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It's a SORA State of Affairs when AI Hits Filmmaking

That AI Shill!: Ashton Kutcher and wife Mila Kunis at the 2022 Academy Awards. / Photo courtesy of Dreamstime.

That AI Shill!: Ashton Kutcher and wife Mila Kunis at the 2022 Academy Awards. / Photo courtesy of Dreamstime.

We love all things related to technology. The proof is in the pudding, or rather, in our recent article pondering how AI will revolutionize the filmmaking industry. It is too early to predict how it will change movie and TV production. Everybody runs around like a headless chicken, throwing everything at the wall and waiting to see what sticks. Nobody wants to be left behind. Nobody knows where the train is going. Will AI do to studios what ride-share apps did to taxis? Pull an AirBnB to hotels?

Because nobody knows anything yet - not really - there are plenty of misfires and faux pas that make you think this level of disruption is not necessarily a good thing. Now it’s the time to laugh. Let’s hope we don’t end up crying! The last few weeks have given us top cringe in AI's advance over Hollywood.

Kutcher Pulls a Kelso Move

What is SORA and why is Film Twitter so mad at it anyway? 

Open AI is a research company striving to develop Artificial Intelligence and its applications in all walks of life. The founder’s rooster is a who’s who of tech bros, including Elon Musk and Sam Altman. Their SORA project is in the middle of a PR strategy, giving hints about how it can find applications in the film industry. The name comes from the Japanese word for “Sky,” so, it can’t be that bad, right? Right?

We’ll see about that. 

Recently, actor Ashton Kutcher engaged in a public conversation with former Google bigwig Eric Schmidt, sponsored by the Berggruen Institute, an L.A.-based think tank focused on technology. It’s a mystery why the man who gave us vintage doofus Michael Kelso on “That 70’s Show” is a source of wisdom to ponder the application of AI in filmmaking - perhaps because he is backing Sound Ventures, a $240 million fund aiming to invest in the technology? -. 

During his talk, Kutcher touted the prospective use of SORA in filmmaking, as a tool to lower production costs by generating elements such as “establishing shots of a house.” That is just the tip of the iceberg: voiceovers, special effects sequences, and full performances by fake actors will follow. If Ashton has his way, we’ll even get full movies.

"You will be able to render a whole movie. You'll just come up with an idea for a movie, then it will write a script, then you'll input the script into the video generator and it will generate the movie...instead of watching some movie that somebody else came up with, I can just generate and then watch my own movie"

Kutcher's argument reeks of the myth of self-reliance behind the most egregious fails of our time, from tech-bro hubris to anti-vaccination activists who "do their own research."

Millionaire Side Hustle: Kutcher wants to sell you AI, the Brooklyn Bridge, and bottled air. / Photo by ID Michael Bush©, courtesy of Dreamstime

Millionaire Side Hustle: Kutcher wants to sell you AI, the Brooklyn Bridge, and bottled air. / Photo by ID Michael Bush©, courtesy of Dreamstime

But let's take Kutcher's statements at face value. Is it really "your own movie," though? AI is based on the work of human, flesh and bone artists and technical workers. The fruits of their labors - and their selves - are turned in grist for the mill that comes up with algorithms making these “creative” choices. Of course, Kutcher is psyched at the prospect. He aiming for his company to charge for the service. He has a horse in this race. He is not aiming to protect his acting career as an actor. He is not talking as an artist but as a businessman.

The road to dystopia is littered with speculative tech that never quite delivers. The concept is tempting, but the execution is dire. You wish for something that sounds great, and when you achieve it, you discover it sucks. We’ll see those “self-generated” movies while eating a full meal in a pill, riding a self-driving flying car to a Mars colony. Whether you call it “disruption” or “progress,” they deliver on their promises or not, these developments can change art and our way of life. For example, theatrical exhibitions of movies suffer as powerful businessmen gloat about the degradation of the medium, framing it as progress.

Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos happily revealed his son, a self-professed “film editor,” watched David Lean’s epic“Lawrence of Arabia” for the first time on his phone. If you are lucky enough to have seen “Lawrence of Arabia” projected from a 70mm film print on a big screen, you shudder at the thought of Baby Sarandos holding a diminished version in his hand. Are these fellows the best stewards to lead the confluence of art and technology in the XXI Century? Evidence points to “no.” It’s even more disturbing when those who should know better fall for the shiny baubles of these merchants.

When Indie Filmmakers Fall

We love the Tribeca Film Festival, but they are testing our devotion. The 2024 edition included a last-minute sidebar with AI-generated shorts by up-and-coming filmmakers granted access to SORA. 

Director Nikyatsu Jusu is the most famous of the bunch. The American daughter of an immigrant from Sierra Leone, she conjured her mother’s experiences in the supernatural chiller “Nanny” (2022). Her debut feature film took the indie world by storm, scoring many awards in its film festival run, including the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and the Someone to Watch Award at the Film Independent Spirits Award. It even got the rare acknowledgment of being included in The Criterion Collection.

Social media meltdown: Nikyatu Jusu deleted her account after backpedaling her criticism of AI. / Photo by Hutchinsphoto© , courtesy of Dreamstime.com

Social media meltdown: Nikyatu Jusu deleted her account after backpedaling her criticism of AI. / Photo by Hutchinsphoto© , courtesy of Dreamstime.com

Jusu developed a short titled “Spirit.” She took to Twitter - sorry, “X” - to promote it, as any filmmaker would do. “SORA is wild, y’all…” she wrote in a post that included a still showing four AI-generated black girls in what looks like the sunny street of a Caribbean town. The blowback did not take too long. Commenters decried the use of the technology. Some went as far as digging into Jusu’s older postings where she manifests concerns over how AI can affect minorities in the industry.

"Can't stop thinking about the various ways AI will be used to replace living, breathing minorized artists already struggling to tell their own stories. AI will become (a) mock representation - an empty mimicry of black and brown people's light commodified and vomited back to us."

Et tu, Jusu? What a difference a year makes. Twitter being Twitter, the ensuing pile-up included valid criticism with borderline racist disqualification. After a few hours, the filmmaker deleted her account. That is why we can't show the actual tweets. A screen capture of one of them will do.

More Bad Moments in AI Film Overreach

It remains to be seen if the technology changes the industry for bad or good, or if it just fades away as a gimmick that never quite catches up. In the meantime, there is no lack of episodes that veer from the sad to the ridiculous, sometimes at the same time. Let's check out the best of them - or rather, the worst.

Disney Uses AI to Save Money on Extras

Sure, “Prom Pact” is disposable entertainment for teenyboppers. Nobody expects first-rate production value, but the public deserves a modicum of quality. Unsuspecting viewers scanning the bleachers in a gym scene were regaled with a horrifying sight: fake CGI-originated extras losing it for the home team! I wonder how much money they saved by giving the cold shoulder to a few extras earning a day’s salary - or perhaps half a day, which would be worse. If this is the future, let me stick to the past.

"Wandavision" Behind-the-Camera Villanous Subplot!

Man, Disney is really buying into AI to save pennies. During the production of Marvel’s wildly successful TV series “Wandavision,” FX personnel scanned the bodies of several actors and day players without explaining how the data would be used. Once people wised up, a human-generated lawsuit hit the Mouse House. Imagine losing a job to a computer-generated figure with your likeness.

Studios defend the use of AI during Hollywood's strikes

The ‘Wandavision” affair shows why AI was a salient issue on the negotiating table of the 2023 Hollywood Strike. Are you a screenwriter? The suits aimed to use AI to cut down writers’ room for TV series, rewrite, and perhaps even write movies through pure software magic - fed by work done by human beings in the past. Are you an actor? You probably would not be needed on the set if they could insert your likeness in the background. Some safeguards were agreed on, but you can bet a team in an executive suit somewhere is studying how to get around them.

“Late Night with the Devil” Pull an Evil Trick

Actor David Daltsmachian deserves all the big breaks he can get. The horror movie “Late Night with The Devil” seemed perfect to push her career to the next level. The hardy supporting player had a perfect star vehicle as a Johnny Carson-wanna be trying to resurrect his ratings with a gimmicky Halloween special about devil possession. Alas, once the movie hit theaters, public discourse concentrated on the filmmaker's gratuitous use of AI-generated images.

Writer-director brothers Cameron and Colin Cairnes played with AI tech to create cartoonish graphic designs conveying the Halloween theme of the show-within-a-movie. The images copy vintage late-night TV show aesthetics. The Cairnes defended themselves by stating that the offending images only appeared for seconds, as on-air announcements when the broadcast got interrupted by otherworldly shenanigans. Nice try, guys. We all have eyes, so we could see the offending images used as set dressing all over the fake TV studio. You can see it everywhere, just in the trailer!

Natasha Lyonne and Her AI Initiative

We are on the record as Natasha Lyonne fans. She is not just a great actress, but one of the rare actors who truly loves film.

Say it isn't so!: Natasha Lyonne broke our hearts by flirting with AI. / Photo by Hrubaru©, courtesy of Dreamstime.com

Say it isn't so!: Natasha Lyonne broke our hearts by flirting with AI. / Photo by Hrubaru©, courtesy of Dreamstime.com

For all these reasons, we were heartbroken when the trades reported she and other Hollywood creatives were launching "Late Night Labs, “ described as an AI film and animation studio.” Their annoying website claims it’s “artist-led.” Elsewhere, they speak of using AI and giving artists “tangible ownership” of their work. Sounds nice, but no. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

The Fake AI Trailer Craze

The “Wes Anderson ‘Star Wars” trailer was funny for a second, but the joke got played fast. Now, the web is littered with similar stuff, with the pretentious name of “AI Concept Trailer” or things like that. These mementos from movies that will never exist are pure nightmare fuel.  

Bad Movie Promo We Hate

A24 may be the coolest distributor around. Their brand is strong, and every release they put out is guaranteed to catch the attention of young adults. This year, they tested their credibility with AI-generated one-sheets for Alex Garland’s “Civil War.” The posters portrayed major US cities in the aftermath of destructive warfare. It may be thematically appropriate, even if the locations don't appear in the movie. The problem was in the execution: perspective and image incongruency plagued the designs, turning them into a "spot the mistake" game. 

Miami Beach blitz: one of A24 AI-generated posters for "Civil War" / Photo courtesy of A24.

Miami Beach blitz: one of A24 AI-generated posters for "Civil War" / Photo courtesy of A24.

The Killing of Credit Sequences

We love credit sequences, especially when they convey the spirit of a movie or a TV series. They tend to work almost like mini-movies by themselves. This is why Netflix’s “Skip Intro” button is the bane of our existence. No. I don’t want to skip the credits, even if I’m in the middle of a binge. In a perfect world, the streamer would allow us to deactivate it in our profile settings! But I digress…

Not even credit sequences are safe from AI dreck. Marvel used the technology to create the intro to their mini-series “Secret Invasion,” broadcast on Disney+ in 2023. You will want to wash your eyeballs with chlorine after seeing it. You know what? Better skip it!

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