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.

VR + Documentary = Yes please.

Have you ever watched a movie using virtual reality goggles? It's pretty cool, but also pretty limited. They may be different, but the ones I've tried were shown through Oculus software. You are placed into a "theater," which incidentally is the coolest part: you get to look around a virtual theater that actually feels large and open. After selecting your film, you get to watch it on two tiny screens (in the goggles) that feel like an actual auditorium. My most recent experiment was watching The Lego Movie in 3D. The experience was pretty amazing, actually but as the technology stands right now, it's also awkward and fairly low-res. From my few forays into this arena, however, I can say with confidence that this will be a "thing" and perhaps even a game-changing one.

A new studio, Scenic, has recently launched with the express goal to foster the creation of non-fiction (yes!) films for VR viewing. Some of the directors on board include Amir Bar-Lev (The Tillman Story), Liz Garbus (What Happened, Miss Simone?), and Sam Green (The Weather Underground) name a few. The first round of films will be released this summer with a purported 40 in its first year.

A lot about this venture is innovative and extraordinary but the stand out, for me at least, is the focus on non-fiction media. Filmmaker Magazine's Paula Bernstein quotes filmmaker Gary Hustwit, saying:

“VR is kind of dominated by gaming and CGI stuff. I think there is a real potential for documentary film to be made with this technology. But again, it’s about getting a lot of filmmakers to try it out and wrap their minds around it and figure out how it fits into their creative process."

Bernstein notes that VR is fundamentally about taking us to places we otherwise can't go, real or virtual. One could argue that documentary shares a similar goal. It's also a genre that's embracing innovation. Two 3D docs come to mind: Pina (Wenders) and The Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Herzog). Both bring you into places you really can't go otherwise. The first takes you onto the stage during a dance performance and the latter takes you into a restricted-access French cave containing 30,000 year old paintings.

The marrying of VR and documentary is an exciting and fitting one to be sure. We should all keep our eyes on Scenic's upcoming releases.

For more information, click here to read Bernstein's article.

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.

Streaming: It's a genre now?

This New York Times article argues that streaming media, TV in particular, is not just a medium, but a format as well. Poniewozik makes a solid case for his argument that streaming has introduced something entirely new to a medium that hasn't changed much in the last 80 or so years. The immediate release of an entire season for binge consumption certainly is new. Scholars are debating the merits of this new approach at this very moment. Do you have enough time to process a densely-packed hour of television if you start another episode 20 second later? The weekly format may be irritating but it did built in time for contemplation. TV has also gotten smarter (thank you, HBO) which should be coupled with even more time and space for analysis.

The word "genre" occupies a very specific place in film and media studies. For film its often a retroactive term utilized to examine trends and thematically significant moments within specific cultural and historical contexts. Genres are specific ways to package ideas that best expresses the content which always has social and cultural significance. With this discipline-specific definition in mind, is streaming a "genre?" I'm not convinced that it is. However, I do think Poniewozik has a point in regards to streaming's foundational impact. Existing genres may in fact transform in anticipation of a new viewing context. Do we need epic cliff hangers if we can just sit back and wait for the next episode to load, rather than holding onto that narrative question for a week? Poniewozik anticipates this by asking content producers to step up their game: "streaming needs to learn to use its supersized format better, not fight against it."

Read Poniewoziks' NY Times article by clicking here.