His first exposure to filmmaking came while he attended the California State University in Fullerton, from where he'd frequently visit the film archive of UCLA. After dropping out he took a variety of jobs and wrote in his spare time. Inspired by a viewing of Star Wars in 1977, he decided to enter the film industry. He began as a miniature model maker with Roger Corman's studio, and later ended up as special effects director on John Carpenter's Escape from New York. He was hired to do special effects for Piranha II: The Spawning in 1981, but ended up in the director's seat after the first director abandoned the project. After arriving at the studio, he discovered that the movie was under-financed and that a majority of the crew were Italians who couldn't speak English.
During the predictably torturous filming of Piranha II, Cameron had a nightmare about a robot hitman sent from the future to kill him. Based on this, he wrote the script for The Terminator, lifting story material from Harlan Ellison's Outer Limits stories "Demon with a Glass Hand" and "Soldier." When no production company wanted to let him direct, Cameron founded Helmdale Productions and persuaded Orion Pictures to distribute the film. A relatively low-budget film at $6.5 million, The Terminator became a success, grossing a total of $78 million worldwide while gathering positive reviews and providing a Breakthrough Hit for the creator and a breakout role for Arnold Schwarzenegger as the titular murderous cyborg. Meanwhile, Ellison noticed the plagiarism and successfully sued for some money and an acknowledgment in the film's credits. Meanwhile Cameron was involved in writing a draft for Rambo: First Blood Part II, which was heavily modified for the film.
Cameron next worked on a sequel to Ridley Scott's Alien, a film he was a big fan of. While filming in England, he repeatedly clashed with the crew, who considered him a poor substitute for Scott, especially over their practice of taking regular breaks that slowed down production and their taunting of his wife's role as producer. This caused initial cinematographer Dick Bush to be fired after about a month over Creative Differences, to be replaced by Adrian Biddle. The dispute culminated in a walkout after Cameron fired a cameraman due to a clash over lighting the xenomorph nest ; Cameron's wife managed to persuade the crew to return to work. These repeated disruptions forced the crew to work at a breakneck pace to finish the film before its release date, and composer James Horner was forced to write the score without seeing the completed film and record it in an outdated studio in about four days. Due to the lack of time, Horner was forced to reuse some motifs from previous scores, and Cameron had to hack it in editing to match the film without any input because Horner was busy elsewhere.
In spite of the troubled production and Executive Meddling which resulted in the removal of some footage for the theatrical edition , Aliens went on to become another huge success, receiving universal critical acclaim (being constantly referred to as an Even Better Sequel), a cover and article dedicated to it in Time Magazine and a total profit of $131 million worldwide. Aliens also holds the distinction of being the first science fiction movie to gather seven Academy Award nominations, including Best Actress for Sigourney Weaver, and even picking up Oscars for Best Visual Effects and Sound Effects Editing, in a period when science fiction movies were largely ignored and not taken seriously by the Academy.
His next project was The Abyss, the story of an oil-rig crew that discovers otherwordly creatures. It was considered to be one of the most expensive films of its time, and required cutting-edge effects technology and filming at depths of up to 12 m. Despite the production running overbudget, it recouped its investment. This time, critical reaction was lukewarm compared to his previous highly acclaimed films. This was largely attributed to more Executive Meddling and the removal of various scenes that made the film's plot difficult to follow, but Cameron has since revealed that he cut those scenes himself over the objections of the 20th Century Fox chiefs because he felt the special effects weren't up to par. Cameron subsequently re-inserted the deleted scenes in the 1993 special edition release of the movie after he felt that technology progressed sufficiently for them to be properly realised, a move that made the film more coherent and has generally improved audiences' and critics' opinion of the film in retrospect.
After The Abyss, a long dispute over the rights to The Terminator was solved when they were bought by Carolco. Production began on a sequel, called Terminator 2: Judgement Day. The sequel was even more expensive than The Abyss, with a budget of $100 million and innovative use of CGI and special effects to create the liquid metal T-1000 model. It was universally acclaimed and broke box office records, earning a total of $519 million worldwide and four Academy Awards (Best Visual Effects and Sound Effects Editing again, plus Best Makeup and Sound).
After Terminator 2, Cameron started pursuing projects in different genres compared to the science fiction/action films he did previously. His first such project was True Lies, a remake of the French comedy La Totale which had been suggested by Schwarzenegger. Much like The Abyss, the film was a blockbuster success but once again drew a lukewarm critical reaction.
The director's next major project was a movie based on the sinking of the Titanic, a subject he had been interested in for a long time. Thanks to his obsessive attention to detail, the production ran massively overbudget and overschedule. Eventually released in December 1997, Titanic became the film with the largest box office gross in history, a record that has since been broken by Cameron's next film Avatar. The movie also won Cameron his first Academy Award for Best Director and Best Picture. However, this movie is the Love It or Hate It entry in Cameron's body of work, polarizing fans severely, which gets worse if one is a fan of the Terminator films and Aliens. The result is a real Broken Base, largely between the Old Guard Versus New Blood of fandom - fans of his previous sci-fi action movies on the one hand, and the younger, more female audience he attracted that wasn't familliar with his previous works on the other. The critical reception was similarly mixed, and it has since become practically Deader Than Disco for its melodramatic, sentimentalism and excessive focus on the romantic aspect of the story, only useful as a target for parodies and jokes.
Cameron did not make a movie for twelve years after Titanic. Instead, he created the TV series Dark Angel, filmed various undersea documentaries and produced the adaptation of Solaris. He returned to film in 2009 with Avatar, which has surpassed even Titanic, financially and controversially. He is currently working on the sequel for Avatar, due out in 2016.
Cameron's films have certain common traits, such as: use of recurring cast members (such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sigourney Weaver, Bill Paxton, Michael Biehn, Linda Hamilton, Lance Henriksen, Jenette Goldstein and Stan Winston ), the threat of nuclear war, the interaction between humanity and technology, shiny glowy aliens, and strong female characters. He is also infamous for his temper and dictatorial filming style (the crew on some of his movies wore t-shirts reading "You can't scare me, I work for Jim Cameron"), along with his tendency to go way over budget and schedule during production.
As of Avatar, he is the first director in history to have made two individual films to earn over a billion dollars each (the other being Titanic); something that not even the multimedia titan George Lucas can stake a claim to with his entire Star Wars series of films. Also as of Avatar, Cameron is effectively the director of the two highest box office grossing movies.
His latest, non-movie-related project? Asteroid mining!
- Piranha II: The Spawning (1981)
- The Terminator (1984)
- Aliens (1986)
- The Abyss (1989)
- Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
- True Lies (1994)
- Titanic (1997)
- Avatar (2009)
- Avatar 2 (2014)
- Avatar 3 (2015)
- Battle Angel Alita (TBD)
Tropes About Him or that He Often Uses:
- Action Girl: Appear in pretty much every Cameron movie. Though they don't always use violence, Camerons female leads always are (or ultimately become) very strong and proactive. To quote Moviebob:
- Auteur License: He got his with The Terminator. It has yet to be revoked, seeing as how he makes rather a habit of revolutionizing filmmaking and grinding box-office records into the dust.
- Badass: Cameron takes a souvenir from each movie he works on. His most recent one? One of the AMP suits from Avatar. He put it on his front lawn. Cool? Hell Yes!
- Bad Boss \ Prima Donna Director: He admits to being this, but his crew has said that he has started to mellow out. To show how it got even worse for the people who work with Cameron, most of his movies have entries at Troubled Production.
- Canada, Eh?
- Continuity Nod: The gas station scene in Terminator 2 recycles a brand that had previously been referenced in The Abyss.
- Corrupt Corporate Executive: Many of his films feature one of these as the villain: Aliens, Titanic, and Avatar. Subverted in Terminator 2 when the man who is supposed to create Skynet does a Heel Face Turn when he's told what his creation will do and helps the heroes destroy his work. Played straight with the Cyberdine executives who stole the Terminator's remains between films, indirectly leading to Sarah being committed.
- Earn Your Happy Ending
- Enforced Method Acting: Even when it gets him punched in the face. By an extremely angry Ed Harris, no less, a man who can occasionally qualify as Nightmare Fuel incarnate just by glaring.
- Epic Movie: Titanic and Avatar.
- Foot Focus / Feet First Introduction
- The Great Politics Mess-Up: A theme in Terminator 2.
John Connor: "I thought the Russians were our friends now?"
- Hair-Trigger Temper: Cameron himself has admitted to having one, which has been the cause of quite a bit of the grief on set. For example: During the filming of The Abyss, some of the crew took to wearing T-shirts that said "You can't scare me, I work for James Cameron." His crew claims that he has mellowed out recently, though.
- Humans Are Bastards: The Abyss (with a lovely reel of human-orchestrated monstrosities nearly prompting the aliens to wipe out the Earth), Aliens, and Avatar. He just doesn't like people all that much.
- Insufferable Genius: He has created several of the best-reviewed and/or highest-grossing movies of all time and left an indelible mark on cinema. However, his creative talent is matched only by his infamous penchant for narcissism and douchebaggery.
- Jerkass: An extension of Enforced Method Acting above, during filming of T2, he was married to co-star Linda Hamilton at the time. To make her more cut and muscluar, he pushed her to take steriods, which kept her a tad unstable. While not official, this was one of the reasons for their later divorce.
- Jerk With A Heart of Gold: He is known as a very kind and friendly person when not filming and actors have praised him for never asking them to do anything he wouldn't do himself. Actors and crew members who've worked with him multiple times have said his bark is much worse than his bite. He also gave Guillermo Del Toro a million dollars to pay his father's ransom after he was kidnapped.
- Jekyll and Hyde: Allegedly has an evil alter ego named "Mij" who terrorizes his cast and crew.
- Men Are the Expendable Gender: Most of the male love interests of Camerons female leads gladly throw themselves into the fire for the woman they love.
- Occidental Otaku: Yes, he is a self proclaimed anime geek. You can probably see influence in many of his films.
- Overshadowed by Awesome: The Abyss can fall victim to this because it kind of interrupts the reputation-establishing triptych of Terminator-Aliens-T2. True Lies sometimes gets this, what with being sandwiched between T2 and Titanic.
- Technology Porn
- Troubled Production: Most of them up through Titanic.
- said cameraman thought it would be a brilliant idea to have the nest really bright and visible and ruin the suspense
- expository scenes of Hadley's Hope and Ripley's backstory were thrown out, the Action Film Quiet Drama Scenes with Ripley and Newt were shortened; Sigourney Weaver wasn't happy about this, but luckily all those scenes were restored for the Directors Cut
- A lifelong friend, he was the genius puppeteer and makeup master who helped bring James' Terminators and Alien Queen to life.