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To BAFTA on Piccadilly on Friday night for the latest in Alfred Dunhill's "BAFTA A Life in Pictures" series, this one a celebration of the work of James Cameron - director of, among other things, the sci-fi classics The Terminator (1984), Aliens (1986), Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991) and the most successful movie ever made, in terms of box office receipts, 1997's Titanic.

Cameron was in town to premiere his first feature film since Leonardo DiCaprio sank to his watery grave, the long-gestating 3D fantasy epic Avatar. A tall man in a black suit, with a beaky nose and lustrous Bjorn Borg hair, the King of the World, as he ironically proclaimed himself while collecting one of eleven Oscars for Titanic, turned out to be a genial raconteur, self-effacing and open - nothing like the ego-driven megalomaniac we commonly imagine directors of blockbusters to be.

Seated on a small stage in the BAFTA auditorium opposite his interlocutor, Radio Four's Francine Stock, Cameron merrily expanded on his extraordinary career, occasionally pausing for clips from his films. He was born in Ontario, Canada, in 1954, before moving, at the age of two, to Niagara Falls. He could dimly hear the sound of roaring water from his bedroom window, he said - an aural intimation of his films to come, notably The Abyss (1989) and Titanic, and also his recent underwater documentaries (Cameron is an accomplished deep sea diver).

Cameron was a film fan from early on, but his first clear memory of wanting to make his own movies came in 1968 when he saw Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. So discombobulated was he by this that he had to leave the cinema, and was sick on the pavement outside. This, to Cameron, seemed to be the ultimate accolade. If you feel at all nauseous while watching Avatar, rest assured - the director will take this as a compliment.

He studied physics in California but decided against a career in science and apprenticed, like so many great directors of his generation, to the B-movie impresario Roger Corman, who recognised his talent, he said, when the young wannabe, working in the Corman model shop, designed a "spaceship with tits" for a Star Wars knock off.

Cameron fired his first agent when the man rejected his idea for a story about a "hitman from the future". Mike Medavoy, then at Orion Pictures, took up the cause of The Terminator, but he wanted OJ Simpson to play the cyborg (much chuckling from Cameron here), with Arnold Schwarzenegger as John Connor. Cameron met with Arnie out of courtesy to Medavoy, and realised immediately he'd found his star. After we'd watched a scene of Schwarzenegger trying to kill Linda Hamilton in a nightclub, Cameron made the wry observation that to him, now, that appeared to be "the Governor of California shooting out the mother of my oldest daughter."

We moved on to Aliens, Cameron's sequel to Ridley Scott's 1979 monster hit, and his decision to replace Scott's space horror with "kinetic action" - the resulting film, to this viewer, was one of the few sequels that outdoes its predecessor. Then to The Abyss, "an uneasy palimpsest of ideas" that "didn't always work or resonate as well as it could have". It was however instrumental in developing the CGI technology that would distinguish the awesome Terminator 2 (but not the later Terminator films and TV series which, he pointed out, had nothing to do with him).

His pitch for his biggest film until now was "Romeo and Juliet on the Titanic", a film conceived largely for the simple reason that he personally wanted to dive down to the wreck of the real ship. Cameron was fascinating describing how he turned "a chick flick where everybody dies at the end" into a global phenomenon.

After Titanic, he said, he "got hooked on underwater exploration". He was also biding his time, waiting until virtual reality technology had caught up with his vision for Avatar. At this point we all donned 3D specs - somewhat more substantial than the old red and green paper things - for a sneak preview of five minutes of Avatar, Cameron's "ultimate creature movie".

Others in the GQ office have already sat through the full movie so are better placed to comment but from what I saw - and I'm no sci-fi geek - Avatar is an astonishing achievement: an utterly immersive experience and, presumably, a game-changer for cinema. This is a film you must watch on a big screen. Whether or not the technology, still prohibitively expensive, will work for more intimate films remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: Cameron is a contemporary conjuror, an artist who paints on a global canvas, a trafficker in wonder and excitement.

More power to him.