We Chat Up James Cameron at the Popular Mechanics Breakthrough Awards (Exclusive)

We Chat Up James Cameron at the Popular Mechanics Breakthrough Awards (Exclusive)

Oct 11, 2011

Obviously if you have a documentary nerd like myself at an event celebrating technological progress, like last night’s Popular Mechanics Breakthrough Awards, and James Cameron just happens to be present to accept a major honor, I’m going to want to talk to him about how important innovation has been in the history of nonfiction cinema. And that’s just what I attempted when it was my turn to speak to the famed director of such works as Aliens of the Deep, Ghosts of the Abyss and Exhibition Bismarck.

Immediately Cameron seemed excited, as if he is never asked about this side of his career. While I’m not sure what he meant when he then claimed he started out in documentary (maybe I understood him wrong), he was kind enough to indulge my remarks about advances from Muybridge to the Drew Associates to Cameron himself, acknowledging the significance of photographic breakthroughs occurring so often because of a need to better document and preserve real life. I often wonder if the current 3D craze would have even happened without his interest in the format for documentary purposes.

As it turns out, ironically, my own technological ineptitude caused me to not record a word of what Cameron said. But it wouldn’t have mattered, really. He started mentioning filmmaking breakthroughs developed for his underwater exploration documentaries, the kind of science reported on well enough in more appropriate outlets (like Popular Mechanics), when he was quickly interrupted by the arrival of Sigourney Weaver. She was there to present his Exploration Leadership Award, and it was as if they hadn’t seen each other since Avatar wrapped.

The old friends then spent a long while in numerous photo ops and meet-and-greets with other honorees, such as the team of high school students from West Philadelphia who build hybrid sports cars, as well as a young paralyzed man being incredibly rehabilitated through direct electrical stimulation treatments. I stood by looking at camera equipment and props from Avatar on display next to an exhibit of the Mars Descent Imager (MARDI), a hi-def video camera Cameron is involved with that will be heading to the Red Planet next summer -- sadly not joined by the 3D camera system he’d been developing for the Curiosity mission.

Eventually, I got the Oscar-winning filmmaker’s attention again for a quick, candid question: has he seen any of the other recent 3D documentaries, specifically Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Wim Wenders’ Pina. After jokingly laughing their significance away because -- well -- he’s been doing 3D docs for years, he told me he does really want to screen Pina soon. He asked me how the 3D looks, as if I’m the person who should be telling him how accomplished any 3D is (I told him it’s amazing). And then he gave me the sound bite I’d been waiting all night for, as if he knew:

“I think 3D is a good fit for documentary almost more so than fiction film.” 

And that’s before he has seen the brilliant Pina. But man did he nail it, right into my documentary-loving heart. Afterward, I totally understood when Weaver was on stage introducing her collaborator on Aliens and Avatar (he needs to get her to narrate one of his docs) and recognizing his kindness as a genius, someone who will talk over your head but not treat you like an idiot for not always comprehending. She called him the most popular mechanic in the world. He got my vote last night.


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