Innovation Requires Breaking Through Walls, Even for James Cameron

  • by , Featured Contributor, March 17, 2011

I'm attending the Abu Dhabi Media Summit this week -- and one of this morning's speakers, filmmaker James Cameron, really hit home with me in his comments about the challenges and opportunities of pioneering new markets. In a session with Fox studio head Jim Gianopulos and director Carlos Saldanha, Cameron spoke at length about some of the difficulties he faced in making "Avatar," which ultimately became the highest-grossing film of all time.

To create "Avatar," Cameron and his team had to break new ground in a number of areas, since the movie combined classic live-action filming with computer-generated animation and 3D in ways that no film had before. It was one of the most ambitious film projects of all time, and Cameron's team had to create much of the camera and computer technologies on their own, since current stereoscopic cameras were inadequate for his designs.

Cameron related that his team "hit the wall" many times during the process and found themselves at impasses that threatened to derail the project, whether it was cameras that couldn't capture appropriate facial expressions or computer software that wouldn't work. Each time, they would halt all production and "pull out the table."



"Pulling out the table" meant that he and his team would all sit around a big table and not leave until they had come up with solutions. According to Cameron, these sessions were very frustrating to many on his team, since they invariable blamed themselves for their lack of progress and their inability to either anticipate or solve the problem. Each time, Cameron would have to calm them down by reminding them that they were pioneers and were attempting things that no one had done before.

Thus, hitting walls was to be expected, and breaking through those walls was what made what they were doing so special. They were developing a roadmap that many others would follow later, but they had to be patient with themselves and recognize that hitting these walls would be catalysts for many of their best innovations. Ultimately, they created a groundbreaking film that not only won Oscars, but, as the highest-grossing film ever, sold almost three times as many tickets globally than the previous record-holder.

I found Cameron's story very inspirational, and very familiar. All of us who have worked in startups and/or around digital media and marketing know about the challenges attendant to creating products, technologies or business models that didn't exist before. Most of us know what it is like to hit walls that seem insurmountable. Most of us have been in those group meetings where we blame ourselves for our problems -- not realizing that our challenges are no one's fault, but the natural result of innovating where others haven't before.

Most of us don't create products that are as high-profile as James Cameron's, and which touch as many people with as much impact as his do. In addition to "Avatar," he also wrote and directed films like "Terminator," "True Lies" and "Titanic." However, it is reassuring to know that he and his teams face the same self-doubt that many in our industry do every day.

As he says, there is no easy roadmap, because no one has done it before. That made me feel good. What about you?

3 comments about "Innovation Requires Breaking Through Walls, Even for James Cameron".
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  1. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston, March 17, 2011 at 6:15 p.m.

    His blatant anti-military plot in Avatar made me feel bad. My kids thought the movie was boring. That's how we feel, since you ask.

  2. Mark Naples from WIT Strategy, March 17, 2011 at 6:27 p.m.

    Such a great column, especially for those of us who think we're doing "heavy lifting" in our industry. Imagine having to pull this off on location, while spending $200M of your investors' money. Cameron is supposedly impossible to work with, primarily because he is absolutely intrepid. Say what you will about the artisitic quality of his films. Technologically, they are breathtaking.

  3. Mike Mcgrath from RealXstream PTY LTD, March 18, 2011 at 5:26 p.m.


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