17 August 2023

The human touch

There are growing signs that film-industry bosses are trying to defeat the SAG-AFTRA-WGA strike -- and to destroy the bargaining power of writers and actors more generally -- by going all-in on "AI".  Several companies are advertising high-paying "AI" jobs.  There has been talk of using bots similar to ChatGPT to "write" film scripts, and of making scans of an actor's face and body which could then be animated to create a digitized performance in a movie -- thus eliminating the need to use (and pay) writers and actors at all.  Indeed, such plans predate the strike, and part of the unions' goal is to limit the use of such technology.

It is all fundamentally a scam, of course.  Even the film companies acknowledge that a bot-written script would require some editing to get it into an optimal form, for example.  That is to say, the "editor" who produced a usable script from the junk churned out by the bot would be the real writer, but wouldn't be paid as much as a writer.  As for using fake CGI-generated actors, we've seen "deepfakes" that imitate real people doing simple things for a few seconds (here is one of the more impressive examples I've seen), but that's a far cry from replicating everything a skilled actor does to breathe life into a full-length film performance.  It's another case of the grey men in grey suits who rule over a creative industry having no clue what the creative people who generate all the value really do, regarding them as just disposable utensils and the industry itself as just one more interchangeable mechanism for generating profits.

Perhaps more to the point, though, the bosses are at risk of budlighting their whole industry, taking it in a direction diametrically opposed to what the customers want.  To exemplify what I mean, consider two recent films.  First, The Flash:

You can see this was basically just one more generic, interchangeable superhero movie like we've been getting for years now, except that (start about three minutes in) it went even further in the direction the bosses want to take the industry by using computer-animated stolen likenesses of actors who are long dead and thus cannot speak out against their legacies being exploited like this.  And in a year littered with failed remakes and superhero epics, The Flash was the worst flop of all, losing at least $200 million despite critics gamely doing their best to push it.  An over-complicated story and a pronoun-weirdo star with a well-publicized criminal record were also problems, but the lunge into usage of CGI instead of real actors certainly didn't help.

Next, Barbie:

Many reviewers have noted this film's use of real, physical sets instead of the CGI which a more typical production nowadays would have used, and how vivid and tactile everything looks as a result.  Even for scenic backgrounds, they hired real artists to paint real matte paintings -- and the difference truly shows on the screen.  For the sequences of travel between worlds, Barbie used mechanical effects which look almost quaint -- but what you see on the screen has a charm and solidity that CGI could never have matched.  Then there's the quirky and highly original script, an almost jarring blend of comedy and existentialism that somehow works perfectly.  The human touch shows in every aspect of the movie.  And none of this was excessively expensive.  The budget of $145 million was on the modest side for a project of this scale today.

The reliance on practical effects also helped enable the bright, colorful imagery which is part of the film's appeal.  There was no need to resort to a dark, murky look to hide the crappyness of CGI effects.

We've seen the results.  Barbie is on track to be the biggest hit of the year, a huge success all over the world.  This is what audiences want, what they were waiting for to swarm back to theaters.

Hollywood has mostly settled into a pattern.  Studios churn out generic assembly-line movies with a dreary, gloomy, and unreal look to them, endlessly rehashing tired old ideas in a wasteland of franchises and remakes and reboots -- and audiences stay home.  The grey men in grey suits want to take the industry even further down that path, literally using fake computer-generated scripts and fake computer-generated actors.  Unfortunately they won't be able to create computer-generated audiences to spend real money watching the resulting rubbish.

Do they really want to destroy what's left of the industry, just to avoid paying actors and writers properly?


Blogger nick said...

Your prediction of where the film industry is heading is alarming, but no doubt true. I haven't seen any AI or CGI enhanced movies (to my knowledge) but I assume they're as inferior as you say. The last film I saw was Hello, Bookstore, an unlikely contender for CGI!

17 August, 2023 12:40  
Blogger Mary Kirkland said...

I'm fine with movies using some CGI, as long as it's not the entire movie. AI is another beast altogether and I have a feeling that we'll be seeing a lot more of it which is a shame.

17 August, 2023 12:49  
Anonymous Annie said...

As I was clicking through the links, I noticed a Time headline stating that California politicians (who included the lieutenant governor), joined labor unions in asking Taylor Swift to postpone her LA concerts in solidarity with striking hotel workers.

That struck me as a persuasive coalition, but when I checked further, I learned Swift performed anyway. This performer has moved economies. It seems to be the least she could have done.

Not long ago, I listened to Alan Alda and a longtime friend/costar read from a comedy script "written" by AI. They agreed it wasn't at all funny. I agreed with them.

A worthy topic, for sure.

17 August, 2023 12:53  
Blogger Lady M said...

I predict the rise 0f the indie film industry. People will be desperate for creativity and art.

17 August, 2023 14:32  
Blogger Sixpence Notthewiser said...

Do they really want to destroy what's left of the industry, just to avoid paying actors and writers properly?

Short answer? Yes. Until it affects THEIR pockets. Then they'll backtrack. A.I. does not know what Pracmatic failure is. It does not know humor or irony. It only knows what's added to its database. Your examples of The Flash and Barbie are on point. I have not seen The Flash (and I adore super heroes, that tells you everything) but I did go see Barbie (word of mouth) and what you mention about a story about a plastic doll in a plastic world being so human, so touching, so relatable has to do with the actors (America Ferrera! Margot Robbie! Ryan Gosling!) and with the director's thinking and vision (those trips from and back to Barbie Land are fabulous!) are what made the movie the One Billion juggernaut it is. A.I cannot replicate that.

There'll be growing pains, but as Lady M said, Indie films will take over. Love that journey for me. I may watch The Flash on a rainy day when it streams...


17 August, 2023 16:04  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Nick: They seem determined to bring it about. The problem is that audience preferences are going in the opposite direction.

Mary K: CGI is very common these days, and usually it's pretty convincing -- until you see something with practical effects to serve as a standard of comparison.

Annie: I'd have to know more about the circumstances. It's hard to see how Swift performing or not would have made much difference either way to the unions' bargaining power. And if it was a matter of letting down fans who had already bought tickets, that's the kind of thing she tends to attach a lot of importance to.

I hope she gave some financial support to the strike fund, though. Quite a few show-biz people have.

I shudder to think what "comedy" "written" by "AI" would be like (this topic seems to require a lot of quotation marks).

Lady M: That's very true. Perhaps it's time for the huge dinosaurs to give way to smaller, nimbler competitors. Independents can keep making moves the traditional way and take a chance on new ideas, and audiences will take notice.

Sixpence: Disney alone has lost a billion dollars this year on its endless succession of duds. That may be starting to get the message across -- I've seen rumors that Iger is starting to get rid of some of the big shots responsible for the failures. If the rest of the year is equally bad for the cookie-cutter stuff, and we get a few more really original films that succeed, the big studios will surely start to get the message. The big obstacle right now is their apparent pig-headed desire to beat down the actors and writers.

Real fans of, say, Tom Cruise are never going to turn out to see an "AI"-generated fake version of him.

I really hope that audiences frustrated by all this junk will give more indie films a look, and also films from other countries.

18 August, 2023 11:40  
Blogger Marc McKenzie said...

As someone who has been fascinated with CGI since seeing TRON in the theater as a wee lad, I liked your take here.

However...we still need to be careful here. Yes, films like BARBIE (glad to see it breaking records) and OPPENHEIMER use a lot of practical effects. But there is still CGI involved, particularly in set extensions and backgrounds. You would not notice it because there are no superhero effects or anything, but they are there. One of my favorite films of 2013, RUSH (the story about the Lauda-Hunt F1 rivalry in 1976) used a lot of practical effects and cars. But there was also CGI used--again, for background effects, for matching archive films with what was shot for the movie, and also to enhance weather effects and add cars, and in one sequence, stage an accident that would have been too dangerous for stunt drivers.

But again--you would never notice, and that's the general idea.

If it seems like I am getting defensive about CGI...perhaps I am. Mostly it's due to me being a reader of CINEFEX and seeing everything the CGI artists go through and knowing that they are often pushed to the limits with tight deadlines and filmmakers and studios who know next to nothing about what CGI really entails only to see their work skewered by people who assume that anything with CGI equals donkey shit. And while I respect directors like Nolan who go with mostly practical effects, it needs to be made clear that Nolan goes practical for as much as possible and then brings in the CGI. The same with directors like Zack Snyder and Guillermo del Toro too (in the latter's case, the awesome film Pacific Rim would not have been possible without CGI).

My guess is that the studios got addicted to CGI without really knowing much about it.

As for AI...yep, the studios are finding out that the humans who make their films and TV shows and animated programs are not going to bend over and meekly accept being replaced. Again, the studios swallowed the BS offered by these GenAI companies, run by people who either have no clue about art or have a raging hatred against artists. The studios really thought that everyone would meekly accept. Obviously they were caught off-guard by the backlash and the double-strikes.

As you said, the human touch is necessary. Many artists have been facing depression and a lot of self-doubt with the GenAI art that's invading places like DA and ArtStation; I confess that no, I have not been immune either and that's why you haven't seen new postings on DA from me (hope to rectify that). But what is even worse about GenAI is that it gives the people who use it a false sense of accomplishment. You type in a few words and out pops an essay or story or picture--but it's all false. It's based on scraping the works of actual artists and writers without their permission and putting together a mush that looks great on the surface but looking closer is full of errors. It takes away the creative struggle that art is. Give these people a pencil and a piece of paper and I will bet you that they will come up with nothing at all, because they lack the fundamental skills that art requires; there are no shortcuts here.

The late Harlan Ellison once said that art demands work from you, it demands foot-pounds of effort. He was right. There is a true sense of accomplishment when you put in the work by actually writing or drawing or painting or acting, whether in front of a camera or in front of a microphone. And yes, while I do use digital tools to help create my art, everything always starts with a pencil drawing.

Sorry if this comes across as a long-winded rant--I guess I had a lot to get off my chest. Thanks again for this essay; there was a lot of food for thought in it.

I'll close with a line from Chohei Kambayashi's Yukikaze: Humans are always necessary.

19 August, 2023 06:44  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Marc: Thanks for the thoughtful comment. The second video does mention that Barbie used a little CGI, but only as minor clean-up, hiding cables which supported a "flying" character and suchlike. The actual sets and main backgrounds were practical, and that's what makes such a difference to what you see. If all those "dreamhouses" had been CGI, for example, the movie would never have achieved the look it has.

My understanding is that the overuse of CGI is rooted in the fact that the workers who do practical effects are unionized and those who do CGI are not -- that is, it's saving money by using exploited labor. If CGI places were unionized, presumably the cost difference would decrease and CGI would be used only for the types of situations where it doesn't look noticeably inadequate. I also have the impression that the quality has deteriorated over time.

In any case, CGI replacement of real actors for an entire movie, which is the real issue here, crosses a line. It's not going to be accepted by fans, and I don't believe it can be done convincingly in the foreseeable future.

It was actually from DeviantArt that I first became aware of the "AI" art issue, Quite a few artists there have posted about the threat they feel it poses both to real artists and to quality generally. You may have seen this item I linked a couple of weeks ago -- apparently DA has become so flooded with "AI" art now that the programs are poisoning their own training data.

The false sense of accomplishment is weird, although I've seen evidence of that. Telling a machine to do something and then claiming it as your own creation is just like telling a person to do something and then claiming it as your own creation. I simply accept the fact that I can't draw and that if I ever need some art representing a specific thing of my own imagining, I'll need to commission somebody to do it. There's nothing wrong with that as long as everybody's being honest.

Of course using digital tools to create an image is the same kind of thing as using a paintbrush to create an image (they're both technology), and not the same as just telling a computer to do it.

I'm always glad when something I write encourages thinking. Writing is my own art form, I think.

19 August, 2023 23:12  

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