Tag Archives: filmmaking

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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Paterson is remarkable for its director’s ambition to build a story around a character’s interiority.

There is something surprising and satisfying about Jim Jarmusch’s 2016 film Paterson, which chronicles the creative life of an everyman poet.  The film follows its dominant character through a series of routine work days.  He’s a bus driver, using the freedom granted by the predictability of his route to work out lines of poetry that are committed to paper at the end of the day.

Each morning he leaves his small bungalow and his artist wife for the short walk to the bus barn.  Even on his feet he’s a natural observer; and Jarmusch gets out of the way to let us see the modest city that reveals itself every day. Once underway, it’s mostly the driver’s ears that take over, catching the conversations of the children and seniors who depend on his NJ Transit bus. He also absorbs the lives of locals in a neighborhood bar he visits after dinner. It’s part of his routine of taking the couple’s English bulldog for a walk.  (Marvin was played by Nellie, who won the Palm Dog Award at Cannes).

If this all sounds like watching paint dry, you’d be surprised.

The film’s title has at least three meanings. The young driver’s name is Paterson.  The town he lives and works in is also Paterson, in Northern New Jersey.  And the name happens to be the title of William Carlos Williams’ most consequential book of poetry, which sits on Paterson’s desk.

Actor Adam Driver is skillful enough to let us see Paterson’s mind absorb his world. In this story there will be no crashes, no hold ups, or any break in the loving bond between himself and Laura. Instead, Jarmusch focuses on the linear thinking of Driver’s character, a man intent on working out his thoughts. Paterson doesn’t even carry a cell phone, which he perceptively sees as a distraction and “a leash.”

Periodically Jarmusch lets us see the results of Paterson’s verbal invention in his own scrawl. It unobtrusively slips under the film’s images in a corner of the screen. The lines contributed by writer Ron Padgett are very much in the Williams tradition: an economical free-verse style.

Motion pictures generally work from the outside in, using action rather than thought as motivating elements.

Here’s the interesting thing. Paterson is remarkable for its willingness to build the film around a character’s interiority.  Films often show us a great deal, but usually starve our interest in understanding a figure’s state of mind. Motion pictures generally work from the outside in, using actions rather than thought as motivating elements. Actors may want internal motivations to bring their characters to life. But directors naturally want something interesting to show.

And there’s the rub. Poetry is frequently about passing impressions, layers of revelatory consciousness that are eventually made audible.  As a form, it’s not necessarily fragile, but it is often subtle. A director has to be inventive and confident to put stories on the screen that build out from the inner life of a poet.

                     Burke and Williams

Interestingly, Williams was a friend of Kenneth Burke, perhaps the most influential of all American rhetorical scholars. When he visited Burke’s farm in Andover New Jersey the two men—Williams, a physician and poet of the ordinary, and Burke, the grand theorist of all things symbolic—would sometimes goad each other. Williams might gently mock Burke about his “damned theorizing.” But both thrived in the same realm of words and thought.  Burke was driven by the desire to create a grand theory of everything, as revealed in our symbol-using.  Williams often sought to record what his senses were telling him about about his busy life in the Garden State. That a film would seek to enter this world of verbal action is a reminder of the kind of transformative story an observant filmmaker can tell.