Writing movies by AI

| Friday, der 28. October 2016

By Andrew Horn

I once had a friend named Lenny, who, among more normal pursuits, was a consummate prankster. One example would be the creation and distribution of a marketing pamphlet for a company called Compu-Date-o Seek: a computer dating service – if you remember those – for people who wanted to date computers. He also started an international clown hating society – for Bozophobics, as he called them. This was actually written up in the Village Voice, which he said got him both hate mail and threats…from clowns.

But another favorite of mine was a prank phone call he made (and recorded) to tech support for a company that made a popular script writing program. Lenny said he was calling because the program didn’t work. He and the support guy walked through the set up and confirmed that everything was up and running, but when all was said and done, Lenny told him it still didn’t work.

The guy asked him what was the problem and Lenny replied, “this is a script writing program, right?” “Right” the guy answered. “But it won’t write the script,” Lenny complained. The support guy assured him that everything was fine and the program was doing just what it was supposed to do, but Lenny still insisted that there was something wrong: it wasn’t writing the script! To make a long story short, they continued running around in circles like this and, trust me, much hilarity ensued.

Now I bring this up because I was cleaning out my inbox the other day and found a notice of an Indiewire article from a couple of weeks ago about a then new Kickstarter campaign for a horror movie called “Impossible Things”. The reason this was noteworthy was that the movie is being written with artificial intelligence.

So I went to the site and unlike most movies seeking support, the main thing is not so much the movie itself, but the concept of a computer program they’ve created to come up with the script for said movie. We are told that “Impossible Things” is engineered using Big Data and Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) from the initial creative stage to ensure that it is the scariest and creepiest horror film out there!”

A press release for the film says “A little over 85% of movies made today don’t make a profit [at the] box office, which is the result of a mismatch between the movies being produced and audiences’ tastes. […] Before a single word was written, our AI told us that if we wanted to match audience taste, we needed to make a horror film that featured both ghost and family relationships, and that a piano scene and a bathtub scene would need to be used in the movie trailer to increase the likelihood that our target audience would like it.”

Watching their trailer, I have to say “Scariest and creepiest” seems like a bit of a stretch, but they do account for all those “necessary” elements, plus another de rigueur trope, the creepy child voiceover singing a nursery rhyme or lullaby.

Now by the sheerest coincidence, as I was writing this (or rather trying to procrastinate from writing this) there was a trailer being featured on IMDB for an upcoming horror movie called “Shut-In”. And what do we find in this trailer, but the above-mentioned family relationships, the dead child, and the bathtub scene. As Bill O’Reilly likes to say, “bing, bing, bing.”

Now to backtrack a bit, my first knee-jerk response to this whole Kickstarter thing was the usual Luddite reaction – a computer is going to make the screen writer obsolete! God knows the fear of being replaced by technology has been around since the Industrial Revolution and the ever advancing development of AI is even now eliciting new warnings from the likes of Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk.

But thinking about it, “Shut-In” came to very similar results without the computer program, which begs the question, do we really need artificial intelligence to help come up with derivative and formulaic ideas? It seems like writers can do that very well, thank you very much. So then I thought, the one’s who should really be afraid here are the studio executives. Why should someone be paid big money to put together sequels and reboots and formulas when you can get the program to do it? And they get paid way more than the writers, so this is where you REALLY get the savings!

So ok, I made my joke, but then something else happened. Because I wanted to embed the “Shut-In” trailer, I looked it up on YouTube and that’s where I found something even more interesting: a trailer for a recent release called “Morgan”, a movie about a cute AI robot child who, as is the usual trope for these stories, goes out of control. Here is the trailer.

Ok fine, but then I saw it had another trailer, one that was edited by artificial intelligence, and it looks quite different. Personally I liked the human one better, but I was very amused to see that the AI trailer begins with the same routine from the Kickstarter trailer of the child’s voice reciting the nursery rhyme, AND it’s the very same rhyme that their computer program used in their trailer. I guess that must be an AI favorite!

But wait, there’s more. This clip referred to yet another clip in which the above AI-made trailer was shown to other AI robots(!) in order to observe their reactions. And it looks like they’re liking it!

Now both this last clip and the Kickstarter clip talk about how despite these “advances” it’s still important to have a guiding human element to keep things grounded. But then, in all of my googling, I found reference to a short film whose script was written completely by a computer. It’s a quasi-science fiction film called “Sunspring” made as a collaboration between a filmmaker and a “technologist” who developed a program called Jetson which wrote the script.

As one might expect, the result is slightly alien, but at the same time sort of cool, like a surrealist Exquisite Corpse exercise or a William Burroughs cut-up. The actors play it totally straight with the material and if you don’t quite pay full attention to it, it almost – though not quite – seems to make sense. Particularly the monologue at the end, which I found strangely poetic (my favorite:, “He looks at me and then he throws me out of his eyes”).

Ok, it’s an amusing experiment that certainly wouldn’t seem out of place as an art installation, but I think a whole movie like this would be pretty hard to take. At least for a human.

So now I’m starting to think that there is a whole new issue being opened up here, much bigger than the original Kickstarter thing, and it brings me back to my friend Lenny and his pranks – not the one about the writing program as I first thought, but the one about the computer dating program for computers.

If someone is really going to come up with a way to get AI’s into the film biz, maybe we should do what humans do best – not fight it, but exploit it. And maybe for once we don’t have to screw ourselves out of our jobs to do it. I mean, think about it – computers are everywhere, of all sorts and sizes: desktops, laptops, tablets, smart phones, smart watches, smart TV’s, smart refrigerators, self driving cars and who knows what’s next. Here’s a whole new mega-market just waiting to be served: AI’s making movies for other AI’s! My friend Lenny may have been kidding, but in hindsight he was clearly pointing the way to the future – and it’s gonna be yuuuuge!

Ahorn