J.J. Abrams: The mystery box

Recorded atMarch 03, 2007
Duration (min:sec)17:41
Video TypeTED Stage Talk
Words per minute228.19 very fast
Readability (FK)79.4 very easy
SpeakerJ.J. Abrams

Official TED page for this talk


J.J. Abrams traces his love for the unseen mystery –- a passion that's evident in his films and TV shows, including Lost, Star Trek and the upcoming Star Wars VII -- back to its magical beginnings.

Text Highlight (experimental)
100:12 Here's my thing.
200:14 Hold on. There I go. Hey.
300:18 I want to start today -- talk about the structure of a polypeptide.
400:21 (Laughter)
500:23 I get a lot of people asking me, in terms of "Lost," you know,
600:28 "What the hell's that island?"
700:29 You know, it's usually followed by,
800:32 "No, seriously, what the hell is that island?"
900:34 Why so many mysteries?
1000:35 What is it about mystery that I seem to be drawn to?
1100:39 And I was thinking about this, what to talk about at TED.
1200:42 When I talked to the kind rep from TED,
1300:45 and I said, "Listen, you know, what should I talk about?"
1400:48 He said, "Don't worry about it. Just be profound."
1500:50 (Laughter)
1600:52 And I took enormous comfort in that.
1700:54 So thank you, if you're here.
1800:55 I was trying to think, what do I talk about? Good question.
1900:58 Why do I do so much stuff that involves mystery?
2001:00 And I started trying to figure it out.
2101:02 And I started thinking about why do I do any of what I do,
2201:05 and I started thinking about my grandfather.
2301:07 I loved my grandfather.
2401:09 Harry Kelvin was his name, my mother's father.
2501:12 He died in 1986. He was an amazing guy.
2601:15 And one of the reasons he was amazing:
2701:17 After World War II, he began an electronics company.
2801:19 He started selling surplus parts, kits, to schools and stuff.
2901:24 So he had this incredible curiosity.
3001:25 As a kid, I saw him come over to me
3101:27 with radios and telephones and all sorts of things.
3201:30 And he'd open them up, he'd unscrew them and reveal the inner workings --
3301:33 which many of us, I'm sure, take for granted.
3401:35 But it's an amazing gift to give a kid.
3501:38 To open up this thing and show how it works
3601:41 and why it works and what it is.
3701:42 He was the ultimate deconstructor, in many ways.
3801:45 And my grandfather was a kind of guy who would not only take things apart,
3901:52 but he got me interested in all sorts of different odd crafts,
4001:55 like, you know, printing, like the letter press.
4101:58 I'm obsessed with printing.
4201:59 I'm obsessed with silk-screening and bookbinding and box making.
4302:03 When I was a kid, I was always, like, taking apart boxes and stuff.
4402:07 And last night in the hotel, I took apart the Kleenex box.
4502:10 I was just looking at it. And I'm telling you --
4602:12 (Laughter)
4702:14 It's a beautiful thing. I swear to God.
4802:16 I mean, when you look at the box and you sort of see how it works.
4902:19 Rives is here, and I met him years ago at a book fair;
5002:21 he does pop-up books.
5102:23 And I'm obsessed with engineering of paper.
5202:25 The scoring of it, the printing of it,
5302:27 where the thing gets glued, the registration marks for the ink.
5402:30 I just love boxes.
5502:31 My grandfather was the guy
5602:32 who kind of got me into all sorts of these things.
5702:35 He would also supply me with tools.
5802:37 He was this amazing encourager -- this patron, sort of, to make stuff.
5902:42 And he got me a Super 8 camera when I was 10 years old.
6002:46 And in 1976, that was sort of an anomaly,
6102:48 to be a 10-year-old kid that had access to a camera.
6202:51 And you know, he was so generous; I couldn't believe it.
6302:55 He wasn't doing it entirely without some manipulation.
6402:58 I mean, I would call him, and I'd be like,
6503:01 "Listen, Grandpa, I really need this camera.
6603:03 You don't understand. This is, like, I want to make movies.
6703:06 I'll get invited to TED one day --"
6803:08 (Laughter)
6903:09 And, you know, my grandmother was the greatest.
7003:12 Because she'd be like, you know -- she'd get on the phone.
7103:14 She'd be like, "Harry, it's better than the drugs.
7203:18 She was fantastic.
7303:20 So I found myself getting this stuff, thanks to her assist,
7403:23 and suddenly, you know,
7503:25 I had a synthesizer when I was 14 years old --
7603:28 this kind of stuff.
7703:29 And it let me make things, which, to me, was sort of the dream.
7803:33 He sort of humored my obsession to other things too, like magic.
7903:37 The thing is, we'd go to this magic store in New York City
8003:39 called Lou Tannen's Magic.
8103:41 It was this great magic store.
8203:42 It was a crappy little building in Midtown,
8303:44 but you'd be in the elevator, the elevator would open --
8403:47 there'd be this little, small magic store.
8503:49 You'd be in the magic store. And it was a magical place.
8603:52 So I got all these magic tricks. Here. I'll show you.
8703:54 This is the kind of thing. So it would be like, you know.
8803:57 Which is good, but now I can't move.
8903:59 Now, I have to do the rest of the thing like this.
9004:01 I'm like, "Oh, wow. Look at my computer over there!"
9104:04 (Laughter)
9204:06 So one of the things that I bought at the magic store was this:
9304:09 Tannen's Mystery Magic Box.
9404:11 The premise behind the Mystery Magic Box was the following:
9504:14 15 dollars buys you 50 dollars worth of magic.
9604:19 Which is a savings.
9704:20 (Laughter)
9804:22 Now, I bought this decades ago and I'm not kidding.
9904:24 If you look at this, you'll see it's never been opened.
10004:27 But I've had this forever.
10104:29 Now, I was looking at this,
10204:30 it was in my office, as it always is, on the shelf,
10304:33 and I was thinking, why have I not opened this?
10404:36 And why have I kept it?
10504:38 Because I'm not a pack rat.
10604:40 I don't keep everything,
10704:41 but for some reason I haven't opened this box.
10804:43 And I felt like there was a key to this, somehow,
10904:45 in talking about something at TED that I haven't discussed before,
11004:49 and bored people elsewhere.
11104:51 So I thought, maybe there's something with this.
11204:53 And there was this giant question mark.
11304:55 I love the design, for what it's worth, of this thing.
11404:58 And I started thinking, why haven't I opened it?
11505:00 And I realized that I haven't opened it
11605:02 because it represents something important -- to me.
11705:05 It represents my grandfather.
11805:07 Am I allowed to cry at TED?
11905:08 Because -- no, I'm not going to cry.
12005:10 (Laughter)
12105:11 But --
12205:13 (Laughter)
12305:16 The thing is that it represents infinite possibility.
12405:20 It represents hope. It represents potential.
12505:23 And what I love about this box,
12605:25 and what I realize I sort of do in whatever it is that I do,
12705:30 is I find myself drawn to infinite possibility,
12805:35 that sense of potential.
12905:36 And I realize that mystery is the catalyst for imagination.
13005:39 Now, it's not the most ground-breaking idea,
13105:41 but when I started to think that maybe there are times
13205:44 when mystery is more important than knowledge.
13305:46 I started getting interested in this.
13405:48 And so I started thinking about "Lost" and the stuff that we do,
13505:51 and I realized, oh my God, mystery boxes are everywhere in what I do!
13605:55 In the creation of "Lost," Damon Lindelof and I,
13705:57 who created the show with me,
13805:58 we were basically tasked with creating this series
13906:02 that we had very little time to do.
14006:03 We had 11 and a half weeks
14106:05 to write it, cast it, crew it, shoot it, cut it, post it, turn in a two-hour pilot.
14206:10 So it was not a lot of time.
14306:11 And that sense of possibility -- what could this thing be?
14406:14 There was no time to develop it.
14506:15 I'm sure you're all familiar with people
14606:17 who tell you what you can't do and what you should change.
14706:20 There was no time for that, which is kind of amazing.
14806:23 And so we did this show,
14906:24 and for those of you who haven't seen it, or don't know it,
15006:27 I can show you one little clip from the pilot,
15106:29 just to show you some stuff that we did.
15206:31 (Engine roaring)
15306:40 (Video) Claire: Help!
15406:42 Please help me!
15506:44 Help me! Please, help me!
15606:48 Jack: Get him out of here! Get him away from the engine!
15706:51 Get him out of here!
15806:52 (Engine roaring)
15906:58 C: Help me, please! I'm having contractions!
16007:02 J: How many months pregnant are you?
16107:04 C: I'm only eight months.
16207:05 J: And how far apart are they coming?
16307:07 C: I don't know. I think it just happened.
16407:11 Man: Hey! Hey! Hey, get away from --
16507:23 JJ Abrams: 10 years ago, if we wanted to do that,
16607:25 we'd have to kill a stuntman.
16707:27 (Laughter)
16807:32 It would be harder.
16907:34 Take two would be a bitch.
17007:35 (Laughter)
17107:37 So the amazing thing was, we were able to do this thing.
17207:40 And part of that was the amazing availability of technology,
17307:43 knowing we could do anything.
17407:44 I mean, we could never have done that.
17507:46 We might have been able to write it;
17607:48 we wouldn't have been able to depict it like we did.
17707:50 So part of the amazing thing for me is in the creative process,
17807:53 technology is mind-blowingly inspiring to me.
17907:55 I realize that that blank page is a magic box, you know?
18007:59 It needs to be filled with something fantastic.
18108:01 I used to have the "Ordinary People" script that I'd flip through.
18208:04 The romance was amazing to me; it would inspire me.
18308:06 I wanted to try and fill pages
18408:08 with the same kind of spirit and thought and emotion
18508:12 that that script did.
18608:13 So, you know, I love Apple computers.
18708:15 I'm obsessed.
18808:17 So the Apple computer -- the PowerBook -- this computer,
18908:19 it challenges me.
19008:21 It basically says, what are you going to write worthy of me?
19108:23 I feel this -- I'm compelled.
19208:25 (Laughter)
19308:27 And I often am like, you know, dude, today I'm out.
19408:29 I got nothing. You know? So there's that.
19508:31 In terms of the content of it,
19608:33 you look at stories, you think, what are stories but mystery boxes?
19708:36 There's a fundamental question -- in TV, the first act is called the teaser.
19808:39 It's literally the teaser. It's the big question.
19908:42 So you're drawn into it. Then there's another question.
20008:44 And it goes on. Look at "Star Wars."
20108:46 The droids meet the mysterious woman.
20208:48 Who's that? We don't know. Mystery box! Then you meet Luke Skywalker.
20308:51 He gets the droid, you see the holographic image.
20408:54 You learn it's a message. She wants to find Obi Wan Kenobi.
20508:57 He's her only hope. But who's Obi Wan Kenobi?
20608:59 Mystery box! So then he meets Ben Kenobi.
20709:01 Ben Kenobi is Obi Wan Kenobi. Holy shit! So it keeps us --
20809:03 (Laughter)
20909:04 Have you guys not seen that?
21009:06 (Laughter)
21109:07 It's huge! Anyway --
21209:08 So there's this thing with mystery boxes that I started feeling compelled.
21309:14 Then there's the thing of mystery in terms of imagination --
21409:17 the withholding of information.
21509:20 You know, doing that intentionally is much more engaging.
21609:24 Whether it's like the shark in "Jaws" --
21709:26 if Spielberg's mechanical shark, Bruce, had worked,
21809:28 it would not be remotely as scary; you would have seen it too much.
21909:32 In "Alien", they never really showed the alien: terrifying!
22009:34 Even in a movie like a romantic comedy, "The Graduate,"
22109:38 they're having that date, and they're in the car,
22209:40 and it's loud, and so they put the top up.
22309:42 You don't hear anything they're saying!
22409:44 You can't hear a word! But it's the most romantic date ever.
22509:47 And you love it because you don't hear it.
22609:49 So to me, there's that. And then, finally, there's this idea --
22709:53 stretching the paradigm a little bit --
22809:55 but the idea of the mystery box.
22909:57 Meaning, what you think you're getting, then what you're really getting.
23010:01 And it's true in so many movies and stories.
23110:03 Look at "E.T.," for example --
23210:04 "E.T." is this unbelievable movie about what?
23310:06 It's about an alien who meets a kid, right?
23410:08 Well, it's not. "E.T." is about divorce.
23510:10 "E.T." is about a heartbroken, divorce-crippled family,
23610:13 and ultimately, this kid who can't find his way.
23710:15 "Die Hard," right? Crazy, great, fun, action-adventure movie in a building.
23810:19 It's about a guy who's on the verge of divorce.
23910:21 He's showing up to L.A., tail between his legs.
24010:23 There are great scenes --
24110:25 maybe not the most amazing dramatic scenes in the history of time,
24210:28 but pretty great scenes.
24310:29 There's a half an hour of investment in character
24410:31 before you get to the stuff that you're expecting.
24510:34 When you look at a movie like "Jaws,"
24610:36 the scene that you expect -- we have the screen?
24710:38 These are the kind of scenes
24810:39 that you remember and expect from "Jaws."
24910:42 And she's being eaten;
25010:44 there's a shark.
25110:45 (Woman screaming)
25210:46 The thing about "Jaws" is, it's really about a guy
25310:49 who is sort of dealing with his place in the world -- with his masculinity,
25410:52 with his family, how he's going to, you know, make it work in this new town.
25510:56 This is one of my favorite scenes ever,
25610:58 and this is a scene that you wouldn't necessarily think of
25711:01 when you think of "Jaws." But it's an amazing scene.
25811:58 (Video) Father: C'mere.
25912:03 Give us a kiss.
26012:05 Son: Why?
26112:08 Father: 'Cause I need it.
26212:10 JJA: Come on. "Why? 'Cause I need it"?
26312:12 Best scene ever, right?
26412:13 (Laughter)
26512:15 Come on! So you think of "Jaws" --
26612:16 so that's the kind of stuff that,
26712:18 like, you know -- the investment of character,
26812:21 which is the stuff that really is inside the box, you know?
26912:24 It's why when people do sequels, or rip off movies, you know, of a genre,
27012:27 they're ripping off the wrong thing.
27112:29 You're not supposed to rip off the shark or the monster.
27212:32 You know, if you rip something off -- rip off the character.
27312:35 Rip off the stuff that matters.
27412:36 I mean, look inside yourself and figure out what is inside you.
27512:39 Because ultimately, the mystery box is all of us.
27612:42 So there's that. Then the distribution.
27712:43 What's a bigger mystery box than a movie theater? You know?
27812:46 You go to the theater, you're just so excited to see anything.
27912:49 The moment the lights go down is often the best part.
28012:52 And you're full of that amazing -- that feeling of excited anticipation.
28112:56 And often, the movie's there and it's going,
28212:58 and then something happens and you go, "Oh --", and then, "Mmm ..."
28313:02 When it's a great movie, you're along for the ride
28413:04 because you're willing to give yourself to it.
28513:06 So to me, whether it's a TV, an iPod, computer, cell phone --
28613:10 It's funny, I'm an -- as I said, Apple fanatic --
28713:12 and one day, about a year or so ago,
28813:14 I was signing on online in the morning to watch Steve Jobs' keynote,
28913:18 because I always do.
29013:19 And he came on, he was presenting the video iPod,
29113:22 and what was on the enormous iPod behind him?
29213:25 "Lost"! I had no idea!
29313:27 And I realized, holy shit, it'd come full circle.
29413:30 The inspiration I get from the technology
29513:32 is now using the stuff that I do to sell technology. It's nuts!
29613:35 (Laughter)
29713:36 I was going to show you a couple of other things I'm going to skip.
29813:39 I'll show you one other thing that has nothing to do with anything.
29913:42 This is something online; six years ago, they did this.
30013:45 This is an online thing done by guys who had some visual effects experience.
30113:49 But the point was, that they were doing things
30213:51 that were using these mystery boxes that they had -- everyone has now.
30313:54 What I've realized is what my grandfather did for me when I was a kid,
30413:58 everyone has access to now.
30513:59 You don't need to have my grandfather, though you wish you had.
30614:02 But I have to tell you --
30714:04 this is a guy doing stuff on a Quadra 950 computer --
30814:06 the resolution's a little bit low --
30914:08 using Infinity software they stopped making 15 years ago.
31014:11 He's doing stuff that looks as amazing
31114:13 as stuff I've seen released from Hollywood.
31214:16 The most incredible sort of mystery, I think,
31314:19 is now the question of what comes next.
31414:21 Because it is now democratized.
31514:24 So now, the creation of media -- it's everywhere.
31614:26 The stuff that I was lucky and begging for to get when I was a kid
31714:30 is now ubiquitous.
31814:31 And so, there's an amazing sense of opportunity out there.
31914:34 And when I think of the filmmakers who exist out there now
32014:37 who would have been silenced, you know --
32114:39 who have been silenced in the past --
32214:42 it's a very exciting thing.
32314:43 I used to say in classes and lectures and stuff,
32414:46 to someone who wants to write, "Go! Write! Do your thing."
32514:49 It's free, you don't need permission.
32614:51 But now I can say, "Go make your movie!" There's nothing stopping you
32714:54 from going out there and getting the technology.
32814:56 You can lease, rent, buy stuff off the shelf
32914:59 that is either as good, or just as good,
33015:02 as the stuff that's being used by the, you know, "legit people."
33115:06 No community is best served when only the elite have control.
33215:10 And I feel like this is an amazing opportunity
33315:12 to see what else is out there.
33415:14 When I did "Mission: Impossible III," we had amazing visual effects.
33515:17 ILM did the effects; it was incredible.
33615:19 And sort of my dream to be involved.
33715:21 And there are a couple of sequences in the movie,
33815:23 like these couple of moments I'll show you.
33915:30 There's that.
34015:38 (Video) Luther: Ethan, move!
34115:45 (Explosion)
34215:52 Obviously, I have an obsession with big crazy explosions.
34315:55 So my favorite visual effect in the movie is the one I'm about to show you.
34415:59 It's a scene in which Tom's character wakes up.
34516:01 He's drowsy. He's crazy.
34616:02 And the guy wakes up, and he shoves this gun in his nose
34716:05 and shoots this little capsule into his brain
34816:07 that he's going to use later to kill him, as bad guys do.
34916:16 (Video) Brownway: Good morning.
35016:19 JJA: OK, now.
35116:21 When we shot that scene,
35216:22 the actor who had the gun, an English actor, Eddie Marsan --
35316:25 sweetheart, great guy --
35416:26 he kept taking the gun and putting it into Tom's nose,
35516:29 and it was hurting Tom's nose.
35616:30 And I learned this very early on in my career:
35716:33 Don't hurt Tom's nose.
35816:34 (Laughter)
35916:36 There are three things you don't want to do.
36016:38 Number two is: Don't hurt Tom's nose.
36116:40 So Eddie has this gun -- and he's this sweet English guy.
36216:42 He's like, "Sorry, I don't want to hurt you."
36316:45 I'm like, "We have to make this look good."
36416:47 And I realized that we had to do something because it wasn't working.
36516:50 And I thought back to what I would have done
36616:52 using the Super 8 camera that my grandfather got me
36716:55 sitting in that room,
36816:56 and I realized that hand didn't have to be Eddie Marsan's.
36916:59 It could be Tom's.
37017:00 And Tom would know just how hard to push the gun.
37117:02 He wouldn't hurt himself.
37217:03 So we took his hand and we painted it to look a little bit more like Eddie's.
37317:07 We put it in Eddie's sleeve,
37417:09 and so the hand that you see --
37517:10 that's not Eddie's hand, that's Tom's. So Tom is playing two roles.
37617:14 (Laughter)
37717:15 And he didn't ask for any more money.
37817:17 So here, here. Watch it again.
37917:19 There he is. He's waking up.
38017:21 He's drowsy, been through a lot.
38117:27 (Video) Brownway: Good morning.
38217:29 JJA: Tom's hand. Tom's hand. Tom's hand.
38317:31 Anyway.
38417:32 So ...
38517:33 (Applause)
38617:37 Thanks.
38717:38 (Applause)
38817:40 So you don't need the greatest technology to do things that can work in movies.
38917:45 And the mystery box, in honor of my grandfather, stays closed.
39017:48 Thank you.
39117:49 (Applause)