#311 James Cameron

Summary Notes


In this episode, the host reveals a unique aspect of the Founders podcast: the founder of every company that advertises on the show is a listener, fostering a community obsessed with product quality and business building. Eight Sleep, a supporter of this episode, exemplifies this with its founder, Mateo, personally using and benefiting from the product's sleep-improving features. The host also introduces an exclusive offer for Eight Sleep, available in various regions. The episode then delves into the life and mind of James Cameron, highlighting his relentless pursuit of difficult, groundbreaking work, from his early days as a determined filmmaker to his success with films like "The Terminator" and "Aliens," and his ventures into deep-sea exploration. Cameron's confidence, work ethic, and insistence on control have led him to eschew the traditional Hollywood path for one of innovation and storytelling, culminating in the creation of "Avatar" and its revolutionary technologies. The episode also touches on Cameron's founding of Digital Domain and his generous sharing of knowledge with other top directors. Cameron's story is one of a visionary who thrives on challenges and whose influence extends far beyond the film industry.

Summary Notes

Personal Connection to Advertisers

  • Mateo, the founder of Eight Sleep, is personally known to the podcast host.
  • The host only wants podcast supporters who are passionate about their products.
  • A chance encounter with Mateo at a restaurant led to an anecdote about the effectiveness of the Eight Sleep product.

"One of the most unique things about this podcast is that I know the founder of every company that advertises on founders."

This quote highlights the host's personal connection to the advertisers, indicating a curated selection of sponsors based on mutual respect and shared values.

Eight Sleep Product Endorsement

  • The host uses and endorses Eight Sleep for its temperature control feature.
  • Claims that the product significantly improves sleep quality.
  • Offers a discount link for the product, emphasizing its value as an investment.

"I've never had the ability to change the temperature of my bed before I had an eight sleep."

This quote serves as a personal testimony to the benefits of the Eight Sleep product, emphasizing the host's direct experience with the temperature control feature.

Founders Podcast AMA Feed

  • The AMA feed is an exclusive offering for Founders podcast enthusiasts.
  • The host personally reads and responds to emails, turning them into short AMA episodes.
  • Members can ask questions and promote their own work within the community.

"If you become a member, you'll be able to ask me questions directly."

This quote stresses the interactive and personalized nature of the Founders podcast community, where members can engage directly with the host.

Recommendation for Invest Like the Best

  • The host recommends listening to episode 336 of Invest Like the Best.
  • The episode features Jeremy, a bright individual with insights into special situations in private markets.
  • The host plans to re-listen to the episode multiple times, indicating its high value.

"Jeremy's a friend of mine. I spent a lot of time talking to him. He's unbelievably bright, and his episode on Invest like the best is one that I'm going to relisten to many, many times in the future."

This quote serves as a strong endorsement of Jeremy's episode on Invest Like the Best, highlighting the host's personal connection and the anticipated value of the content.

James Cameron's Achievements and Personality

  • James Cameron's films, including Avatar, have been highly successful.
  • He is considered a pioneer in the film industry and has contributed to science and exploration.
  • Cameron is known for embracing difficult challenges and has a reputation for being demanding but inspiring loyalty.

"Difficult is a fucking magnet for me. I go straight to difficult."

This quote encapsulates Cameron's drive and determination to tackle challenging projects, setting him apart from other filmmakers.

Cameron's Lifestyle and Work Ethic

  • Lives in New Zealand with his wife on a farm.
  • Maintains a disciplined lifestyle, including waking up early and kickboxing.
  • His films are known for being expensive but successful.

"At 68 years old, Cameron wakes up at 04:45 a.m. And often kickboxes in the morning."

This quote illustrates Cameron's disciplined routine and active lifestyle, reflecting his commitment to his work and personal health.

Cameron's Confidence and Self-Taught Filmmaking

  • Cameron's confidence was evident before his achievements in filmmaking.
  • He self-educated in cinematography and visual effects while working as a truck driver.
  • His creative ideas often come from dreams, which he actively incorporates into his work.

"I basically gave myself a college education in visual effects and cinematography while I was driving a truck."

This quote shows Cameron's self-motivation and resourcefulness in acquiring the skills necessary for his film career.

Cameron's Vision and Independence

  • Cameron is known for his singular vision, especially in creating the Avatar universe.
  • He has a physical condition that affects his gait but doesn't hinder him.
  • Despite his temper, he has worked on improving his demeanor and continues to inspire loyalty among his crew.

"Without Jim's heavy, heavy brain, this would all fall apart."

This quote from Zoe Saldana highlights the importance of Cameron's unique vision and intellect in the success of the Avatar films.

Cameron's Relationship with Challenges and Setbacks

  • Cameron has a history of overcoming challenges and innovating in filmmaking.
  • He has faced moments of doubt but remains driven by storytelling.
  • His experiences with ocean exploration and a brush with space travel reflect his adventurous spirit.

"I'm a storyteller, and there's stories to be told."

This quote emphasizes Cameron's fundamental identity as a storyteller, which continues to drive his creative endeavors.

The Futurist: The Life and Films of James Cameron

  • The biography "The Futurist" by Rebecca Keegan offers insights into Cameron's life and work.
  • The host has been deeply engaged with Cameron's story, reading and listening to content about him repeatedly.
  • Cameron's extreme dedication and insistence on building his own world are key takeaways for the host.

"I have never, ever worked on an episode longer than this one. I've been in the mind and completely obsessed with James Cameron."

This quote reflects the host's deep dive into understanding and appreciating James Cameron's life and work for the episode.

Introduction to James Cameron

  • James Cameron is a truck driver turned director of the highest-grossing movie of all time.
  • He spent a decade exploring the deep ocean and pushing the boundaries of science.
  • Cameron is known for pioneering storytelling tools and technologies that filmmakers now depend on.
  • His career is marked by tackling seemingly impossible tasks and succeeding against the odds.

"This guy's going to change my approach to my own work, but also reinforce it."

This quote highlights the inspirational impact James Cameron has had on the speaker, suggesting that his work ethic and success have influenced the speaker's own approach to work.

Attraction to Difficulty

  • Cameron is drawn to challenging tasks, viewing difficulty as an attractive force.
  • His pursuit of hard tasks aligns with the philosophies of other influential figures like Edwin Land and Steve Jobs.
  • Cameron's focus on overcoming technical problems has earned him respect in his field.

"I'm attracted to hard. Hard is like a magnet to me."

Cameron expresses his fascination with difficult challenges, indicating that he thrives on overcoming obstacles that others might find daunting.

Influence and Respect from Peers

  • Directors such as Peter Jackson look up to Cameron for his formidable intellect.
  • Cameron's approach to his work and life has influenced others to view him as a role model for becoming formidable individuals.

"You can't help but come away from spending time with Jim feeling that you're a little bit stupid. He's got such a sharp mind."

Peter Jackson's quote conveys the high level of respect and admiration that James Cameron commands among his peers, due to his sharp intellect and formidable presence.

Individual Power and Control of Destiny

  • Cameron's career is a testament to questioning accepted wisdom and believing in individual power.
  • He embodies the belief that individuals can take control of their own fate.

"Cameron's career has been built on questioning accepted wisdom, believing in the power of the individual. His outlook is that we can take fate in our own hands."

This quote encapsulates Cameron's philosophy of life, emphasizing the importance of individual agency and the ability to shape one's own destiny through determination and questioning the status quo.

Early Life and Signs of a Builder

  • Cameron showed signs of being a builder and a leader from an early age.
  • He engaged in creative projects like building go-karts, rafts, and treehouses.
  • His ability to lead and organize others was evident in childhood anecdotes.

"Jim said, we're going to build something."

This quote from Cameron's mother illustrates his early leadership qualities and his natural inclination to create and build, traits that would define his later career.

Intellectual Capacity and Voracious Reading

  • Cameron likely possesses a genius-level IQ, as evidenced by his academic acceleration.
  • He was an avid reader from a young age, particularly of science fiction, which influenced his creative thinking.
  • His intellectual curiosity and passion for learning were clear indicators of his future success.

"He was a voracious reader."

The quote reflects Cameron's insatiable appetite for knowledge and literature, which played a significant role in shaping his imaginative capabilities and intellectual prowess.

Independence and Nonconformity

  • Cameron has always been comfortable going his own way, without feeling the need to follow the herd.
  • His independent thinking was apparent in his high school years and continued into his professional life.
  • This trait allowed him to pursue unique paths, such as taking a break from filmmaking to explore the ocean.

"The groupthink of his peers baffled him."

This quote demonstrates Cameron's early aversion to conforming to the collective mindset, preferring instead to forge his own path based on his convictions and interests.

Fascination with Exploration and Scuba Diving

  • Cameron was influenced by Jacques Cousteau and became scuba certified in high school.
  • His scuba training, which included military-style harassment drills, built his confidence and resourcefulness.
  • These experiences contributed to his survival in two near-drowning incidents later in life.

"He learned diving military style, with harassment drills in which the instructor pulls off your mask and rips the regulator from your mouth."

The quote describes the intense and rigorous training Cameron underwent in scuba diving, which not only equipped him with technical skills but also instilled a sense of resilience and adaptability.

Supportive Family and Early Career Struggles

  • Cameron's father, despite wanting him to become an engineer, supported his son's filmmaking aspirations financially.
  • Cameron's early career included various blue-collar jobs while he pursued creative projects on the side.
  • His transition to filmmaking was marked by intensity, dedication, and a drive to learn and succeed.

"Cameron's relationship with his father would strain in his teenage years because father wanted James to become an engineer."

This quote indicates the tension between Cameron's personal interests and his father's expectations, highlighting the familial dynamics that played a role in Cameron's early career choices.

Self-Education and Breaking into Filmmaking

  • Cameron's self-education included studying scripts, technical papers, and learning about visual effects on his own.
  • His intensity and passion for filmmaking were evident to those he met, signaling his potential for success.
  • Cameron created a short film as a calling card, which led to his first break in the industry with Roger Corman's company.

"He filled two fat binders with technical papers for the cost of a couple hundred dollars in photocopying. He essentially put himself through a graduate course in visual effects at the top film school in the country without ever meeting a single professor."

The quote illustrates Cameron's resourcefulness and commitment to self-education, as he independently acquired the knowledge and skills necessary for a career in filmmaking.

Rapid Advancement and High Agency Behavior

  • Cameron quickly advanced from model builder to art director, and then to second unit director at Roger Corman's company.
  • His high agency behavior and willingness to take on new challenges facilitated his rapid rise in the film industry.
  • Cameron's confidence in his ability to learn any job on the fly was a key factor in his success.

"Cameron had only been at Cormann's for a matter of days, but he was already taking charge."

This quote reflects Cameron's natural leadership and initiative, which allowed him to quickly ascend the ranks in his early film career despite his initial low-level position.

Overcoming Setbacks and Finding Success

  • Cameron was fired from his first directing job, but this setback led to the creation of "The Terminator."
  • His ability to endure and transform pain into success is highlighted as a characteristic of excellence.
  • Cameron's persistence and resilience are key themes in his journey from being broke and depressed to reaching the pinnacle of his profession.

"He was 27 years old, broke and depressed."

This quote underscores the low point in Cameron's life, which he was able to overcome and use as a catalyst for his eventual monumental achievements in filmmaking.

Early Career and Work Ethic of James Cameron

  • James Cameron's work ethic is compared to that of the Terminator, showing extreme dedication and efficiency.
  • Despite a bad economy in 1982, Cameron managed to secure funding for the original "Terminator" film, which had great financial success.
  • Cameron's approach to writing scripts for "Terminator," "Aliens," and a "Rambo" sequel involved meticulous planning of his available hours and writing a specific number of pages per hour.
  • His partnership with Stan Winston led to the founding of Digital Domain in 1993, a visual effects company.

"Great projects can happen in bad economies when they're trying to raise money. For the Terminator, this is 1982. Unemployment is at 10% and interest rates are at 17%, and they still manage to get the deal done."

This quote emphasizes the idea that with determination and a strong work ethic, significant achievements like securing funding for a successful movie can be accomplished even in challenging economic times.

"He divided the total number of waking hours he had during the three month period by 360 and figured out how many pages per hour he had to write. And I just wrote that many pages per hour, he said."

This quote illustrates Cameron's disciplined and systematic approach to scriptwriting, which contributed to his ability to complete multiple projects efficiently.

Hands-On Filmmaking and Control

  • James Cameron is known for his hands-on approach to filmmaking, often performing many technical and artistic tasks himself.
  • The success of "Terminator" allowed Cameron to gain more control over his film projects, eventually leading to complete creative control.
  • Cameron's insistence on being involved in every aspect of his work is a hallmark of his filmmaking style.

"Cameron established the hands-on working style that he would take to an extreme. In later films, Cameron would be holding the camera, editing the footage, mixing the sound, performing almost every technical and artistic task on the film himself, except acting."

This quote highlights Cameron's comprehensive involvement in his films, demonstrating his desire for control and his multifaceted skill set in filmmaking.

Challenges and High Standards

  • James Cameron faced challenges working with the crew at Pinewood Studios during the production of "Aliens," who did not share his passion for filmmaking.
  • Cameron's high standards and dedication to his work often led to tension with crews but also resulted in high-quality films.
  • His commitment to excellence is a recurring theme in his career, as seen in his willingness to tackle difficult projects like shooting in water.

"I was shocked to be working with people who simply could not care less about the film they were working on, says Cameron. The Pinewood crew were lazy, insolent and arrogant. I despise them."

The quote reveals the stark contrast between Cameron's dedication to his work and the lackadaisical attitude of the Pinewood crew, highlighting the importance of passion and commitment in achieving excellence.

Pursuit of Difficult Projects

  • Cameron is drawn to challenging projects that others avoid, such as shooting in water, which he finds creatively stimulating.
  • His interest in underwater filming began with his fascination with Jacques Cousteau's documentaries and led to the creation of "The Abyss."
  • Cameron's willingness to take on hard projects is linked to his desire for innovation and lack of competition in these areas.

"The harder something is, the less competition there actually be. James is like, no, I'm only going after hard because I will literally be the only person out there doing this."

This quote encapsulates Cameron's strategy of pursuing challenging projects as a means to stand out and avoid competition, demonstrating his unique approach to filmmaking.

Innovation and Technology in Filmmaking

  • Cameron's career showcases the compounding benefits of embracing technology and staying ahead of the curve.
  • His early experimentation with CGI in 1988 set the stage for the advanced visual effects in "Avatar" decades later.
  • Cameron's partnership with companies like Industrial Light & Magic and his own Digital Domain reflects his commitment to technological innovation in film.

"It would take the company nine months to deliver 20 shots. Amazing when you consider that 20 years later on Avatar, Cameron's crew would produce more than 2000 shots in the same time period, each of them many orders of magnitude more complex."

This quote highlights the exponential growth in CGI capabilities over time and Cameron's foresight in investing in this technology early in his career.

Entrepreneurship and Ownership

  • Cameron's success allowed him to negotiate deals that gave him significant control and ownership over his films.
  • His entrepreneurial spirit is evident in his founding of Digital Domain and his distribution deal with Fox that offered him unprecedented creative freedom.
  • Cameron's ability to leverage his success to gain ownership and control is a testament to his business acumen and vision for his career.

"I had just made Terminator two for Carol Co. Studios, and I admired how they rolled, being their own bosses, mavericks, and entrepreneurs. I had been fed up with the studio system. After aliens and abyss, both of which I felt were not released properly, I could now set up a structure which would allow me to call the shots myself."

This quote reveals Cameron's motivation to establish a position where he could have complete creative control and operate independently of the traditional studio system, emphasizing the value he places on ownership and entrepreneurship.

Embracing Future Technologies

  • Companies should invest in future technologies even if they are not the current industry standard.
  • Digital Domain, co-founded by James Cameron, did not open an optical department, instead focusing on digital compositing.
  • This decision gave Digital Domain an advantage over traditional effects houses that relied on opticals.

"The company's first bold move would be to wholly embrace digital compositing and not even bother to open an optical department."

This quote highlights the strategic decision by Digital Domain to focus on emerging digital technologies rather than established optical effects, setting them apart in the industry.

Intense Focus and Disregard for Hollywood Gossip

  • James Cameron exhibits intense focus on his work and disregards industry gossip.
  • He has a wide range of knowledge but shows little interest in Hollywood's internal affairs.
  • Cameron's focus allows him to make unconventional decisions, such as casting choices, based on his vision rather than industry opinion.

"Cameron knows a lot about a lot of subjects... But one of his rare blind spots is Hollywood gossip."

This quote exemplifies Cameron's breadth of knowledge and his intentional ignorance of Hollywood gossip, indicating his focus on creativity over industry politics.

Financial Motivation and Excellence

  • James Cameron prioritizes excellence over financial gain, similar to Walt Disney.
  • His belief is that creating something great will naturally lead to financial success.
  • Cameron operates with an inner scorecard, focusing on personal satisfaction from his work rather than external validation.

"Excellence came first, right? Financial considerations are, if it's going to make him money, he's trying to build something great, and with the trust that if he builds something great, he'll make money."

This quote illustrates Cameron's philosophy that prioritizing quality and excellence in work will ultimately lead to financial success, mirroring Walt Disney's approach.

Exploration and Innovation in Filmmaking

  • James Cameron sees filmmaking as an exploration and an odyssey.
  • He took on the challenge of Titanic not just as a film project but as an extraordinary exploration.
  • The innovative approach to filming Titanic involved developing new technology and leveraging it for marketing.

"I am an explorer at heart and a filmmaker by trade."

Cameron identifies himself as an explorer, which drives his innovative approach to filmmaking, as demonstrated by his work on Titanic.

Attention to Detail

  • Cameron is known for his attention to detail in all aspects of his films.
  • He believes that focusing on the little things leads to greater achievements.
  • This meticulous approach is compared to other high achievers like Michael Jordan and Bernard Arnault.

"The little things add up to big things."

The quote reflects Cameron's belief that success is built on a foundation of attention to detail, a trait shared by other top professionals.

Confidence and Belief in One's Work

  • Cameron's confidence in his projects often precedes his achievements.
  • Despite doubts from others, including industry executives, Cameron maintained his vision for Titanic.
  • His confidence was crucial during the challenging times of production and faced with criticism.

"Get the fuck out of my house."

Cameron's forceful response to an executive's doubt about Titanic's profitability underscores his unwavering confidence in his work.

Finding Peace and Inspiration Underwater

  • After Titanic, Cameron found solace in underwater exploration.
  • He equates diving with decompression and an escape from Hollywood pressures.
  • His passion for exploration led him to become an explorer, dedicating years to underwater expeditions.

"I usually go diving first to decompress."

Cameron uses diving as a form of relaxation and escape from the stress of filmmaking, illustrating his multifaceted interests and passions.

Long-Term Vision and Persistence

  • Cameron allows ideas to simmer for years, waiting for the right time and technology.
  • He is known for his long-term vision and persistence, often revisiting ideas decades later.
  • This approach is evident in the development of Avatar, which was conceived years before production began.

"I'll run out of time before I run out of ideas."

Cameron's quote expresses his abundant creativity and the importance he places on nurturing ideas over time until they can be realized.

Knowledge Sharing and Collaboration

  • Cameron is generous with his knowledge and collaborates with peers like Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg.
  • He does not guard technology or secrets but shares them to advance the industry.
  • His move to New Zealand and collaboration with Weta demonstrates this openness.

"Jim is very generous in the way he shares knowledge and information."

This quote highlights Cameron's collaborative spirit and willingness to share his expertise with other filmmakers.

Leadership and Control

  • Cameron maintains absolute control over his projects, reflecting his strong leadership style.
  • He steps away from filmmaking at the height of his career to pursue his interests.
  • His leadership is characterized by a balance of control and the pursuit of personal goals.

"James Cameron put on a blue baseball cap with the letters HMFic printed on it."

The cap symbolizes Cameron's self-perception as the ultimate decision-maker in his projects, encapsulating his leadership style.

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