If you sat through the endless list
of credits for Avatar, you saw that it took about 3,000 people to make the CGI
epic, which has now grossed more than $2.5 billion worldwide, shattering box
office records, earning nine Oscar nominations and reinventing cinema for the
digital age. The boss of all those people was director James Cameron. Cameron
is still roughing it by
Break New Ground: "It's Avatar, dude, nothing
works the first time," read a whiteboard in the spare
Firing Is Too Merciful: Many Cameron alumni will share a story from their first film with him, a day they were sure they were going to be fired, almost hoped for it. But Cameron rarely fires people. "Firing is too merciful," he says. Instead he tests their endurance for long hours, hard tasks, and harsh criticism. Survivors tend to surprise themselves by turning in the best work of their careers, and signing on for Cameron's next project.
Lead from the Front: Cameron is almost comically hands-on. He does things elite directors don't do — hold the camera, man the editing console, sketch the creatures, apply the makeup. The truth is, he would do nearly every job on a movie himself if he could. Forced to lean on others, Cameron sets the pace. Among his 3000-strong stable of artists and engineers, he's the first to try a new challenge, the last to quit at the end of the day, and the hardest to please.
Good Enough Isn't: Avatar took more than twice as long to make as an average film. Much of that added time was due to the film's Herculean design demands and its reliance on untested technologies, but some of it was thanks to Cameron's perfectionism. Hours were spent on the smallest details, like getting alien sap to drip precisely right.
Hire People People: Aware that he can be a hard man to work for, Cameron wisely surrounds himself with amiable deputies. "I have my bad days, and on my best days I'm no Ron Howard," he admits. Cameron's closest associates, his producer, Jon Landau, and the head of his production company, Rae Sanchini, are management savants. They know when an exhausted crew needs a pep talk, when a wounded artist's ego needs soothing, when an anxious studio executive needs reassurance.