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Why Did A Hollywood Film Director Journey To The Bottom Of The Ocean?

Director James Cameron speaking about his childhood obsessions on the TED stage.
Courtesy of TED
Part 1 of the TED Radio Hour episode From Curiosity To Discovery.
About James Cameron's TED Talk
Director James Cameron's blockbuster films create unreal worlds. He reveals his childhood fascinations and how they fueled the passion behind his movies.
About James Cameron
James Cameron has written and directed some of the biggest blockbuster movies of the last 20 years, including The Terminator, Aliens, The Abyss, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Titanic and Avatar. His films are known for pushing the limits of special effects, and his fascination with technical developments led him to co-create the 3-D Fusion Camera System. He has also contributed to new techniques in underwater filming and remote vehicle technology. He has received three Academy Awards, two honorary doctorates and sits on the NASA Advisory Council.
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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz, and our show today - From Curiosity To Discovery. Like most kids, when James was a kid, he was curious. He'd go looking for tadpoles or salamanders or butterflies.
JAMES CAMERON: Anything that moved or flew or crawled or swam and I could catch it, it wound up in my collection. And that included microbiological specimens, as well. I got a microscope for Christmas one year, and I was out collecting pond water and, you know, creating slides and so on. You know, I was a complete science nerd. Actually, even as I'm saying it, I'm cringing. (Laughter).
RAZ: Why are you cringing?
CAMERON: I'm not - because it just sounds like, get a life, kid.
RAZ: But at a certain point, that kind of curiosity starts to disappear.
CAMERON: I'm sure there's data on this and studies on this, but obviously there's a very high degree of neural plasticity in young minds, young brains, that seems to decay on a curve. We all have dreams of flying, I think, when we're kids, and we tend to lose that as well. It's almost like the more we know about the world, the limits of what's possible start to crowd in on us.
RAZ: And for some reason, that never really happened to James. And when he grew up, that sense of curiosity, it became a defining part of his professional work as a filmmaker.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Iceberg, right ahead.
RAZ: His film "Titanic" became the second-highest grossing movie ever. And the highest-grossing film, he made that one, too.
STEPHEN LANG: (As Colonel Miles Quaritch) You're not in Kansas anymore.
RAZ: "Avatar."
LANG: (As Colonel Miles Quaritch) You are on Pandora, ladies and gentlemen. Respect that fact.
RAZ: And his idea for "Avatar" actually came before Titanic. But at the time -and this was the early 1990s - James Cameron felt like the technology wasn't quite there yet to make it the way he wanted to make it, as he explained on the TED stage.
CAMERON: So I shelved it, and I made this other movie about a big ship that sinks.
CAMERON: And, you know, I went and pitched it to the studio. It was "Romeo And Juliet" on a ship. It's going to be this epic, romance, passionate film. Secretly, what I wanted to do was I wanted to dive to the real wreck of Titanic, and that's why I made the movie.
CAMERON: And that's the truth. Now, the studio didn't know that, but I convinced them. I said, we're going to dive to the wreck. We're going to film it for real. We'll be using it in the opening of the film. It'll be really important. It'll be a great marketing hook. And I talked them into funding an expedition.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Yeah, roger that. OK, drop down and go into the first-class gangway door. I want you guys working the D-deck.
RAZ: So if you remember those opening scenes from "Titanic," there's real footage of the shipwreck. And James Cameron filmed that footage himself. He went two-and-a-half miles below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean.
Now, there was already tons of footage of the Titanic, and James Cameron could have used that in the movie. But he really wanted to see it himself.
CAMERON: I think, you know, I've said it jokingly. But I think there's a lot of truth to the idea that I probably made that movie because I believed I could actually dive to the Titanic. And if I could have actually dived to the Titanic without making the movie, I probably would have done that. (Laughter).
RAZ: And so what started out as a curious impulse became the catalyst for discovery to go to the deepest parts of the oceans, to film them and then turn that footage into documentaries.
CAMERON: Every dive I've ever been on, I've seen something I haven't seen before. And on a few of those dives, I've seen things that nobody's seen before. I call it bearing witness. I'm wanting to literally go and see it. Photographing it came later. But it was just, you know, wouldn't that be cool? Transcript .
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