Category Archives: Models

Examples we can productively study

Sora Will be A Game Changer

I would love to be wrong, but filmed entertainment seems to be facing its own equivalent of the robotic assembly line.

A little-reported but hugely significant white flag of surrender surfaced a few weeks ago when the producer and actor Tyler Perry suddenly canceled a planned expansion of his Atlanta studios. A dozen new sound stages were originally projected, but that was before he saw what he considered a “mind blowing” demonstration.

Perry changed his mind after he viewed a collection of short videos produced by an A.I. program called Sora. On just verbal prompts to Sora, the name of an image generator from Open AI, a fabricated scene emerged as an instant “video” that was difficult to distinguish from a sequence that a Hollywood production company might take days to set up. The crane shots in some of these fake videos are stunning. The characters look like they have been groomed for their parts. Shadows are mostly authentic. And the live action from people and animals look mostly “real.” As the Washington Post noted in an excellent must-see article,  the images and actions are “shockingly realistic.”  The article and its examples are best seen on a computer screen. Here’s a sample of one of the videos with its text prompt that is cited by the Post.

[Verbal Prompt: A cat waking up its sleeping owner demanding breakfast. The owner tries to ignore the cat, but the cat tries new tactics and finally the owner pulls out a secret stash of treats from under the pillow to hold the cat off a little longer. (OpenAI)]

We expect that most institutions will evolve incrementally: slow enough to allow for adjustments to new realities. That may not be the case here. Every trade in the film and video industry must be asking how they will fit into a world of narrative storytelling when anyone without experience with computer generated images can “create” stunning video effects.

To be sure, things aren’t perfect in this early generation of Sora. Look at a sample of an invented scene from a 1930s movie, also cited by The Post.  It looks great, but Sora doesn’t know how to light a cigarette:

[Verbal Prompt: A person in a 1930s Hollywood movie sits at a desk. They pick up a cigarette case, remove a cigarette and light it with a lighter. The person takes a long drag from the cigarette and sits back in their chair. Golden age of Hollywood, black and white film style. (OpenAI)]

Hollywood is not alone in confronting technological advancement, but the ease of use of this technology makes it an existential threat to the film world as we know it. Producers and various content providers will love this tool. But it cannot be anything but a blow to artists and trades that usually make traditional film or video projects. No wonder actors were so concerned about achieving a new contract that would prohibit the use of their likenesses without their permission. I would love to be wrong, but the future of “filmed” entertainment seems to be facing its own equivalent of the robot revolution in the production of automobiles.

A colleague who knows about these things notes that crews have been dealing with Computer Generated sets and effects for years. As actor can now appear to be walking down a street in Prague while passing in front of a green screen in Burbank. And many are working these days. There’s also the example of recent films like Poor Things (2023), with actual Victorian sets on sound stages and the inventive use of crafts that go with a period piece. My colleague also wonders if many A.I. scenes aren’t essentially rip-offs of other location videos, slightly modified to seem more original than they are.  Newer generations of this software should help clarify the charge of “mere copying”.

To be sure, the future appears bright at least for copyright lawyers.  Then, too, actors in dense roles driven by dialogue construct screen personas carefully.  Performances come from assumed motivations and hard-to-fake nuances. Can a fully integrated performance like Emma Stone’s in Poor Things really be put together from just from verbal directions?  Even so, an upheaval is bound to happen as seemingly recognizable persons are placed in novel settings and given words that they never muttered.

A.I. appears to be a new and fearsome thing facing the film industry, but it is even more of a threat to the culture as a whole if journalists and public figures face an endless tangle of anger and confusion over real and fabricated words and images.

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Music as a Memory Trigger

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Friends of singer Tony Bennett noted that his last years with dementia did not deter him from performing his music.

[Music remains unique in its ability to refire memories that have been dormant.  Perhaps it is a trigger to important “autobiographical memories.”] 

It seems impossible to consider the vital sense of hearing without celebrating the special phenomenon of music, which has a lock on many of us. Watch a two-year-old child move to the beat of a song and we are reminded that the ear readily learns to love music’s embedded rhythms.  Often minimized as a pleasant addendum to life, music is more accurately described as central to its enactment. It is undervalued if it is seen as anything less than a prime generative source for refreshing the human spirit.

All of this was eloquently reinforced in Michael Rossato-Bennett’s 2014 documentary, Alive Inside. The filmmaker initially signed on for just one-day to film an effort to reclaim an older American lost to dementia. The experiment soon captivated the filmmaker and became a full-time project.

Most of the film’s subjects were selected by social worker Dan Cohen, who discovered that many seniors reconnected with their own lost memories when reintroduced to the music of their youth via a compact player.  For one older gentleman it was simply enough to hear the restless swing of Cab Calloway through earbuds to lift a fog of non-communication.  Beyond kick-starting lost memories, the music brought the man alive emotionally. He suddenly had access to his distant past as an accomplished dancer and musician. It was the “mental glue” that held his old self together.

The idea of a wearer of a set of headphones experiencing private ecstasy is hardly new.  But it means so much more when the person listening was thought to be little more than a piece of human furniture. It turns out that music is the perfect vehicle for reclaiming memories thought to be gone forever.  Neuroscientists have noted that music triggers well-named “autobiographical memories” that can be tapped in almost no other way. In the words of Australian researchers Amee Baird and William Thompson, music can be “an island of preservation in an otherwise cognitively impaired person.”  Songs “powerfully engage the frontal regions of the brain, which are typically spared from damage.”  The neural pathways that relay music are among the most durable in the brain. Friends of singer Tony Bennett noted that his last years with dementia did not stop him from coming fully engaged again when asked to sing his music.

The same was true in Rossato-Bennett’s documentary when headphones were placed on Mary Lou Thompson, a younger woman perhaps in her early sixties with early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease. Even recognizing the purpose of an elevator button was difficult. Thompson’s husband could only marvel at the sight of his wife, earbuds in place, slowly unfolding her lean, tall frame to glory in an old Beach Boys song she obviously never forgot. It was like watching a time-lapse image of a closed flower opening to the sun. I’ve seen very few screen documentaries that so dramatically revealed a person’s instant transformation.

There may be reasons to lament the mobile phone as a device that undercuts the value of direct and immediate experience. But there can be no doubt that a portable music player enriches us by being a potent memory trigger.

Even the crusty innovator Thomas Edison sensed music’s power to mesmerize. Listeners at the 1893 Columbian Exhibition in Chicago clamored to hear distant voices and songs on his audio cylinders, often through rubber ear tubes. It was then a miraculous idea that voices could be captured in midair to be heard years later. Even though he had become deaf, Edison seemed to understand the regenerative possibilities of sound for rebuilding the human spirit. It’s no surprise he identified the humble phonograph as his most satisfying invention.

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