be a lonely and unforgiving process but does it anyways.
  • Despite economic challenges, they manage to finance the original Terminator movie.
  • Cameron has a Terminator-like work ethic, writing three scripts in three months.
  • Cameron forms a partnership with Stan Winston and co-founds Digital Domain.
  • Cameron establishes a hands-on working style on set.
  • The financial success of Terminator gives Cameron opportunities to choose his projects.
  • Working on Aliens, Cameron clashes with Pinewood Studios employees who don't love their work.

James Cameron - Challenges and Successes in Filmmaking

00:00 - 06:54

  • James Cameron had a negative experience working with the Pinewood crew, finding them lazy and arrogant.
  • Cameron believes in letting ideas marinate for decades before executing them.
  • Water and its mysteries have always fascinated Cameron, inspiring him to make movies like 'The Abyss'.
  • Cameron is attracted to hard challenges and avoids competition.
  • He designed and built a one-man sphere to dive to the Mariana Trench while making 'Avatar'.
  • Cameron discovered an abandoned construction project that became the set for 'The Abyss'.
  • 'The Abyss' involved building the largest underwater set ever made and required immense dedication from Cameron.
  • Cameron's work ethic was described as maniacal during the filming of 'The Abyss'.

James Cameron - Pioneering CGI and Success with Terminator 2

00:00 - 06:54

  • After a draining 18-hour day, Jim's commitment to the project and his physical abilities were beyond belief.
  • James Cameron started experimenting with CGI in 1988, working with Industrial Light Magic.
  • In 1988, it took nine months to produce 20 shots using CGI. In 2008, Cameron's crew produced over 2,000 shots in the same time period.
  • The compounding nature of Cameron's career highlights the benefits of finding one's life work early and sticking with it.
  • James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger benefited from a temporary suspension of industry norms for Terminator 2.
  • Cameron was offered $6 million to direct Terminator 2 at the age of 35. Arnold Schwarzenegger was given a $12 million Gulfstream jet as an incentive.
  • The first version of Photoshop was used to solve technical problems on Terminator 2.
  • Cameron has high standards and is known for repeating catchphrases during takes to ensure quality.
  • Quality always leads to financial success. Terminator 2 made $500 million after costing $100 million to make.
  • Cameron signed a $500 million multi-picture distribution deal with Fox, giving him more control over his films.

James Cameron - Independence and Exploration

00:00 - 06:54

  • James Cameron signed a $500 million multi-picture distribution deal with Fox, giving him more control and responsibility than a typical director.
  • Cameron founded his own special effects company, Digital Domain, to be part of the digital revolution in special effects.
  • Digital Domain raised $15 million from IBM and skipped opening an optical department, giving them an advantage over established effects companies.
  • Cameron is focused on his work and not interested in Hollywood gossip or industry power struggles.
  • He chooses movies based on themes that interest him and new territories he wants to explore.
  • The idea of doing something extraordinary inspired Cameron to make Titanic, viewing it as an exploration rather than just making a film.
  • Cameron charged his expedition to the Titanic as a marketing expense to gain attention for the film.

James Cameron - Titanic's Success and Personal Projects

00:00 - 06:54

  • James Cameron charged his expedition to the Titanic as a marketing expense for the film, realizing it would attract more attention than traditional promotion.
  • Cameron is known for his attention to detail and obsession with accuracy in his films, similar to Michael Jordan and Bernouro Nal.
  • Confidence is crucial in the face of doubt, as seen when President Bill Mechanic tried to instill doubts in Cameron's mind about Titanic's success.
  • Despite facing criticism and ridicule, Titanic became a massive success, earning almost two billion dollars.
  • After Titanic, Cameron took a break from feature filmmaking and focused on personal projects.
  • Cameron finds peace by diving deep into the ocean after finishing a movie.

James Cameron - Exploration and Future Projects

00:00 - 06:54

  • For Cameron, peace is found under the ocean.
  • He decompresses by going diving after finishing a movie.
  • The underwater world is an antidote to Hollywood because nobody knows who you are down there.
  • James Cameron dedicates himself to becoming an explorer for the next eight years.
  • He was underwater at the site of the Titanic on 9/11 and found out about the tragedy when he resurfaced.
  • Cameron questions where the spirit of discovery has gone in society.
  • He spent seven years exploring and working on new technology instead of making movies.
  • Cameron lets ideas simmer for decades before bringing them to life.
  • He wrote his first treatment for Avatar 12 years before starting work on it.
  • Cameron's ideas for Avatar date back to the 1970s, and he had drawings of it then.
  • In 1992, Cameron wrote a digital manifesto outlining his vision for filmmaking, including performance capture (motion capture).
  • To most of Hollywood, lifelike CG characters driven by human performances wouldn't be obvious for another decade after Cameron's manifesto.
  • The last chapter of the book focuses on the building of Avatar and Cameron's belief that every idea is a work in progress.
  • Cameron shares knowledge and information generously with others in his industry, like Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg.
  • Cameron moved to New Zealand to use Jackson's special effects company for Avatar 3 and Avatar 4.