The Best Filmmaker’s TED Talks

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Over the last few years, it’s become apparent that anyone who’s anyone, creatively speaking, should deliver a TED talk at some point. An organisation that began in 1984 devoted to Technology, Entertainment and Design has grown into a forum for creative ideas, business discussion, scientific innovation and just about anything else that sounds cool. Along the way, some Hollywood types have been among those big brains to speak, offering their take on everything from storytelling to secret keeping to product placement. We’ve gathered some of our favourites below – including one that hasn’t even happened yet...

The creator of Wall-E and Finding Nemo and, most recently, the director of John Carter, Andrew Stanton knows a thing or two about storytelling. He trained up as a story expert on Pixar. His skills were built across the studio’s output and as a key part of its brain trust. It should come as no surprise, then, that his TED talk focuses on the art of storytelling – and it should also come as no surprise that he believes that the key to a great story is making you care about the characters, even if you have to do a little work to understand them along the way. However obstensibly alien or unsympathetic, whether fishy or robotic or, well, Martian, there has to be something we can all identify with – as he discusses here with the help of a few well-chosen film clips. Essential viewing for screenwriters, actors and directors alike. One warning, however: it contains that bit of Finding Nemo that would make a stone cry.

We all know that JJ Abrams is an international man of mystery, a director who has made a career of keeping secrets. What you didn’t know is that he can be a very funny, almost manic person too – qualities which he displays here. From discussing The Graduate to performing magic tricks to examining the fascinations of Lost, he dissects the importance of keeping mum. The talk also works as a tribute to his grandfather, a formative character in his life and a man he commemorates in his movies (his name was Harry Kelvin, hence the USS Kelvin in Star Trek). Recorded in 2007, it’s also interesting in hindsight to note the tributes he pays to Spielberg, his Super 8 collaborator. And as if all that weren’t enough, it contains the line, “Ten years ago to get that shot we’d have had to kill a stuntman.”

Technology, entertainment and design – if there’s one person in which all those areas cross, it’s probably James Cameron. He's continually pushed the envelope tech-wise, with insane box-office to prove his entertainment ability. Sure enough, what comes across in this talk about the genesis of his creative life is the importance of merging his passions: a curiosity for the natural world, a passion for sci-fi and a determination to visit alien worlds through his underwater adventures. While it’s a very personal talk in some ways, and more-or-less autobiographical (“and I made this other movie about this big ship that sinks," he notes in passing at one point, before explaining that he made Titanic as an excuse to visit the wreck), it’s also fascinating to hear where passion comes from, and how intense curiosity for the next challenge can drive a person on.

Knowledge, argues Shekhar Kapur, stops wisdom, and the best way to get past it is to get panicked. It’s an unconventional view, perhaps, but the director of Elizabeth and its sequel The Golden Age makes a convincing case for “getting rid of your mind”. A little more philosophical and mystical than, say, Cameron’s story (although not as different as you might think), Kapur also notes the infinite scale of the universe and the importance of stories in finding our place in it. “We are the stories we tell ourselves,” as he puts it. Not that it’s all high-falutin’; Kapur also cracks some jokes about what he’s learned in Hollywood (executives are apparently suspicious of both subtext and dancing). Any speech that mixes Einstein, Alexander the Great, Queen Elizabeth and Cate Blanchett is a winner in our book.

Unlike some of the other speechifiers here, Jeff Skoll is not a household name, even in reasonably filmic households. But the former eBay-president-turned-film-producer has played a role in bringing us films from An Inconvenient Truth to Syriana to Murderball and Good Night, And Good Luck (more recently he’s worked on Contagion and The Help). His company, Participant Productions, aims to tell stories about the issues that affect us all “and maybe engage us to make a difference,” as he puts it. According to his talk, his digital fortune was merely a means to tell those stories and start that change. That he has succeeded is no mean feat. As he puts it: “The quickest way to become a millionaire is to be a billionaire and come to make movies in Hollywood”. Why not show this one to your nearest billionaire and suggest that he or she does likewise?

He burst onto the scene with Super Size Me and since then, as he puts it here, Morgan Spurlock has been putting himself in “difficult and dangerous” situations in order to make social issues entertaining onscreen. Last year’s effort was The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, and he discusses and presents that film here, the story of his attempts to entirely fund a film about advertising and product placement through, well, advertising and product placement. Much of the material here is covered in the movie, but this functions as a 20-minute summary of the film, an update on its progress and a commentary on it. Adding an extra meta-touch, Spurlock also sold sponsorship of his TED talk itself, and if you keep watching you’ll see who landed it on eBay.

OK, so strictly this one hasn’t happened yet and belongs to a fictional universe which, alright, means that strictly it’s unlikely to ever happen. And sure, it’s by no means certain that in 11 years TED will have become such a massive event that it will take place in full stadiums of cheering nerds (although we quite like that prospect). That said, this use of viral marketing is clever enough that it’s worthy of TED in its own right, and so earns its place here. This clip sees industrialist Peter Weyland set out his vision of the future. It’s a vision that we know will lead to galactic mega-corporation Weyland-Yutani and its entanglement with a certain xenomorphic species so, while grand enough for the forum, it’s perhaps not the most long-sighted of the talks here. At least, we hope none of the other talks we’ve listed here lead, however indirectly, to quite such bloody consequences.