JAMES FRANCIS CAMERON
The Early Years
James Francis Cameron, the son of Shirley, an artist and nurse, and Phillip Cameron, an electrical engineer, was born in 1954 in Kapuskasing, Ontario Canada, a little town just north of Niagara Falls (He revoked his application for American citizenship after Bush won the election in 2004.).
He grew up in Chippawa, Ontario (now part of the city of Niagara Falls). At an early age, Cameron's creative interests gravitated toward fantasy. Stacks of comic books, with a particular preference for Marvel titles like Spider-Man and The X-Men, lay all over his room.
And on the weekends Jim and his siblings and friends would decamp to the local Niagara Falls cinema. Given his mother's influence, it came as no surprise when Cameron, by age twelve, had become a fairly good artist and announced to anyone who would listen that he was gonig to "be a comic-book artist" when he grew up. Comic books carried the young James Cameron into Stamford Collegiate High School where his interest in comic-book heroes took a sudden turn to science fiction.
"I would have to say that in my youth I was an absolutely rabid science fiction fan. I read all the classics, all the old Ace paperback novels. I was really into people like Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, and Kurt Vonnegut. When I read science fiction I saw stuff in my head that I had never seen in films." His father was an engineer for a paper company; his mother brought up five children, and told stories of racing stock cars and joining the women’s auxiliary of the Canadian Army. Jim was the oldest, the ringleader of his siblings and the other kids in the neighborhood.
“There was always some new thing that absolutely needed to get done, whether it was building a fort or an airplane or launching rockets. “We made it in the papers once, for a U.F.O. sighting over a hot-air balloon that we built and launched at night that was powered by candles.” His hero was Jacques Cousteau, and although he lived four hundred miles from the ocean, he became obsessed with scuba. He learned to dive in Buffalo one February in a Y.M.C.A. pool.
At fourteen, Cameron saw the movie that made him want to make his own: Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” the first cinematically exquisite treatment of what had traditionally been B-movie material. “I saw all these cool spacecraft and I wanted to know how the visual effects were done,” he said. “I started building my own models of spaceships, from the ‘2001’ model kit and the ‘making-of’ book, which was quite thick and well researched.
When James Cameron was seventeen, his father got a job in Orange County - Southern California, which thrilled James, because by that time he was intent on becoming a filmmaker, and he was happy to be closer to Hollywood. He had left Canada without a high-school diploma, but later graduated from high school with a better-than-typical grade point averge... He was torn between two career paths, arts and science. He was outstanding in both areas and felt he could make a satisfying life in either arena.
In 1971, he moved to Brea, California where he studied physics at Fullerton College while working as a precision tool-and-die machinist and, later, a truck driver. “My dad was a college graduate,” he said. “But, see, I didn’t want to do the things he thought I should—you know, something good, like engineering.” While he studied at California State University, Fullerton, Cameron used every opportunity to visit the film archive of USC. To the surprise of many people, although Cameron had a large educational background in the natural sciences, he chose a philosophy major from The University of Toronto in 1973.
Cameron says of his time there that he was, "completely self taught in special effects. I'd go down to the USC library and pull any theses that graduate students had written about optical printing, or front screen projection, or dye transfers, anything that related to film technology…if they'd let me photocopy it, I would. If not, I'd make notes." Cameron's grades in physics and engineering at Fullerton College were good, and he appeared comfortable in the campus environment. But he admitted on more than one occasion that he was torn between the hard realities of science and the potential freedom of the arts.
"I decided I was going to be a scientist," he recalled. He announced his plans to his family and friends in 1973, shortly after enrolling in Fullerton College. Cameron decided to major in physics and English with an engineering minor. Cameron would go to great lengths to find creative outlets amid the onslaught of academics that often seemed contrary to his basic state of mind. With barely enough money for food and rent, Cameron would often wind up on the doorstep of family friend Susan Gaede, eager to borrow and play with her camera.
James Cameron struggled with higher-level math and became more interested in becoming a writer. At the age of 20, he dropped out of Fullerton College shortly before the fall 1974 semester began. But rather than sampling life outside of campus, he slipped into a period of lethargy: drinking a lot of beer, sampling other substances, and doing a lot of writing on an ever-present clipboard and yellow writing paper. When Cameron was not actually making [amateur] movies, he could usually be found reading or writing at a cramped table in their equally cramped living room.
When he was twenty-three, married a woman who worked as a waitress at a Bob’s Big Boy. In archetypal terms, this was his period of exile and self-denial, the refusal of the call. “I just became this blue-collar guy,” he said. “But I was constantly thinking as an artist, so I’m painting, drawing, writing, thinking about visual effects and filmmaking.”
Ideas were flowing at a fast pace. He was in a constant state of hyperspeed. And it did not stop when it was time to play. When Cameron read Syd Field's book Screenplay, it occurred to him that integrating science and art were possible. Him and his friends raised money and rented a camera, lenses, the film stocks, studio and shot his amateur movies in 35 mm. To understand how to operate the camera, they dismantled it and spent the first half-day of the shoot trying to figure out how to get it running. Cameron continued to thrash around a filmmaking career through 1977. He made his movies and showed them to family and friends.
However, he made no attempt to get them into the hands of the people who might help him get a foothold in the industry. During that period, Jim would inevitably respond to any questioning of his supposed lack of professional drive by insisting that he just wasn't ready. However, the reality was an inner frustration at the fact that the state of the art of moviemaking had not caught up with the fantastic scenarios that were constantly playing out in his head.