James Cameron MasterClass Review

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If you love film, you’ve probably watched at least one of Cameron’s cinematic masterpieces.

From Terminator to Titanic and Avatar; this innovative giant has been responsible for some of the most successful, groundbreaking movies of all time.

But does being a Hollywood legend make him a good teacher? Just what can you learn from the James Cameron MasterClass?

If you want answers to those questions, you’re in the right place.

As someone with a passion for film, I was super excited to take this class. And now, I’m here to help you decide whether or not it’s right for you in this James Cameron MasterClass review.

I’ll be covering everything you need to make a decision – in detail. But if you’re pushed for time, here’s the highlights:

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Quick summary

You will learn: 

  • The hard-earned wisdom that Cameron’s accumulated over four decades
  • How to recognize ideas worth developing
  • To understand the writing process so your story is told your way
  • ‘The Rules’ of filmmaking – and how, when and why they should be broken
  • A wide range of techniques for building and maintaining tension
  • About the role of lighting, lens selection, the score and sound design
  • To be canny and creative within budget constraints
  • To craft and introduce compelling characters
  • About the groundbreaking technology used to create Avatar
  • The importance to directing of great leadership and collaboration
  • And how to master tricks of the trade that will make your path smoother

Pros

  • Learn from a globally acclaimed filmmaker with great teaching skills
  • Gain hard earned tricks of the trade the easy way
  • Provides a new lens for understanding film
  • Supported by brilliant examples and detailed scene analyses
  • Great workbook with that supports and extends the class

Cons

  • Strongly focused on Terminator and (to a lesser extent) Aliens
  • Would benefit from more “How To” advice

Length of course: 15 video lessons totalling 3 hours and 20 minutes

Best for: Anyone interested in gaining insights into just what goes into making a movie great. Cameron’s detailed scene analyses will give anyone, even mildly interested in cinema, a new lens through which to view film. Film students may already be familiar with some of the content, but will benefit from gaining insight into Cameron’s approach to the art.

Overall: A truly unique opportunity to learn from one of the best filmmakers of all time. If you enjoy film, and in particular Cameron’s films, you are highly likely to enjoy this class. I left it with a much stronger understanding of filmmaking than I had before, and have certainly viewed films more intelligently ever since! For me that made it worth the investment.

-> Click here to go to the James Cameron MasterClass

Now for the detailed review, in which I’ll be covering:

  • A look inside the James Cameron MasterClass
  • What I liked, and where it fell a little short
  • Who the course is for
  • Cost, and potential alternatives
  • What others have said
  • Uniqueness of content and, most importantly….
  • Is the James Cameron MasterClass worth it?

But first the basics:

About James Cameron

James Cameron King of the Box Office

Three times Academy Award winner James Cameron, has directed some of Hollywood’s most inventive and iconic movies. He holds the honor of directing the first two films (Titanic and Avatar) ever to gross over $2bn worldwide.

That said, he shot to fame after directing the low budget Terminator, which pushed cinematic boundaries to the brink and established him firmly as a consummate innovator and a creative tour de force.

During his four decade career, Cameron has continued to pioneer technological innovations that have repeatedly transformed the industry. With each new project expanding his talent as a storyteller and master of suspense, garnering him massive returns and a rarified place among the movie greats.

But Cameron has not forgotten the hard lessons learnt from his experience as a rookie, cash strapped filmmaker. Nor has he forgotten the debt he owes to those who came before him.

So this MasterClass sees him providing signposts for the next generation by sharing his creative process and the fundamentals of filmmaking that can generate success on almost any budget.

And if you haven’t seen the incredible trailer for this MasterClass, I recommend you take a look:

About Masterclass

After launching in 2014, MasterClasses has become one of the most recognisable learning platforms on the internet. 

It differs from other providers in that its instructors are the world’s best in their fields of endeavor. With courses ranging from cooking with Gordon Ramsey to acting with Natalie Portman, to performing with Herbie Hancock.

And its production values are second to none.

That said, the MasterClass format might not be for everyone. 

So read on to find out whether or not the James Cameron MasterClass is the right one for you.

A look inside the James Cameron MasterClass

The James Cameron MasterClass consists of 15 video lessons with a total run time of 3 hours and 20 minutes.

Alongside the video content, you’ll receive:

  • Access to the MasterClass community of learners where you can interact with fellow members of the course
  • A 56 page workbook containing a history of cinematic technology, a glimpse into the future, a glossary of key terms, the must-haves of film making from writing through to editing, and much, much more

The video content consists of Cameron sharing his creative process and experiences, supported by frame by frame breakdowns of scenes from his most memorable and successful films.

I’ve divided the MasterClass into five sections and summarized them below to give you a sense of what to expect.

  1. Introduction
  2. Building tension and eliciting psychological responses
  3. Low budget filmmaking
  4. Crafting compelling characters
  5. Lessons in performance capture technology and leadership

Section 1/5: Introduction

James Cameron Abyss scene

Meet your instructor

“There’s no reason why I can’t share what’s been learned in a way that can benefit you as an up and coming film maker. And, hopefully, then you’ll go ahead and you’ll innovate and do things and I’ll follow your work. See what you’ve done, and maybe learn from you”

To a stunning backdrop of visuals from his most iconic masterpieces, James Cameron introduces himself and explains why he decided to teach this class. 

And what he hopes you’ll gain from it.

He walks you through his journey into the film industry, shares the exact moment (aged 14)  when he realised that a movie can be an immersive piece of art, and abandoned truck driving to become a Hollywood legend. 

For Cameron, film makers who’ve been down the road a ways have a duty to provide signposts for those who come after them – and that’s what this MasterClass is here to do.

He hopes that you will learn:

  • To be humble before the craft
  • The importance to directing of great leadership and collaboration
  • Ways to optimise your filmmaking budget
  • To master tricks of the trade that will make your path smoother
James Cameron teaching MasterClass

Pursuing and developing the idea

James Cameron Terminator Dream

In his opening lesson, Cameron discusses the different aspects of creative ideas that make them worth pursuing.

He encourages you to:

  • Pay attention to ideas that resonate and persist
  • Plug into your zero cost subscription network – your dreams
  • Understand the writing process so your story is told your way
  • Know ‘the rules’ – and how, when and why to break them
  • Be authentic and stick to your core principals

I loved that Cameron used specific examples from his films to support his advice.

We hear how he constructed the story for the Terminator around a dream image of a metal skeleton emerging from fire, and about the writing process he used to construct the world around Alien. 

And most intriguingly, how Cameron’s own perspectives on life are expressed thematically throughout all his work. 

Section 2/5: Building tension and eliciting psychological responses

Toying with the audience: Building and releasing tension 

Cross cutting scene Terminator

“As a filmmaker you know you have an authoritative position relevant to the audience’s consciousness. And you have to honor them.”

Here, Cameron reminds us that being in a movie theatre is one of the few times you turn off your phone and experience something uninterrupted and unbroken.

He urges you to keep that at the forefront of your mind and reward your audience for paying attention and picking up the clues.

Above all, and he says this from hard learned experience, film makers should accept that it’s  OK for the audience to be ahead of you. In fact, when building tension before a reveal, it’s a positive benefit. 

It includes the audience in the dance. 

The audience can’t change the outcome, but can imagine various outcomes in real time based on the seeds you plant. As a filmmaker you can play against (or to) these expectations in satisfying, but unexpected, ways.

Cameron then shares his principles for doing this. You’ll learn about: 

  • Instilling a sense of urgency and then prolonging the moment
  • Cross cutting scenes
  • Creating tension across the arc of a film
  • Using the score as a component of building tension

I really valued the many opportunities this MasterClass provides to learn by example: scenes from several films are used to demonstrate the above techniques, including films from other film makers such as Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk.

In the following three lessons Cameron walks you, frame by frame, through the following three scenes:

  • Terminator- the club scene
  • Aliens – the egg chamber
  • Aliens – the introduction of Newt
James Cameron Terminator Club Scene

From these detailed breakdowns you will learn how Cameron builds relentless tension and elicits emotional responses using a range of techniques including:

  • Converging plot lines
  • Scene intercutting 
  • Lens and focal length selection
  • The score and sound design
  • Lighting
  • Use of dream imagery
  • Hand held shots
  • Altering film speeds, and
  • Subjective shots

Section 3/5: Low budget filmmaking

The art of low budget filmmaking and Creating set pieces

James Cameron directing Terminator

“The art of low budget filmmaking is the art of being thoroughly prepared, maximizing what you have and preparation at every level.”

In this section Cameron shares tips and tricks for helping you get the most bang out of your buck when making a film on a low budget.

He draws on the experience of making the high epic, low budget film Terminator (after Schwarzenegger had sucked up most of the budget) to share what it taught him about the need to:

  • Understand the strengths and limitations of using locations to save on set design
  • Use visual effects in a controlled way and compose them with storyboards/previs tools
  • Build a strong relationship with the director of photography
  • Speak to strengths and knowledge you have
  • Improvise and compromise
  • Have a game plan for every day of shooting with lighting at its heart
  • Create few, but memorable, set pieces

As with the previous section,the following lessons contain detailed, frame by frame analyses (lined up against storyboards this time) of scenes from Terminator, to showcase Cameron’s tricks and tips in action:

  • Terminator- arm and eye repair
  • Terminator-future world
Terminator eye repair scene

“Filmmaking is all about what is in the frame, what isn’t in the frame, what you need in the frame and what you can safely exclude from the frame and get by inference.”

For me, it was a real privilege to gain such a comprehensive and cleverly modelled insight into Cameron’s thought processes when crafting such a high impact film – in only 42 days and on such a low budget.

I watched Terminator again after this section. Even though it’s dated, and even with an intellectual understanding of how I’m being ‘played with’ (especially with regard to lighting) I still felt it. 

Right down to the solar plexus.

Section 4/5: Crafting compelling characters

Crafting and Introducing compelling characters, Titanic – Rose introduction breakdown & Creating dread through adversaries

Introducing compelling characters Avatar

“It’s absolutely critical in any film to have a character you’re willing to go on the journey with.”

In this section Cameron provides insight into the difficult task of creating a compelling character with a medium that’s not capable of the novelistic detail of a book.

You’ll learn now Cameron:

  • Introduces recognisable characters using objects that encapsulate their essence
  • Crafts the moments when different characters collide
  • Provides a safe place for actors to explore their characters and bring them to life

These techniques are explored through a close examination of the introduction of the character of Rose in Titanic.

Introducing Rose in Titanic

And then Cameron shares insights into how he introduced and created a range of other iconic adversaries from his films – Terminator, the Alien Queen and Rose’s fiance. 

“We have to invest in the adversary as well. We have to imbue that adversary with power.” 

We learn how Cameron achieves this by:

  • Developing a rationale for his adversaries
  • Making them unique and worthy of attention
  • Placing the audience inside the reality of the adversary

Section 5/5: Lessons in performance capture technology and leadership

Facial expression recognition Avatar

“The audience enters the film through the eyes and hearts of the characters.”

Motion capture had been around for a decade before the making of Avatar. But Cameron’s use of performance-capture technology to reproduce facial expression in this film transformed the landscape of cinema.

In this final section, Cameron shares how he developed the technology to create the Na’avi.

Inspired by Peter Jackson’s Gollum (in the Two Towers) Cameron set to work bringing Avatar to life. To do this required

  • Minute observation, over years, of human facial expression and features
  • Developing head rig technology to achieve image based facial performance capture
  • Honoring the actor driven nature of the process
Head rig technology Avatar

“From the moment you capture it, you’re at least a year away from seeing the shot.”

This section is an awesome contrast to what’s gone before. 

Earlier sections teach you what is within your grasp on a low budget. This section shows you what’s possible with a big budget (and literally years of preparation, patience and hard work.)

The split screen imagery shows graphically just how close Cameron got to the actors’ real performance.

There is a lot to be learned about filmmaking from this MasterClass!

James Cameron ends the MasterClass

“Before you can radiate, you need to absorb. It’s the law of thermodynamics.”

As it draws to a close Cameron shares the leadership lessons he has learned in his many decades as a filmmaker and director. 

He’s grouped them together in what he terms his creativity law of thermodynamics.

In particular he urges you to have an experiential understanding of all the jobs in the ecosystem of filmmaking – so you can ‘speak the language’, communicate effectively with everyone and lead with humanity. 

For Cameron, the most valuable lesson he’s learned is that the movie should never become more important than the human interaction of the crew. And he pays tribute to Ron Howard for teaching him this.

As he bids us farewell, Cameron urges you to keep your eyes open for the magic and seize moments of opportunity that arise from a creative team working together. 

What I liked about the James Cameron MasterClass

Learn from an acclaimed filmmaker with great teaching skills

This MasterClass provides a unique opportunity to learn from one of the greatest masters of the art of filmmaking.

It’s a chance to benefit from hard won knowledge gained from making low, and record breaking, budget masterpieces.

But more than that, Cameron’s enthusiasm and passion for his art are tangible in his delivery, making the class enjoyable as well as informative.

Supported by brilliant examples and scene analyses

James Cameron Alien Queen

The class is more than just a ‘talking head’ documentary style experience.

It’s clear that Cameron has put a huge amount of thought into how to make the knowledge he’s sharing resonate in a meaningful way. The detailed breakdowns and analyses of scenes – sometimes split against storyboards – was great pedagogy in action.

It’s so slick and revealing it’s easy to forget you are being given access to such hard earned wisdom. 

I’m not a filmmaker or film studies student, just a lover of cinema. 

So for me, this MasterClass provided a whole new way to view, appreciate and talk about film.

And even if you already have some of the vocabulary and understanding of film, getting Cameron’s take on things, sharing in his journey and the unfolding of his own process is a fascinating experience.

Great workbook with clear links to the class

The workbook does not follow the flow of the class, but provides an additional reference guide.

It contains a lot of supporting information including a glossary of cinematic terms. And where it offers more detail on filming fundamentals this is clearly referenced during the class.

Together, the workbook and the MasterClass make a comprehensive, well structured package.

What I think could be improved

Strongly focused on Terminator and Aliens

The scene breakdowns focus strongly on these two films. Given that they were both made in the mid ‘80s, many of the techniques used to achieve the effects Cameron was aiming for are now carried out digitally.

That said, the overarching ideas are still relevant, especially in terms of how to build and maintain tension and introduce compelling characters.

Nevertheless, it would have been nice to see some breakdowns of key scenes from his later repertoire (alongside Avatar) such as the Abyss. This was something other viewers felt, as I share later in, “What others have said” (below).

Could use more “How To” advice

If you’re expecting to learn the technical nuts and bolts of becoming a filmmaker, this may not be the course for you.

There ARE lots of useful insights, tips and tricks and the workbook builds on these.

James Cameron Workbook

But you won’t know everything you need to know to get started after taking this MasterClass. 

However, if you have a basic knowledge of filmmaking and want to get some tips from a world class filmmaker you should enjoy this course. Even experienced filmmakers can gain from Cameron’s insights.

And if you just love films, this MasterClass will provide you with a new lens through which to appreciate them.

Who is this course for?

In my opinion, the James Cameron MasterClass would be good fit for anyone who is a:

  • Movie fan
  • Admirer of Cameron’s work
  • Novice or prospective filmmaker looking for tips that will smooth their path
  • Experienced filmmaker interested in the evolution of Cameron’s cinematic processes
  • Or is just intellectually curious

To be honest, the quality of the production values of this MasterClass means anyone could gain something from it!

How much does the course cost?

MasterClass pricing and offers can change, so for the latest info click here.

At the time of writing, a MasterClass subscription costs $180 a year ($15 a month).

With this, you have access to all 100+ MasterClasses.

The great thing about this is that the more classes you take, the less the effective cost per class is.

For example, if you find at least 4-6 classes you like, you’re effectively paying $30-$45 per course ($180 / 6 classes = 30).

Bearing in mind these classes are taught by world experts, the value is unbeatable. It’s sort of a way to hack learning.

Also, MasterClass offers a 30 day refund if you’re not happy with your purchase.

If you want to buy a single course, there’s a way to do this — but it’s a little tricky: You can buy a single MasterClass as a gift, and give that class to yourself. The price then is $90.

However, arguably the best value is with the all-access pass.

Alternatives to the James Cameron MasterClass

If you’re still unsure whether this is the course for you, there are many other MasterClasses available on a similar theme:

Of course, with a MasterClass all-access pass, you could take them all!

Outside of MasterClass, there are other classes available.

One excellent alternative is the Philip Bloom Cinematic Masterclass. Confusingly, this is not a MasterClass course but is available on the MZed platform – a dedicated online learning platform for filmmakers.

Udemy and FutureLearn also have a selection of filmmaking classes.

That being said, I think it’s difficult to rival MasterClass in terms of its production values and teaching.

MasterClass also has the convenience of having all of its lessons in one place. It’s easy to navigate and to connect with other learners. And a pass provides access to all 100+ classes on the platform.

James Cameron MasterClass: what others have said

The downside of completing and reviewing the James Cameron MasterClass so soon after its release is that, when I trawled Reddit and other forums for the opinions of others, I found very little commentary from people who had actually completed it.

However, what I did find was almost exclusively positive. 

“If you are a fan of his movies it’s worth a look. He does an in depth breakdown of various scenes in his movies which I found pretty fascinating… it’s a connection to how humans see and remember situations or events.” Comment from Reddit
“Absolutely phenomenal. Watched it twice already. Best MasterClass that you guys have put up. Period. Make the rest like this. Take notes from the GOAT!!” Comment from the YouTube trailer
“Love this course! Going for my 2nd viewing tonight! Truly Inspired. This makes me believe in my ability to properly get back into filmmaking and storytelling again. Thank you, James Cameron and MasterClass.” Comment from the YouTube Trailer
“I’ve never been more excited about a masterclass ever. James Cameron is my favorite director and I spent so much time in my early filmmaking career studying him. Hope you all like it!! I’m learning so much from this new Masterclass already and I can’t wait to see what you all do!!” Comment from the MasterClass community.

I should note that these comments are obviously from self-confessed James Cameron fans. This does show bias, but also illustrates that fans will get as much from the MasterClass as filmmakers.

The only slightly negative comment reflects something I felt myself:

“I wish we could have scene breakdowns from the Abyss and True Lies. Easy picks would have been the encounter with the water tentacle and the helicopter bridge scenes.” Comment from the YouTube Trailer

Is the course content unique?

In terms of content available from James Cameron, yes.

There are plenty of individual videos on YouTube in which Cameron can be seen discussing his journey, his approach or specific films.

But there’s nothing curated by him that so comprehensively covers his development as a film maker and shares, in such a structured way, the tips and tricks he has picked up along the way.

There are, of course, other filmmaking classes on MasterClass and inevitably there will be some overlap between them. 

However, the work of each ‘master’ is unique and instantly recognizable – as is their approach to delivery. So you can only benefit from having access to them all with a MasterClass annual pass.

Is it worth it?

It’s a YES from me. 

I should preface this by saying that all learning is subjective, especially when it comes to teaching and understanding the arts.

However, I believe that if you have a real interest in film, or filmmaking, this course could be exactly what you’re looking for. 

You won’t learn how to win an academy award overnight. And I would say that for people who want to get into the technical nitty-gritty of how to make movies there may be more useful resources out there.

But if you want to spend a couple of hours learning about the evolution and thought processes of a Hollywood great, and pick up some invaluable tips, tricks and shortcuts on the way, this is the course for you. 

I personally really enjoyed each lesson. The class was truly educational and well thought through. I loved the scene analyses and have added a new layer of appreciation and understanding to my enjoyment of films.

Hearing directly from James Cameron, and being able to witness his passion and enthusiasm for myself was quite special. 

And don’t forget:

With a MasterClass all-access pass, you not only get to experience this course but similar lessons with other greats. If you can find just two or three that interest you besides this one you will be getting superb value for money.

Others that might sit well with this class are:

And MasterClass also has a refund policy, which removes the risk of you losing out if you don’t enjoy it. 

So what have you got to lose?

Frequently asked questions

How much does the James Cameron MasterClass cost?

A MasterClass all-access-pass costs $180 a year ($15 a month). This gives you access to the James Cameron MasterClass, along with 100+ other courses.

How long is the James Cameron MasterClass?

James Cameron’s MasterClass is 3 hours and 20 minutes long and consists of 15 video lessons.

Can you get James Cameron MasterClass for free?

Unfortunately you cannot get the James Cameron MasterClass for free. But MasterClass has a range of purchasing options and offers refunds if you’re not happy.

Can I get a refund if I don’t like the James Cameron MasterClass?

Yes, MasterClass operates a 30 day refund policy if you purchase directly through them. If you purchase through other providers, their returns policy may apply.

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