Arts & Entertainment

From Sketch to Spectacle: Creating Set Pieces

James Cameron

Lesson time 08:54 min

Few directors have created set pieces as memorable as James’s. Learn how he approaches the art of creating set pieces, even on a low budget.

Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars

Topics include: Battle for a Few Memorable Set Pieces • Previsualize to Trigger Important Questions • Planning a Set Piece on a Low Budget: The Future World in THE TERMINATOR


[MUSIC PLAYING] JAMES CAMERON: Generally speaking, a lot of visual effects works against you for a lot of reasons. It can be numbing. You can kind of debase the value of a given effect by having too many of them. They can blow your budget. It's better to have a few memorable set pieces. From a writing standpoint, I sort of treat it as a standalone thing. I'll figure out where it's going to start, what the kickoff is. You know, what the kind of opening bell of the set piece is and where the resolution is. I'll figure out where my-- my out point is. And then I'll work within that so that it's not too long, it-- it stays focused and it stays of a piece. And, I mean, I think there's-- just like there's an art to scene writing, I think there's an art to creating a set piece. It's kind of a film within a film, and it kind of has its own-- own rules, and it's got a beginning, a middle, and an end, some kind of resolution. That end may or may coincide with an act break or it may not. But, you know, a suspense sequence or a scene, a dramatic scene in a film might be a four or five-page dialogue scene that's done in some stylized way, maybe without any cuts. Maybe some circulating Steadicam shot that moves sinuously through some dramatic moment. That would be a-- that would be a set piece. So then you have to pick your battles carefully. What's the narrative purpose of the set piece? So to use the example from "Terminator" of the first future flashback, it was actually just to build character. For Michael Biehn's character. It was to show his traumatic world and why he was basically a walking, physically-scarred, and mentally-scarred example of post-traumatic stress syndrome. He was the living embodiment in the present day of how bad that future was and why you needed to prevent it from occurring, right? So it had a powerful narrative and character purpose in that film, but it was also just stuff I wanted to see. And that's another thing. Is there are a lot of kind of rules and advisories about why you put things in movies, and-- and they all have to serve a purpose, except they don't. Sometimes it should just be something you want to see as a filmmaker. And sometimes the only way to see it is to make it and show it. And I remember having this discussion with one of the heads of 20th Century Fox when "Avatar" was almost done and they were complaining about the flying scenes. Why does this flying scene go on so long? And you've-- you've already proved the point. It doesn't advance the narrative, it doesn't advance the character. I said, you're right on every count, you've ticked every box like a good studio executive. But guess what? I want to see it. And I extrapolate from that, and Stanley Kubrick was a firm proponent of this principle. If I want to see it, my cognitive leap is, there are going to be lots of people that want to see it. I want to see it for itself, not for its purpose, right? Because there is a pu...

About the Instructor

From The Terminator and Titanic to Avatar, James Cameron has directed some of Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters. Now, for the first time in his 40-year career, he opens up about his process. Through behind-the-scenes breakdowns, James shares his approach to developing ideas, storylines, and characters; harnessing technology; and worldbuilding on any budget. Explore the innovation and imagination behind epic moviemaking.

Featured Masterclass Instructor

James Cameron

Academy Award–winning director James Cameron teaches you the tricks of the trade and shares his approach to epic moviemaking on any budget.

Explore the Class
Sign Up