Alfred Hitchcock explains the ‘MacGuffin’ (VIDEO)

Will Perkins
Wide Screen

Do you know what a MacGuffin is?

The word “MacGuffin” may not be familiar to you, but if you’ve ever seen a movie (and you're reading a movie blog, so we'll assume the answer is yes) then you’re definitely familiar with the concept, whether you realize it or not.

In filmmaking parlance, a MacGuffin is a plot device – often an object or goal – used to motivate the main characters or spur them into action. In George Lucas’s original “Star Wars” movie, the MacGuffin was the stolen Death Star plans carried by droid R2-D2. In Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” the MacGuffin was the mysterious briefcase.

What exactly the MacGuffin is or does in a movie doesn’t actually matter – and, in the case of films like “Pulp Fiction,” is sometimes never even explained. The MacGuffin’s only role in a film is to drive the plot forward by being an item or goal coveted by the parties involved.

So where did the term “MacGuffin” come from?

Legendary filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock certainly didn’t invent the concept or the word, but he is considered to have been the person most responsible for popularizing the use of the MacGuffin in cinema. The famed “Psycho” director used the device in countless films throughout his career, most notably "The 39 Steps" and "Notorious," and often talked about it in interviews.

One such interview where the subject of MacGuffins came up was a 1972 appearance on "The Dick Cavett" show. The full interview is fascinating to watch, but for those interested only in the MacGuffin bits, Brazilian filmmaker and motion designer Isaac Niemand has extracted the exchange in question and transformed it into this cleverly animated short film featuring cut outs of Hitchcock and frequent collaborator Cary Grant.

So now that you know what this oddly named filmmaking technique is -- courtesy of a filmmaking legend and a South American music video director -- try to figure out what the MacGuffin is the next time you're at the movies.