Can a computer write a screenplay? Yes!

I'm not sure cinema can get more digital than this short film. Yes, it was shot on film and yes, it utilizes a little CGI, but the deeply digital quality stems from the writing: it was written by a neural network, an algorithm.

The film begins with some confusing yet expositive words: 

Just above your smartphone keyboard lives an artificial intelligence. It was trained on lots of texts and emails. And tries to guess what you'll type next. We were curious what would happen if we trained this kind of software on something else; science fiction screenplays. So we fed a LSTM Recurrent Neural Network with these: [long list of sci fi screenplay txt files]. Then gathered a cast & crew for one day. Then we fed in random seeds from a sci-fi filmmaking contest...[contest prompts]....and turned it on. This was the screenplay it wrote:

In other words, the screenplay was sourced from three ingredients: neural network software, sci-fi screenplays, and solicited user contributions. The creation of this film is innovative in its use of software, databases, and collective intelligence. Now, that's one complex digital "author."

The outcome is a 9 minute short film that is just as incoherent as you might expect. What's surprising though, is that the combined sci-fi source material, user input, and smart direction creates something that does indeed look and feel like a sci-fi movie. The chaos of so many authors (seriously, consider the authorship that went into all of the screenplays) churned through an impressive predictive-text-AI-software-package does indeed produce a genre film. Sci-fi is a generous one in that it's very core is about innovation, boundary-pushing, and exploring the unexplorable. This would have been less successful of a test if the genre of choice had been, say, a romantic comedy.

Most of this blog focuses on the use of digital technologies in production and post-production. What's so valuable about this film is that it is a rare case in which the digital dominates in pre-pre-production. I, for one, look forward to seeing further experiments in digital film writing.

Click here to watch Sunspring.

Manufactured Authenticity: Invisible Effects

I've posted on VFX a couple of times previous, but both cases were about spectacular ones. Effects of this ilk are showpieces and stand-outs, achievements in bringing fantasy to life. Most of the VFX work, however, is invisible. Nearly every movie utilizes some image tweak in DI. For example, a director may be unhappy with the color of a given scene, which is an easy fix by way of color correction. These "effects" are not evident for a reason: they are supposed to seem real in a way that doesn't dazzle you, but goes unnoticed instead. (Here we enter the murky territory of "realism" in the digital age.)

Click here to watch a VFX reel which showcases many invisible effects in Black Mass. Make note of the following changes: color correction, removing leaves from a tree, covering up (and in one case removing) a new building for a period film, adding snow, making the greyish Florida coastline blue, and adding crowds. These effects are not revolutionary but that's part of the point. Movies such as this one, period films in particular, aim toward authenticity. As I've discussed elsewhere, that authenticity is a style which mimics photographic realism. This example, and many others reveal the manipulation and handiwork that creates something so seemingly real. We're in a tough spot in which we need to problematize realism just as it's creation is growing faker and yet more convincing as technology improves.

Deadpool and VFX

As a person who pretty much can't stand superhero movies, I think I've found my entry into the genre: Deadpool. My usual sense of agitation that develops after too many action sequences simply never happened when watching this particular movie. The intelligence of the writing, and the surprisingly strong performance by Ryan Reynolds (I wasn't a fan until now), kept me interested and delighted during and between action-heavy sequences. Take note, superhero filmmakers: make them smarter, like Deadpool!

While reveling in smart, dark ideas and words, I was also dazzled by the effects. This video compiled by Visual Effects: Behind the Scenes showcases just a few of the truly astonishing achievements by RodeoFX. You'll see examples of all kinds of VFX techniques in the video. The demonstration of additive/combined layers to create Colossus is particularly illuminating. 

Click here to watch view the a series of VFX befores, durings, and afters. One warning: for some reason people often like to overlay lame rock musical scores over compilations. This one has a track that's particularly grating and repetitive, so hit mute before pressing play.

Practical Effects, For a Change

Digital visual effects have gotten, quite literally, spectacular. If you've done some reading on this topic, you know that they still rely heavily on real world resources. In fact, many VFX producers and engineers have spoken loudly about the importance of working with plates (raw, unedited, photographic footage) and physical 3D models. In other words, the real is still an integral component of even the most fantastic visual effects sequences.

What we talk about less is the role that practical effects play in contemporary cinema. You'd be surprised (I constantly am) by how many amazing sequences are shot with real people or objects in real places. This video provided by Screen Rant (by way of Boy Genius Report), demonstrates examples of current and recent (by that I mean the last 20 or so years) examples of astonishing practical effects. Fun fact: the two actors pictured above are being held up by wires! From BB-8 (a real robot!?) to men dropping from a plane, onto another plane in Inception, this video provides a solid array of impressive practical effects.

Participant Cinema: Make Your Avatar a Star

Ready Player One is one of the most enjoyable and intelligent trade sci-fi books to appear in years. Without giving away too much, the premise is about regular users occupying and hacking a virtual world named OASIS. Themes of user engagement, activity and collective intelligence run throughout the novel. 

Warner Brothers and Steven Spielberg are working on a film adaptation right now. As I read the novel, I could clearly imagine what a movie would look and feel like. It's a cinematic novel. When I heard that Spielberg is at the helm I felt pang of sadness as I wasn't sure his heavy-handed directorial style would work with the intelligence and subtleties found in the book. But, then I remembered Minority Report. Spielberg did not ruin that adaptation; in fact, I think he did a pretty decent job of depicting Phillip K. Dick's complex story.

One indicator that this movie has hope is the manner in which the folks involved (including the book's author) are including regular users, just as the OASIS engineers/owners do in the book. Follow this link to see the CFA (Call for Avatar). They're inviting gamers and designers to create their own avatars, a few of which will be chosen to appear in the film. The old commie in me sees a red (haha) flag in that the media companies are now asking us to produce content that we will then pay to consume later. But, another view, a less dark one, sees this gesture as one wholly appropriate to the story and our current context. 


VFX Demo: Jurassic World

Behind the scenes footage is widely available for those interested in examining the making of VFX. This lot from Industrial Light and Magic (the Edison of VFX) is particularly valuable for the purposes of analyzing digitally manipulated footage. In specific I value the wide array of techniques presented in this 3 minute compilation. Therein you'll find visual examples of: compositing, 3D modeling, color correction, digital mattes, DI passes (a million of them), chroma key, green screen, and much more. You'll also see the various stages in compositing VFX into plates, process by process.

There's even a nice little lens flare at the beginning, completely manufactured of course, as there are no cameras, lenses, or real light involved in that part of the clip.

Click here to view the behind the scenes clip.