Monday, March 21, 2011

J.J. Abrams' TED Talk: The Mystery Box

What? Two JJ Abrams articles in a row? That's not cool.

Well... I think it is. So this is from like four years ago, but hadn't ever seen it. For young aspiring filmmakers, this is the type of stuff you should be looking at to get you moving.

I look forward to JJ's career maturing a bit more so books can emerge on his style and theory. I feel like he's singing to the same tune that Spielberg did back when his career was just taking off.

The whole idea expressed in this TED talk of the 'mystery box' is a cool perspective, and although I'm sure it's a bit sugar coated and packaged nicely to fit into a concise speech (what kind of story teller would he be if he didn't sum it up and make it fantastical), the message is still there loud and clear.

Abrams is basically reiterating the idea that mystery, which generates conflict is inviting for an audience member to become engaged with the material and use that problem solving and logic part of the brain that so many contemporary films assume is too exhausting. The lack of knowing provides a catalyst to think about the story, and automatically puts the story ahead of the audience, rather than the audience already knowing what will happen.

This is a connection I've found while reading these biographies and interviews with Frank Capra. It took 10 years of his career to come to that realization. From the start of his film career in 1922 all the way to 1933, he was making films that were spoon feeding audiences. Hence, the audience was ahead of the picture.

Roughly a decade later, he really began paying attention to pacing. More specifically, he began monitoring the audience who watched his films by recording them while the screening was going on. He immediately could find out what parts worked, and what didn't. If an audience laughed, they built in more filler after the gag. This allowed the audience to laugh and not step on the toes of upcoming important dialogue.

It was in 1933 though, that Frank Capra decided to pick up the pacing in his film American Madness. He had the actors speak faster than they were rehearsing to enhance a sense of chaos. The performances were quick and messy and the cutting kept up with this. People stepping on other people's lines, the number of cuts increased, and a new sense of panic emerged. The picture was finally ahead of the audience. From then on, Capra shot and cut all of his films 33% faster than what felt comfortable.

This act alone kept audiences engaged because they did not want to miss what was being said. I think, although Abrams and Capra achieve it in different ways, they both share the same philosophy.

The other aspect that I found incredibly interesting and inspiring is the comments Abrams exhibited with the dinner sequence from Jaws. What Abrams is calling the 'Mystery Box' of story telling is essentially showing rather than telling. This immediately sets your audience up to stay behind the picture. The most humanistic scenes can be the most rattling and if you tell it right, the audience connects and is immediately sucked into it. It is not only fascinating, but it's rewarding once the audience figures out what the humanistic action symbolizes. The real challenge is finding the line between stretching those bounds too far and it becoming pretentious and too melodramatic. But that's where experience comes into play.

Even though this TED talk is a few years old, if you haven't seen it, take a look at it. I just found it very thought provoking and I think it rings true with my thesis in its own sort of way.

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