"It's Avatar, dude, nothing works the first time," read a whiteboard in the spare Los Angeles warehouse that served as the sci fi film's motion capture soundstage. Breaking new ground is Cameron's raison d'être — nothing interests this man unless it's hard to do. But innovation has also become a way of bonding his teams, both on Avatar and on his deep sea expeditions. "We're out in the wilderness working far beyond the borders of the known," Cameron says, comparing his CG and undersea projects. "We're doing extraordinary things that outsiders would not even understand." For Cameron, a sense of exploration isn't just personally enriching, it's a crucial tool for motivating and uniting his teams.
Everyone who has been part of Cameron's cast and crew has bitter war stories about working for him, and yet they all seem to forget them when they're clutching Oscars and cashing cheques. Many Cameron alumni will share a story from their first film with him, a day they were sure they were going to be fired, almost hoped for it. But Cameron rarely fires people. "Firing is too merciful," he says. Instead he tests their endurance for long hours, hard tasks, and harsh criticism. Survivors tend to surprise themselves by turning in the best work of their careers, and signing on for Cameron's next project.
Cameron is almost comically hands-on. He does things elite directors don't do — hold the camera, man the editing console, sketch the creatures, apply the makeup. The truth is, he would do nearly every job on a movie himself if he could. But any film, much less one as ambitious as Avatar, relies on collaboration. Forced to lean on others, Cameron sets the pace. Among his 3000-strong stable of artists and engineers, he's the first to try a new challenge, the last to quit at the end of the day, and the hardest to please.
Avatar took more than twice as long to make as an average film. Much of that added time was due to the film's Herculean design demands and its reliance on untested technologies, but some of it was thanks to Cameron's perfectionism. Hours were spent on the smallest details, like getting alien sap to drip precisely right. A column in one special effects shot annoyed Cameron. After 15 minutes debating its placement while teleconferencing with weary Weta Digital artists in New Zealand, he declared, "That column is worth $50 million of the domestic gross!" shaking his head at his own obsessiveness. It's hard to argue with Cameron's nitpicky style, however, when audiences thrill to immerse themselves in the richly detailed worlds he creates.
Aware that he can be a hard man to work for, Cameron wisely surrounds himself with amiable deputies. "I have my bad days, and on my best days I'm no Ron Howard," he admits. Cameron's closest associates, his producer, Jon Landau, and the head of his production company, Rae Sanchini, are management savants. They know when an exhausted crew needs a pep talk, when a wounded artist's ego needs soothing, when an anxious studio executive needs reassurance. And — a talent never to be underestimated — they know when to order the pizza, and tell the boss to quit for dinner!