“He came up to me in the hallway one day and he said, ‘You have unlimited potential,’” how prescient were the words of James Cameron’s high school teacher Ian McKenzie.
Filmmaker, explorer and Rolex Testimonee Cameron represents the pinnacle of film-making. Titanic won 11 Oscars, tying for the most awards ever, and Avatar holds the record as the highest-grossing film in history. But even before Cameron hit the big leagues, he already possessed a peerless drive, irrepressible creativity and an undaunted ability to make the best of any situation, this was perhaps what McKenzie saw in the Avatar director.
Rolex Master of Cinema James Cameron on Nurturing Unlimited Potential
“When you’re 14 and somebody tells you you have unlimited potential, that’s a really cool thing to hear,” recalls Cameron of his time at Stamford Collegiate High School in Niagara Falls. Cameron never forgot those words. “It meant something,” he said to an interviewer during the red carpet premiere of Titanic, “to have somebody believe in you”.
When McKenzie encouraged his student’s potential, he was practicing Goethe’s fundamental assertion that when we treat a person “as if he already were what he potentially could be, we make of him what he should be.”
Mr McKenzie encouraged us crazy, fringe-type kids to express ourselves… he created the framework and let us go.
Indeed, Cameron on hearing his mentor’s words thought to himself, “I better get busy.” Stamford Collegiate never had a theatre arts programme but spurred on by McKenzie, Cameron and a few other kids in a jock-oriented high school would stay after school for hours to create a stage, put in lighting, build sets to put on plays. In other words, McKenzie would set Cameron up on a path to create his pre-fame opus The Terminator.
Shot on a shoe-string budget, its titular lead Arnold Schwarzenegger once told Metro News that, “it was such a small budget movie that we had to do some of the shots in Hollywood without permits.” Never one to let a small detail like budget get in the way of making a good movie, Cameron managed to make do. Despite its raw quality, The Terminator became the top grossing film for that year and in the 30 years since then, a cult movie worthy of repeated viewings.
Cameron’s films blazed a trail for their artistic realisation and advanced visual effects, setting numerous performance records in the United States and internationally. Earning numerous nominations and awards, most notably, the 14 Academy Award nominations and 11 Oscars wins, unbroken records, including Cameron’s own three for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Editing for Titanic, Cameron is cognisant that, “We build on the shoulders of the people who came before us.”
Passing the Torch
Though McKenzie passed in 1989 before seeing his protege’s greatest achievements, he would be rightly proud to hear Cameron’s own thoughts on mentorship. “You can’t force it on them. They have to want to hear what you have to share. The best way is to provide an environment to let them create within, and if they want your help, they’ll ask for it,” says Cameron echoing his beloved biology teacher’s methodology. “I can almost draw a direct line to what I do now from what I did then (back in high school),” Cameron told Buffalo News in 1997.
Cameron’s career expresses his passions – filmmaking and ocean exploration and technology, the latter part of the environmental advocacy interwoven in much of his creative work. He wrote, produced and directed The Abyss. Despite his other recent cinematic successes, The Abyss remains his seminal calling card because it was the movie that brought together filmmakers, technicians and professional divers in what is still called “the toughest film to make in history”. Such was Cameron’s ambition that he declared that if he couldn’t do what 2001: A Space Odyssey did for science fiction films and space, he would have refused to tell the story of the underwater world that was his Abyss.
There isn’t a more perfect marriage of Cameron’s narrative sensibilities and aquatic fascinations than The Abyss
If McKenzie shaped his potential to dream and imagine, his second professional mentor, “The Pope of Pop Cinema” Roger Corman equipped him with a resolute work ethic. During a 1999 interview with Academy of Achievement, James Cameron intimates, “no job is just a job”; Going through the rungs of filmmaking, first as a Personal Assistant, then later as Set Builder, and then finally getting some time behind the camera as a 2nd unit director, understanding the key drivers of Cameron’s career accomplishments is to begin to see the analogous tapestry of attributes which makes Rolex his choice of timekeeping accessory as well. Similar to Cameron’s quest for filmmaking perfection, it was this relentless pursuit for chronometric precision that led to a Rolex watch becoming the first wristwatch in the world to receive the Swiss Certificate of Chronometric Precision in 1910.
Such was his singular vision, a philosophy that sees parallels in Rolex’s perpetual spirit that is based on a fundamental belief in unlimited human potential, in continuous improvement, in always pushing the boundaries and taking the long-term view.Cameron continued to nurture the concept of The Abyss throughout high school, refining his ideas and vision until the day he felt that production technology had evolved sufficiently to realise his vision of the alien life on the ocean floor. Many cost-overruns, technical challenges, and innovations later, The Abyss ultimately broke new ground in underwater cinematography and lighting, Cameron’s experiences in creating The Abyss laid the foundation for the development of new remote vehicle technologies which eventually led to the creation of the digital 3D Fusion Camera System, feats which have equipped him to follow in the footsteps of National Geographic Explorers like fellow Rolex Testimonees David Doubilet and Sylvia Earle.
His attraction to the deep and growing affinity to subjections of exploration and conservation ultimately drew him to the Everest of shipwrecks: Titanic. In 1995, Cameron made 12 manned-submersible dives to the Titanic in preparation for his feature film, developing unprecedented filming, lighting and robotic equipment for use in the extreme pressures of the deep.
Titanic fuelled Cameron’s desire to go even deeper. On 26 March 2012, he made a record-breaking solo dive 10,908 metres (35,787 feet) to the earth’s deepest point, piloting the DEEPSEA CHALLENGER submersible he co-designed and engineered to the bottom of the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench with a specially made Rolex Deepsea Challenge watch that was attached on the exterior of the submersible’s hydraulic manipulator arm.. Cameron continues to bring audiences new and compelling experiences of worlds real, alien and imagined.
The DEEPSEA CHALLENGE shed new light on the deep, providing high-resolution 3D images and collecting valuable samples for the scientific community that have led to the identification of at least 68 new species. They include shrimp-like creatures called amphipods, sea cucumbers, tens of thousands of microbes and stringy rock coatings known as microbial mats which contain organisms that can survive in the dark. In August 2014, James Cameron released a feature documentary, DEEPSEA CHALLENGE 3D, tracing the expedition from its beginnings until the last of its 13 dives in the Pacific. The film serves as a reminder to us of how much of this planet remains to be discovered.
A World Imagined and A World Realised
Perhaps it is an act of poetic providence that for Cameron, his Rolex has always been a symbol of his uncompromising work ethic. After accompanying him on countless expeditions over the last 20 years, reel and real, his first Rolex Submariner finally found its new home deep in the Amazon: a symbol of thanks to Chief Ropni of the Kayapo people, a tribe whose culture he studied for Avatar.
Today, his choice is a commemorative Oyster Perpetual Rolex Deepsea with a D-blue dial. Cameron calls it his “constant companion” and a reminder that, “no matter where I am or what I’m doing, of a very special moment in my life, when my tiny team of innovators built and operated our DEEPSEA CHALLENGER submersible and accomplished our dream of diving to the deepest place on the planet, the Challenger Deep. The watch connects me to the legacy of all the other explorers who’ve carried their Rolexes to the most distant corners of the Earth, including my friend Don Walsh who took one to the Challenger Deep in 1960.”
There’s this idea that an auteur like Cameron shows up with a perfect vision, but it doesn’t work that way. Cameron may write his own material, but he collaborates with the artists to refine that picture. Getting the feedback from other artists is the important thing, even with people he mentors. Cameron speaks fondly of the time he went to Stanley Kubrick’s house, “I made a pilgrimage to his house in England and got to tell him how important his work was to me. But he didn’t want to talk about his old stuff. He was making a new movie called A.I. and wanted to pick my brain about how we did the visual effects in True Lies because he knew that there was this new thing with digital composites. I literally spent the day mentoring Stanley Kubrick. It was the most surreal experience. Stanley was like a sponge. Here is a guy who was almost 80 and still open and childlike, and all about the craft, all about learning how to do it and do it better.”
Avatar may be a world imagined but when Cameron surrounds himself with the world’s most talented people available, that’s when he sees the world realised; it’s a torch of creativity that gets passed down and you put something enduring into the world. Cameron says it best, “You’ve got that torch in your hands for a moment. At a certain point you have to pass that torch on, and someone exploding with ideas and with passion and things to say that are relevant to their generation will take that torch and run with it.”
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