Artificial intelligence has been a buzzword for futurists as long as computers have existed, but 2022 was the year the public started to dread its advancement. With the chatbot ChatGPT released to the public and generating complex answers to millions of prompts in seconds, many people in the business of storytelling have been worried about new competition. Hollywood screenwriters don’t have to know how to save the cat if a computer can do it for them.
This has been a year loaded with dramatic uncertainty for the industry, from the wild oscillations of the streaming market to the bombardment of doom-and-gloom prognoses for arthouse cinema. But these ephemeral dramas have nothing on the fear of encroaching A.I.
I’m in the business of searching for silver linings. In recent weeks, I’ve found that there’s an optimistic spin to this rise of the machines that should reassure artists who feel like they’re under fire, at least for now. Before A.I. becomes a credible threat to the creative process, it’s a powerful tool for experimentation, and far from anything that could endanger art itself. If anything, filmmakers should embrace it.
I’ll leave the most unnerving big-picture questions to technologists and policy makers, but it felt right to devote this week’s column to the ramifications of ChatGPT for the creative community, and filmmaking in particular. Anyone invested in the singular and subjective nature of the creative process might want to sound the alarm. It’s an existential crisis hiding in plain sight, after all: Imagine a future where, instead of Stanley Kubrick directing “2001: A Space Odyssey,” HAL 9000 does it for him.
Well, not so fast. Questions about the guardrails surrounding A.I. behavior, and its application to every facet of human life, will only accelerate in the years to come. For now, however, they don’t pose a genuine threat to filmmakers willing to embrace the potential of A.I. as a fresh tool. We fear what we refuse to understand; come to terms with it and we’re more likely to bend it to our will.
A Long Time Coming
First of all, anyone freaked out by ultra-smart A.I. ought to recognize that we’ve been living under the thumb of computer-based processes for a long time; we just used different words to describe it. Every complaint about how streaming platforms rely on algorithms is essentially about the role of A.I. in modern entertainment.
Of course, this advancement stands out more when the robot talks back to you with tangible ideas. However, while ChatGPT can certainly come up with story ideas on the fly, it’s not the first A.I. with that potential.
At the New York Film Festival over a year ago, I moderated a conversation for a Campari-produced short film made in the style of Fellini — or, at least, a computer’s idea for one. “Fellini Forward” was an attempt to harness artificial intelligence for a new short film inspired by Federico Fellini’s work. As ridiculous as that might sound, the carnivalesque end result looked about right: It wasn’t a Fellini movie so much as a slick Fellini homage, loaded up with circus imagery and the haunting, dreamlike encounters experienced by a soul-searching protagonist. However, the computer didn’t make the final movie; it was guided to fruition by commercial director Maximilian Niemann, who utilized concepts suggested by an A.I. program that scanned Fellini movies and spat out suggestions in piecemeal. Newman then filtered them through his own creativity.
I thought back on this short in recent weeks as ChatGPT both amazed and terrified anyone who encountered its mind-bending technological precision. Every legacy media publication had a hot take on it — and for good reason. The program, which was released by OpenAI this month (the same masterful/eerie software geniuses behind the A.I. drawing program DALL-E), can unleash a shocking amount of substance in response to user-generated prompts: detailed term papers, video game code, and poignant love stories, all conjured in seconds. Fears of maniacal robots overtaking the world spread just as fast as ChatGPT itself. Was this the start of the dystopian robot war that everything from “The Terminator” to “The Matrix” had warned us about? Why didn’t we listen to the movies?
Easy now. At NYFF, I spoke with filmmakers Drea Cooper and Zack Canepari, who produced a 45-minute documentary on the Fellini short. “It was an experimental art project,” Cooper said. “If you look at the way A.I. is being used in our everyday lives … what’s unique about this is that we were trying to figure out if there’s a creative application for artificial intelligence.”
That’s all ChatGPT can do at the moment. The expediency of language-generation software obscures its boundaries, and this one offers only neutral, non-partisan, and ultimately risk-averse answers — all attributes that the best kind of art should avoid, movies included.
A.I. Is Not an Auteur
As an exercise to illustrate this point, I tried to get ChatGPT to conceive of several movies that resonated this year.
Merie Weismiller Wallace/Universal
First, I asked it to come up with the premise for a movie based on Steven Spielberg’s childhood. The response detailed Spielberg’s biography based on available information, but it didn’t give me “The Fabelmans.” There was nothing about how this bittersweet movie illustrates the ability of the camera to investigate the mysteries of the world around us. ChatGPT’s own premise didn’t touch on the critical impact that the divorce of Spielberg’s parents had on his filmmaking instincts or the seminal advice he received from his hero John Ford. Instead, it offered up the literal-minded variation of the movie that Spielberg would never make. Behold its immediate response:
Steven Spielberg’s Childhood: The Movie
In the early 1960s, young Steven Spielberg is a budding filmmaker with a big dream. Growing up in a middle-class family in Phoenix, Arizona, Steven spends his days making short films with his Super 8 camera and dreaming of one day becoming a famous director.
But Steven’s path to success isn’t easy. He faces challenges and setbacks at every turn, from his strict and demanding father to his own insecurities and fears. Despite these obstacles, Steven perseveres and works tirelessly to hone his craft, eventually earning a spot at the prestigious University of Southern California’s film school.
As Steven navigates the ups and downs of college and early adulthood, he must also confront his own personal demons and insecurities, struggling to find his place in the world and make a name for himself in the cutthroat world of Hollywood.
Through it all, Steven never loses sight of his dream and eventually becomes one of the most successful and influential filmmakers of all time. “Steven Spielberg’s Childhood: The Movie” is a heartwarming and inspiring tale of determination, hard work, and the power of chasing your dreams.
Likewise, when I asked ChatGPT to tell the story of two old friends on an imaginary Irish island during the country’s civil war who have a falling out, it didn’t give me “The Banshees of Inisherin” but rather the premise for a cheesy buddy movie and an uplifting ending that Martin McDonagh’s dark comic instincts would never allow for:
The Irish Island
On a small, imaginary Irish island in the midst of the Irish Civil War, two best friends, Sean and Liam, spend their days fishing, drinking, and enjoying life to the fullest. But when Sean discovers a hidden talent for music and decides to pursue a career as a musician, their friendship is put to the test.
Liam, content with their simple, carefree lifestyle, can’t understand Sean’s desire to leave the island and follow his dreams. As tensions rise between the two friends, they find themselves at odds and on the verge of a falling out.
As Sean struggles to find his place in the music world and Liam grapples with his own sense of identity and purpose, they are forced to confront the deeper issues that have always lurked beneath the surface of their friendship.
Through a series of trials and setbacks, the two friends come to realize that their bond is stronger than any disagreement or difference of opinion. “The Irish Island” is a heartwarming tale of friendship, forgiveness, and the power of following your dreams.
Ick. ChatGPT sure sees a lot of storytelling potential in following your dreams.
Finally, when I asked for a sequel to the 2009 “Avatar,” it most certainly did not give me “Avatar: The Way of Water,” which builds on the complex invented world of the original with new species and deeper themes about family bonds; instead, it suggested a ludicrous concept in which a couple of the Na’vi leave Pandora — an absurd conceit by the original movie’s logic, since every “Avatar” superfan knows that the Na’vi derive the potency of their existence from Pandora itself.
These underwhelming pitches wouldn’t go anywhere on even the most desperate studio lots, and they underscore the need for clear artistic vision that doesn’t build on preexisting formula. A.I. plays by the rules; art breaks them.
That’s why I’m skeptical of the fears expressed by some creatives about what the future might hold. In an interview last week during his “Pinocchio” promotional tour, Guillermo del Toro said that A.I.-produced art was “an insult to life itself” that he wouldn’t dare touch. “I consume and love art made by humans,” he said.
Del Toro begged off on elaborating when I reached out to him this week — he’s taking some much-needed R&R after wall-to-wall “Pinocchio” press — but I think it’s appropriate to consider his hesitation in light of his most recent movie. For generations, the “Pinocchio” myth has questioned the boundaries of human intelligence and whether it can be invented from scratch. Del Toro’s wondrous variation emphasizes this question through the rickety character design of its lead character, who doesn’t look much like a real boy even when he becomes one. ChatGPT is eons behind that: It may be able to mix and match facts and theories based on available information, but you don’t have to look hard to realize that it lacks a soul.
Of course, that same argument could be leveraged against the worst IP grabs Hollywood offers up. If algorithms and formula drive the mentality behind most blockbusters, it might seem like the most natural outcome for them is to eliminate whatever humanity might still lurk behind the scenes. That’s why artists should mine A.I. for its constructive potential first, before the commercial system assumes it only exists for the bottom line. Find a better use for it.
Some filmmakers are already getting there. Glenn Marshall started his career in CGI and motion graphics, but in more recent years has been experimenting with A.I. softwares to enhance short film and feature ideas. His 2022 short “The Crow,” which uses A.I. software to envision the dreamlike dance of a bird creature, provides an eloquent illustration of how to work in congress with A.I. suggestions to create a detailed aesthetic vision. It invites visual improvisation in the digital space not unlike drips of paint do on a canvas. “Most art I’ve seen over the years has been soulless, human-made, and derivative,” Marshall told me this week. “With A.I. art, it’s about a billion times better.”
That may have been an exaggeration, but he had strong convictions about why reservations over A.I. were so off-base. “The biggest misconception is the term ‘artificial intelligence,'” he said. “It creates so much fear in people — a fear that fuels the narrative for the anti-AI brigade. In reality, it’s just another machine algorithm that generates images. If we could erase all use of ‘AI’ in our language, there wouldn’t be such a misconception about it. But we need to label things, and we love a villain.” As for del Toro’s recent remarks, Marshall said he felt the director was “speaking from a lack of understanding, and perhaps elitism. At the end of the day, A.I. is just another tool to create art. All art is ultimately human.”
Beyond that, A.I. technology can save time and money for filmmakers working on a shoestring. It can help with concept art, character design, and more. Yes, this avenue comes with serious professional risks that could put a lot of talented craftspeople out of work. Again, this is where the domain of policy makers come into play: The industry must ensure that people aren’t losing work to a computer. But for microbudget movies that don’t have the luxury of big teams, A.I. will come in handy.
Spare Me Your Fear
The bottom line is that fear won’t stop the gradual advancement of new technologies on a world that won’t stop moving forward. When A.I. cranks out masterpieces good enough to play in competition at Cannes, I’ll huddle down in the same bunker as all the doomsayers out there. For now, though, these fears miss the extent to which A.I. needs our brains more than we need it, and that includes the film community.
It’s possible that Google or another tech giant could come along with an A.I. program that predicts the future in ways we never could have anticipated. For now, though, this particular industry is too fraught for a machine to sort out on its own. Sure, you could run the concepts for this year’s Sundance movies through ChatGPT to try and figure out which ones might sell big — but to what end? For now, ChatGPT can’t truly grasp the future direction of an industry determined by an art form. Here’s what it told me when I asked it about the market at Sundance 2023:
Predicting the success of a movie can be difficult as it depends on a variety of factors such as the quality of the film, the marketing campaign, and the audience’s interests and preferences. It is also important to note that the Sundance Film Festival is known for showcasing a diverse range of independent films, and the success of a film at the festival does not necessarily reflect its success at the box office or with mainstream audiences.
True enough, but nothing in that response measures the underlying value of discovering art from new voices and experiencing its raw power in the moment. ChatGPT can’t tell you how well Sundance will go any better than I can. The movies have to arrive on their own terms. Until then, the robot’s guess is as good as ours.
I’m sure some readers are shaking their heads at how much I’m sugarcoating the technocratic dystopia on the horizon. As usual, I welcome feedback on this week’s subject: email@example.com
Check out earlier columns here.
Last week’s column on the potential for low-budget motion-capture storytelling in the aftermath of “Avatar” elicited some fascinating responses. Here are a few of them.
You asked to hear about other low-budget mocap options and I’m in the middle post on a short film where I’m doing mocap for *free*, and it’s blowing me away. I think it’s all really fascinating stuff — and the best part for me has been the ease of access. I’m not a professional VFX artist. I’m a third-year university student working alone, and yet both financially and skill-wise, this sort of motion capture has been within reach.
I’m using the cinematic sequencing tools in Unreal Engine (which allow for rendering in-game footage, typically for things like cutaways). I’m also using a tool made by Epic Games called Metahumans. Now, these metahumans are incredibly detailed and look fantastic. However, the best part is that there’s a free app on the app store called “Live Link Face,” which uses the Face ID sensors on iPhone to map your face directly onto the metahumans. This allows pretty high-fidelity motion capture — for free. Here’s a quick clip of the motion capture results.
As good as they are, I do not believe Metahumans could be passed off as real actors. However, they work great for my purposes: In the scene in my film, a boy and his AI companion jump into the Metaverse to play a VR Battle Royale. I use the metahuman to be the digital version of my main actor, so the blatant CG imagery actually helps sell the effect.
I just read your article and thought I would pass along these examples of some short films and BTS our lead animator created on his own (except for writing and music) utilizing consumer level mocap. I think they turned out amazing but maybe we are a bit biased. I would argue the future you are talking about is already here and talented artists around the world are creating amazing short films, video games, branded content and more utilizing budget friendly motion capture technology from companies like Noitom and software like Maxon’s Cinema 4D. Technology like this removes barriers and gives creative individuals and small teams the chance to bring their visions to life without having to utilize large crews and even larger budgets.
—Amy B. Theorin, Executive Producer, Something’s Awry Productions