James Cameron And Escape From New York: 5 Behind The Scenes Facts About His Involvement In The Movie

Kurt Russsell in Escape From New York

Nearly 40 years after its release, John Carpenter's dystopian action thriller Escape From New York remains to be one of the most groundbreaking early '80s action films, and for plenty of reasons. With Kurt Russell's remarkable portrayal of former U.S. Army lieutenant turned criminal Snake Plissken, the synth-infused score from Carpenter himself, and all of that low-budget ingenuity from the production team, there's plenty to remember here. But one thing a lot of people may forgot — or not know — is the fact that James Cameron had a hand in a lot of what went down behind the scenes.

Three years before the visionary director introduced audiences to the nearly unstoppable force that is the T-800 in his 1984 sci-fi classic The Terminator, James Cameron was a lowly, yet inventive member of John Carpenter's production team on the set of Escape From New York. During the production of the movie, Cameron proved that he had the potential to be much more than just a talented special effects artist and matte painter. Here are some of the coolest and most impressive facts about James Cameron's involvement with the 1981 cult classic.

A matte painting from Escape From New York

James Cameron Was Considered The "Resident Genius" On Set

The production team responsible for Escape From New York consisted of a who's who of young special effects artists, many of whom would go on to earn multiple Academy Awards for projects later on in their respective careers. And while everyone was more than capable of holding their own with the vast number of matte paintings and special effects shots heavily featured in the film, there was one that stood out: James Cameron.

In a clip from the behind the scenes documentary featured in the 2018 4k Ultra HD release of Escape From New York (via Yahoo! Finance), John Carpenter spoke highly of the special effects artist who would later go on to create two of the most successful movies of all time, stating:

He was the resident genius. Everybody was talking about how good he was.

Isaac Hayes and Harry Dean Stanton in Escape From New York

Several Years Before Creating The Terminator, A Young Cameron Was A Special Visual Effects Photographer

One year before he made his directorial debut with the panned Piranha II: The Spawning, James Cameron served as the special visual effects photographer for Escape From New York, where he was responsible for many of the movie's most memorable scenes involving models and other practical effects that helped turn the project from a typical B-movie to the cult classic we all know and love decades later.

With the help of some of his future collaborators, the young James Cameron would help director John Carpenter pull off the desired effects without going over budget, including one scene that is still talked about nearly 40 years after the fact.

The "computer image" of the glider's path in Escape From New York

Cameron Had A Hand In One Of The Movie's Most Iconic Scenes

As the special visual effects photographer on set, James Cameron helped come up with some of the most inventive methods of replicating computer graphics on the cheap thanks to some ingenuity and a model of the New York skyline.

In an AMC retrospective on the now famous Hollywood actors and filmmakers attached to the project, it was revealed that the wire-framed "digital map" showing Snake Plissken's glider's path to rescue the President of the United States was actually a physical set to help save on production costs.

To pull off the shot, Cameron helped construct a matte version of the skyline that was painted black with white reflective tape being added to the edges of each building in order to make it look like a computer image. After the model was constructed, the film crew walked a camera through the model skyline under black light to produce the desired effect.

The Central Park scene in Escape From New York

The Future Academy Award Winner Also Helped Turn California Into New York

One of the worst kept secrets about Escape From New York is the fact that most of Escape From New York wasn't actually shot in the "City That Never Sleeps," and was instead predominately filmed in St. Louis, Missouri, East St. Louis, Illinois, Los Angeles, and parts of New York state. In order to create the iconic New York City skyline, director John Carpenter called on the talents of several matte painters, including none other than James Cameron.

In the same Escape From New York Blu-ray feature mentioned above, John Carpenter explained that he first met James Cameron one day on set creating a glass painting that would be used to turn the San Fernando Valley into Central Park with the camera shooting through the glass painting to make Southern California look more like New York City.

A model of New York City in Escape From New York

Escape From New York Was The Start Of A Successful Partnership With The Famed Skotak Brothers

For practically each of James Cameron's movies starting with The Terminator in 1984, the filmmaker relied on the talents of the famed visual effects team of Robert and Dennis Skotak, who wound up earning several Academy Awards alongside Cameron over the course of their careers. With critically acclaimed movies like Aliens, The Abyss, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and Titanic, the Brothers Skotak helped bring some Cameron's vision to the big screen and audiences around the world.

That partnership, however, started long before James Cameron found his way to the director's chair. In fact, one of the earliest projects the three special effects wizards collaborated on was Escape From New York, where the brothers served as matte painting artists and visual effects supervisors. The brothers would go on to win Oscars for their work on Aliens, The Abyss, and Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

When you look at everything that James Cameron helped pull off with the production of Escape From New York, it's not hard to see just what the iconic Hollywood filmmaker was capable of achieving in the years following. Did anything from this list pique your interest, or are you a diehard fan of the film and know all about it? Either way, sign off in the comments below, and make sure to check back on all things James Cameron here at CinemaBlend.

Philip Sledge
Content Writer

Philip grew up in Louisiana (not New Orleans) before moving to St. Louis after graduating from Louisiana State University-Shreveport. When he's not writing about movies or television, Philip can be found being chased by his three kids, telling his dogs to stop barking at the mailman, or chatting about professional wrestling to his wife. Writing gigs with school newspapers, multiple daily newspapers, and other varied job experiences led him to this point where he actually gets to write about movies, shows, wrestling, and documentaries (which is a huge win in his eyes). If the stars properly align, he will talk about For Love Of The Game being the best baseball movie of all time.