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From Academy of Achievement

A Drive of Titanic Proportions

James Cameron was born in Kapuskasing, in Northern Ontario, Canada. Chafing at the strict discipline of his engineer father, Cameron became the master builder of his playmates, and enlisted his friends in elaborate construction projects, building go-carts, boats, rockets, catapults and miniature submersibles. His artist mother encouraged him to draw and paint. She helped arrange an exhibition of his work in a local gallery when he was still in his teens. Inspired by the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, he began to experiment with 16-mm film, photographing model space ships he had built.

The Cameron family moved to Fullerton, California when he was 17 and Cameron enrolled at Fullerton College. Uncertain of his direction in life, torn between art and science, he dropped out of college, married and a waitress and drove a truck for the local school district. After the film Star Wars reawakened his love of filmmaking, he quit his job and followed his own course of study in the library of the University of Southern California, reading up on the technology of special effects, optical printing, front and rear projection. He spent his meager savings on photographic equipment, building his own dolly track and experimenting with beam splitters in the living room of his small suburban house.

His wife and friends doubted his sanity, but he borrowed money from friends to make a short film he showed to low-budget maestro Roger Corman. Corman gave Cameron a chance to work as a model builder and production designer on his horror films. "Three weeks after I started I had my own department," Cameron told Premiere magazine. "I was hiring people, and everybody else that worked there just hated me." After two years with Corman, Cameron got his first crack at directing, but it almost turned into his last. The producer of Piranha II: The Spawning fired him unceremoniously, claiming the footage Cameron had shot was unusable. Cameron followed the producer from Jamaica to Rome, let himself into the editing bay after it was closed, and re-cut sections of the film himself.

While in Rome he conceived the film that was to make his reputation, The Terminator. The script found takers at the major studios, but Cameron insisted on directing it himself, a deal-killer. He finally sold the rights to producer Gale Anne Hurd for one dollar, on condition that he direct it himself. Cameron's unbridled enthusiasm won over Hemdale Films head John Daly and star Arnold Schwarzenegger. While waiting for Schwarzenegger to become available, Cameron wrote screenplays for Rambo: First Blood Part II and Aliens.

With the international success of The Terminator, Cameron won the director's chair for Aliens and went on to direct The Abyss, Terminator 2: Judgment Day and True Lies. Typecast as a director of high-testosterone action films, Cameron raised eyebrows by proposing Titanic as an intimate love story, albeit one with mind-boggling special effects. As production of the film ran months over schedule and millions of dollars over budget, industry pundits predicted an ignominious disaster. Cameron proved them wrong when Titanic broke box office records all over the world and swept the Academy Awards, winning an unprecedented 11 Oscars, including statuettes for Cameron as Best Director, and for the film as Best Picture.

Cameron's reputation as a driven perfectionist has become part of Hollywood legend, but he takes it in stride as he calmly plans each film. In 2009, he unveiled his most ambitious project of all: Avatar, a science fiction epic, four years in the making. Based on a script Cameron first wrote in 1994, Avatar was the first big budget action film to be shot in 3D, using innovative camera technology Cameron developed himself. The revolutionary film earned over $1 billion in its first three weekends. Released simultaneously in IMAX, as well as 3D and conventional widescreen presentation, it immediately broke box office records in all formats. Within a few months of its release, Avatar's box office receipts exceeded those of every other film ever made, including the previous box office champion, Cameron's Titanic.

The success of Cameron's films has enabled him to pursue a wealth of other interests, including deep-sea exploration. An Explorer-in-Residence of the National Geographic Society (NGS), he helped found the Deepsea Challenge project, in partnership with the NGS. As part of the project, Cameron himself has undertaken a record-setting voyage to the deepest place on Earth.

Cameron made his journey in a custom-designed submarine, the Deepsea Challenger, described as a "vertical torpedo," loaded with 3D cameras, powerful lights and a hydraulic robot arm. After testing the sub in the New Britain Trench, off Papua New Guinea, Cameron headed for the Mariana Trench, in the Western Pacific, east of the Mariana Islands, and south of Guam, where the Pacific tectonic plate subsides beneath the Mariana plate to its west. The Challenger Deep is the lowest point in the Trench, a narrow canyon, lying an estimated 6.78 miles (35,800 ft or 10.91 kilometers) below sea level, although some data suggest it may go deeper still.

On March 25, 2012, Cameron descended, alone, traveling for over two hours from the dazzling light of the Equator to the chilling darkness of the Deep. Driving across the ocean floor for nearly three hours, Cameron explored a desolate landscape, almost as barren as the moon. In the New Britain Trench, he had encountered large amoeba-like jellyfish and anemones, but Cameron found little animal life in the Deep other than inch-long, shrimp-like amphipods. Although a failure of the hydraulic system prevented him from collecting samples and capturing as many images as he hoped on this initial voyage, the technology of the Challenger vehicle proved effective enough to enable return trips to the Deep. Future expeditions will collect soil samples whose microbial life could yield significant information on the origins of life on earth, and the possibility of life on other planets.

The year 2012 marked a milestone for Cameron the filmmaker as well, the long-awaited release of a 3D edition of his 1997 classic Titanic. Whatever future surprises James Cameron has up his sleeve, his exploits as filmmaker and explorer have already touched the lives of millions.