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The mystery box

Chris Anderson introduces JJ Abrams by reading some quotes about him from the web, characterising him as anything from a genius to an idiot. He’s the creator of Alias and Lost and directed the Tom Cruise robot in Mission Impossible 3.

In explaining his creative process, he tells us about his maternal grandfather, who lent him his first camera, and who took him to Lou Tannen’s magic store in Manhattan. At the store, JJ bought a “Mystery Box” – $50 of magic for $15, which he’s never opened. He puts the box on stage and explains why he’s never opened it: because it represents his grandfather, because it represents infinite possibility, and because mystery is the fuel of imagination.

Mystery, he tells us, can be more important than knowlege. The intentional withholding of information is what makes some of the most exciting aspects of cinema – we rarely see the shark in Jaws, the alien in Alien. Had the shark robot worked in Jaws, the film wouldn’t have been as compelling. We watch a long, non-action clip from Jaws as a reminder that these films aren’t about action, but about divorce, belonging, finding your way in a new town.

The movie theatre itself is a mystery box. “Sometimes the moments the lights go down is the best part.” As if to illustrate this point, we see excerpts from Mission Impossible. There’s a scene that involves Tom Cruise having a gun shoved in his face – this violates one of the key rules of cinema, which is “Don’t hurt Tom’s nose.” The scene ends up with Tom holding the gun in his own face – the technique Abrahms remembers from his ten-year old filmmaking. “Tom’s playing two roles and he didn’t even ask for any more money.”

The mystery box, these days, is the computer – the fact that we can build our own films without asking our grandfather’s permission to use his camera.

There are two short talks afterwards, one from Jakob Trollbäck, who shows a gorgeous video of a track from David Byrne and Brian Eno’s “Life in the Bush of Ghosts”. It’s cold, clean, technical and very, very beautiful. And we see animations of a forthcoming Sony Imageworks picture, “Surf’s Up”, which looks about as good as a film about surfing penguins could get.

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