Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Sun Screening

A strange short film has been making minor ripples in entertainment and tech news over the last week: Sunspring. It was created for a short film competition, Sci-Fi London's 48-Hour Film Challenge -- one of many worldwide contests in which filmmakers are challenged to create something in a short period of time.

Director Oscar Sharp took an unconventional approach to the contest. He contacted his friend Ross Godwin, an AI researcher at NYU, to see if a computer program could be crafted to produce a filmable script for a 9-minute short film. After all, there are plenty of tropes in science fiction, plenty of familiar techniques for a computer to extrapolate from in a manner akin to a predicative text algorithm. So they loaded several dozen film and television scripts into "Benjamin" (some of them questionably or definitely not sci-fi), and "he" spat out the script that became this movie:

Needless to say, computers won't be replacing humans in the field of creative writing any time soon. The script is a terrible, jumbled mess... but watching the film is also kind of an intriguing experience. On the specific end of the scale, it seems that a lot of characters in science fiction are asking each other "what do you mean?" and complaining that they "don't know what you're talking about." (Or maybe it's that a lot of X-Files episodes were fed into the algorithm. Mulder does spend a lot of time justifying wackadoodle theories to Scully.)

But far more interesting than anything so particular is what Sunspring might say about the human element in movies and art in general. For example, very little in Sunspring's actual dialogue implies science fiction; we have mainly just the knowledge of the movies that fed the algorithm (and the production's choice to costume the actors in sparkly clothes) to put that genre in our minds. Also, while the script is largely incoherent, the director and actors inferred from it a sort of love triangle between three characters, saying a lot about what subtext humans will seek as signal within the noise.

Most of all, Sunspring demonstrates the power of actors to do a lot with a little. There are only three in Sunspring, and by far the most recognizable one is Silicon Valley's Thomas Middleditch. But what Elisabeth Gray does in this movie is really off-the-charts amazing. The movie ends with her character delivering a lengthy monologue straight to camera. It's utter nonsense, introduces a lot of strange ideas telegraphed nowhere earlier in the film, and has no meaningful conclusion. But as an actress, Gray finds some way to make it personal and powerful. It's almost like watching a key dramatic scene from a foreign film without subtitles. You have little or no sense of what's being said, but you can plainly see the weight of it.

Don't get me wrong, Sunspring is all but unwatchable, and if I assigned a conventional letter grade to it, it wouldn't be kind. But in exploring the limits of what today's technology can do, the film does expose to some extent the wonderful things that people -- artists -- can do. For that, it might just be worth 9 minutes of your time.

1 comment:

Joshua Delahunty said...

I saw the screenshot and thought "Which Next Generation episode was THIS? I think I missed that one!"

(completely serious)