One of the main attractions of the Santa Barbara Film Festival is the way its timed right in the middle of Oscar season, so that the tributes that are planned frequently serve as showcases for recent nominees.  Roger Durling's programming looks positively prescient many times, and this year was no exception.  He books these things early, and his call to put together a big tribute to Sandra Bullock turned out to be right on the money.

Less of a gamble was the inclusion of James Cameron, whose "Avatar" is now pretty much the biggest damn thing in the history of biggest damn things.  Even if he hadn't been nominated for Oscars this year, his work on "Avatar" would be worth the conversation, and the film's seismic impact on pop culture only makes it even more worthy of discussion.

The idea of getting the Governator to come down and actually present Cameron with the honor makes for an irresistible press opportunity.  Dustin Hucks, our man at the Santa Barbara Film Festival this year, was on hand to witness the Q&A, and he's got a report for us this morning that does a pretty good job of giving us a taste of what was discussed and the mood of the event overall.

Take it away, Dustin:

"Tonight was my first experience with James Cameron past the influence of his movies on my life as a filmgoer.  I’d heard stories about his being notoriously difficult to work with during his long career, that he was a slave-driving perfectionist who wrung every last drop of talent (and patience) from his performers.  The James Cameron that accepted the Modern Master Award at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival Saturday night wasn’t in a director’s chair… so I can’t really speak to how close that is to reality, other than to say there are very few Cameron films that I don’t count as overall favorites.  However he does it, whatever his method, it’s certainly working.

The following are highlights from his Q&A with Leonard Maltin.

When asked what films he grew up with, James noted Ray Harryhausen as giving him his early exposure to fantasy and science fiction.  He specifically mentioned 'Mysterious Island' and '20 Million Miles to Earth' as standout films in the Harryhausen stable.

Another large influence on his life growing up was comic books, and drawing.

James' favorite movie to this day remains 'The Wizard of Oz,' noting his appreciation of the beauty and terror in the world of Oz, and saying that this influenced the creation of the world of 'Avatar.'

He noted the trickle of science fiction during his youth, and how when it did finally come it was primarily utopian/dystopian fare that was not mainstream, and how science fiction suddenly burst fully onto the scene with 'Star Wars,' which became one of the highest grossing films of all time.

Cameron’s first paid job was as a model builder on the Roger Corman film, 'Battle Beyond the Stars.'

One of the foremost things he learned was, 'You have to create your own luck, bang on doors, and state that you can make something.'  Cameron went on to state the importance of preparing yourself for the possibility of getting your chance, because when that door open you have something to show for it.

When he started out working in Southern California, he was a truck driver.  On the weekend Cameron would visit the stacks at USC and photocopy anything having to do with cinematography, and other technical aspects of film.  He’d take them home and read them until he was confident he knew how to do what he read.

His first experience directing was as a 2nd unit director on the set of yet another Corman film.  While generally not involved with the principal cast in this position, a unique scheduling situation provided James the opportunity to direct scenes with them.  It got to the point where the cast was asking to work with him because they liked him better.  Perhaps the whip-cracking persona had not developed yet, no?

After viewing a clip from 'Aliens,' the climactic battle between power walker Ripley and the Alien Queen, James explained the difference between what is done now with effects and what was done then.  They worked with miniatures, as well as a fourteen foot Alien Queen with two men working the moving body parts from inside.  There was no CG when Aliens came out.  Everything was practical effects.

Cameron also mentioned how, if you were paying attention during the clip that had just been played, you could see Lance Henriksen’s real torso sticking out of a hole in the ground as he was reaching for Newt.  He said he didn’t notice the botch until opening night of the film, but that most people never see it because they’re so distracted by whether or not Bishop is going to catch her before she’s sucked out of the airlock.

On the subject of 'The Terminator,' James discussed Linda Hamilton’s wish to return to the second film on the condition that she be crazy.  Cameron thought this was a brilliant idea, as it made sense that Sarah Connor would have been deeply psychologically impacted by the knowledge that she carried alone about the end of humanity.

He loved Arnold for the part because of his machine-like, ice cold demeanor.  Known for his physique, Cameron noted that he spent ninety five percent of the film in biker leather, being shot from the neck up.  He also shared the story of how Schwarzenegger would frequent diners directly after filming with his face-damage makeup effects still intact.

James notes that he likes showing something to the audience that they’ve never seen before, but he writes to direct, so his decisions are based on the technology being there.  He mentions that 'Terminator 2' had a total of 42 CG shots, as compared to the 2,600 CG shots in 'Avatar.'

On 'The Abyss,' Cameron wanted to show the aliens using water as a probe.  It was originally intended to come pouring across the floor, but he decided he would rather see it come into the crew berthings as a tentacle.  Wanting to find out if it could be done, he considered several options, and was eventually pointed toward the folks at Industrial Light and Magic.  They created the CGed water tentacle for the film.

'I like to make things that defeat your ability to explain it.'

'The Abyss' was the most physically and emotionally challenging film he ever directed, noting that he would come home from filming so exhausted that he’d fall asleep with his dinner fork in hand.  He says of 'The Abyss' that 'shooting underwater was difficult; it should have never been done, but that is what pioneering is.'

On the importance of music, James said that it is a huge addition to a scene, and creates a story in and of itself.  'Music helps you understand a scene at an emotional level.'

On spontaneity, Cameron notes that while structure has a place in directing intricate scenes, that you have to leave moments open for magic.

Cameron does not storyboard with his actors.  He likes to discover what will happen on set the day that they begin filming.

On the pitch for 'Titanic,' -- 'It’s Romeo and Juliet on a ship' -- after that, he immediately had a deal, and realized he then had to actually create the characters and write the story.

He notes that he does not like writing, but enjoys having had written.

His films are always bigger than what he thinks they are going to be, but likes the unexpected challenges of being on set and the work that goes into problem solving everything.  He then goes into details about some of these difficulties, like their initial inability to sink the massive ship they had built.

'I like not knowing what will happen next.'

When Leonardo DiCaprio was ad-libbing lines from the bow of the faux-Titanic, they went through a few variations including howling like a wolf.  When Cameron finally suggested, 'I’m the king of the world,' Leo initially questioned the line, but made it work.  In reference to his own famous quoting of the line, 'Leo was able to sell it, I was not.'

On 'Alien' again, talking about his actors working against sets and creatures that were not really there, or what they seemed on film, he says, 'Sigourney made the Alien Queen live, because of the way she treated it as this thing that was really there.'

Back to 'Titanic,' Cameron says he made 'Titanic' because he wanted to dive the shipwreck.  Once he had his film, he made an additional thirty dives for varied purposes, not all related to documentary work.

The prototype of the 'Avatar' camera was used in 'Titanic'.

Cameron says he enjoys nature more than his filmmaking in general, and that he enjoys his documentaries more than his blockbusters.

In preparing for 'Avatar,' he spent months studying colonial interaction with natives.  He cited the conquest of New Spain, the American West, and conquest of South American cultures.

Starting in ’95, he spent three weeks putting together a 100 page template for the final 'Avatar' script.  After 'Titanic,' he deemed the technology not appropriately advanced enough to pursue 'Avatar,' so he left it alone.  He revisits the script in ’05.  They spend two years in design, and working on facial performance capture technology.   They begin working with actors on April of ’07, do capture work in Los Angeles, principle photography in Wellington, New Zealand, and went through three cameras before distilling them into the camera that was used to create the final product.  After this, they spent a year and a half in post.

'It’s very satisfying to have communicated this vision to audiences.'

His favorite scenes in 'Avatar' are the flying scenes.  'We all dream of flying…'

Cameron says the goal of 'Avatar' was to create a sense of wonder in a desensitized movie-going population, which was difficult because the bar was set so high long ago.  He uses 'Jurassic Park' as an example of this.

To Cameron, 'Avatar'’s visual effects were the emotions on the actor’s faces, not so much the action and scenery.

The entire event was very loose and casual, which I believe lent to some of the timing antics we experienced before and during the Q&A.  When James Cameron arrived on stage, he immediately launched into his acceptance speech, while Leonard Maltin stood uncomfortably at stage right by the interview chairs with his cards in hand.  There was silent waving offstage and on, before Maltin finally coaxed James from the podium halfway through his speech to his confusion.  'Put a pin in that thought, we’ll get back to it in two hours,' Cameron joked.

Between 'T2' scenes, the real source of the 'what happens when’ confusion arrived – the Governator himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger! They had been waiting for him to present James Cameron with his Modern Master Award, and of course Arnie was fashionably late.  He immediately jumped into some quick comedy, and even joked that the billions of dollars grossed by Avatar worldwide could wipe out the state’s budget deficit.

Too soon man, too soon…

It really was fun to see the two together, and you can tell they’re genuinely good friends cameras flashing or not.  Finally, of course, Leonard Maltin did a classy job recovering from onstage snafus, squealing mikes, and being upstaged by the larger than life personality of Schwarzenegger while only halfway through his questions for the night.   It was a lot of fun, and I appreciated getting a change to be there and see one of the greatest all around filmmakers of our time give insight into the worlds he created for us to enjoy.

I hope you’ve dug my coverage thus far. There is a lot more to come, including a Quentin Tarantino/Kirk Douglas Q&A on video and my first interview of the festival, with Carey Mulligan."

Thanks, Dustin.  Great work, and I look forward to seeing what else you've got on the schedule this week.

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