In Solicitors, a new short film made by a pair of senior student filmmakers from Chapman University, the action begins with a woman sitting on a couch, reading a book. There’s a knock at the door. She gets up to answer it, finding a sweaty, slightly frenetic young man with wild hair standing on her doorstep. “I’m a Jehova’s Witness,” he says. The woman looks unimpressed. “Sorry, I don’t talk to solicitors,” she responds. The man scrambles, trying to keep her attention. “I have a great story,” he tells her.
There are two twists in Solicitors. One — as with many O. Henry-style short films — is a last-minute revelation that changes our perception of what has led up to that point. The other is revealed right upfront. While we won’t spoil the former (come on, the short lasts only a few minutes) it’s the second of these that is the more significant: Everything after the first 20 seconds of the film’s script was written by an A.I.
While there’s no shortage of great films written about cutting-edge artificial intelligence, from The Matrix to Terminator and Her to Ex Machina, there are very few that can claim to have been written by a cutting-edge A.I. Is Solicitors a taste of tech-driven entertainment to come?
“I found the A.I. program [we used] while bored in class, trying to look like I was paying attention on Zoom,” Jacob Vaus, the short’s director and cinematographer, told Digital Trends. “Immediately, I was hooked. I liked inputting short stories I’d written and seeing where it took them, or introducing a crazy beginning and seeing where the story would go. Because we’re film students we immediately ran with the idea. Could it write scripts? What content could we make to push this? How creative could we get?”
After being given a human head start in the form of the inciting incident, the A.I. was used to generate the script — including its ending plot twist. (You can read the script online here.) “We thought it was so funny, but also sort of brilliant the way it took the script to such extremes,” Eli Weiss, who produced Solicitors, told Digital Trends. “From a story standpoint, it hit all the beats you’d want out of a story — even if in an odd way.”
Vaus said that, “We were dying when we first read it. The way it uses details from the beginning, in a way that makes sense, but is also nonsensical, is so crazy to me.”
Spare a thought for the actors, too. “The biggest challenge for me, acting in a film written largely by A.I., was trying to find motivation for my character and intention in my dialogue,” actor Ashton Herrild, who plays the doorstep visitor, told Digital Trends. “Usually it’s the actor’s job to imagine the circumstances and character that would say and do these things. But in a script written by an A.I., there wasn’t any underlying meaning to find — only to bestow.”
Machines that make movies
This isn’t the first time A.I. has been used to write a screenplay. Several years ago, actor Zach Braff performed a machine-written monologue as his Scrubs character, JD. “A hospital is a lot like a high school,” part of it read. “The most amazing man is dying, and you are the only one who wants to steal stuff from his dad.”
These generative algorithms, trained on large quantities of data, can be used to create new-but-strangely-familiar content by ingesting massive amounts of material, whether it’s Harry Potter novels, A Song of Ice and Fire books, or beloved sitcom scripts. The results are, in essence, a modern, tech-savvy version of William Burroughs’ cut-up method: A surrealist technique for creating something fresh from something existing by physically cutting it up and pasting it back together in random order. The end products, in the case of algorithmically generated scripts, are frequently funny. What they usually aren’t is particularly good — at least in the way we might judge a Hollywood script to be good.
GPT-3, the A.I. Solicitors uses, is a different story. The sequel to a text-generating algorithm that was, with at least semi-seriousness, considered too dangerous to be released (before it was, in fact, released), GPT-3 is a natural language processing neural network created by OpenAI. Seeded with a few sentences, like the beginning of a script about a man turning up on someone’s doorstep, the GPT pre-trained language model will convincingly generate text that’s compellingly true — at least in tone and style — to its source material. It quickly made waves upon its release. The U.K.’s Guardian newspaper, a publication that has, at various points, commissioned work from some of the world’s greatest journalists, published an article written by GPT-3. It titled it, “A robot wrote this entire article. Are you scared yet, human?”
In 1959, the British scientist and novelist C.P. Snow wrote a famous essay, titled “The Two Cultures,” in which he argued that “the intellectual life of the whole of western society” was split into two camps: The hard sciences and engineering on one hand, and the humanities on the other. These two, he argued, to our “sheer loss” do not mix. Today, it seems the walls between these two cultures are crumbling faster than many might think.
The world’s top studios are no longer classic studios in the Hollywood mold. They’re tech companies like Netflix, Apple, Hulu, and Amazon and, like any tech company worth their salt, they frequently employ high-tech solutions to creative problems. Netflix, for example, makes no secret of the role Big Data plays in determining which projects to commission. Along with incredibly deep pockets, this precision concerning what it should and should not make has helped it pick winners at a pace that would make Usain Bolt slow down to take a breath.
Others are taking tech-aided production even further. A.I. consultant companies like the U.K.’s Epagogix, once profiled by Malcolm Gladwell for The New Yorker, use data not just to say whether a project is worth pursuing, but also to make suggestions for how those projects might be creatively tweaked to make them more lucrative or likely to win awards. Meanwhile, media futurist and algorithmic filmmaker Alexis Kirke is responsible for making movies that branch based on the physiological responses of those watching them (to give just one example of his work.)
Just another tool for creators
It’s easy to look at a film like Solicitors and see a glimpse of the future of creativity in which scriptwriters will no longer need to exist. But that’s inaccurate. As good as GPT-3 might be, it’s unlikely that top screenwriters like Sofia Coppola or Aaron Sorkin will be quaking in their highly remunerated, sustainably sourced Hollywood boots any time soon. Tools like GPT-3 are, ultimately, just that: Tools. They will play a role in the future of entertainment, but in a way that augments, not replaces.
“Since there is rarely a single script creator for a movie, the idea of integrating A.I. tools into the writing and development cycle is not quite as ‘scene-stealing’ as it may seem,” Kirke told Digital Trends.
According to Kirke, these types of tools represent the next step in a process already being trodden by programs we now take for granted like the humble spellchecker. “A huge amount of experience has been codified by writers, producers, directors, script editors, and so forth,” he said. “Want to reduce the number of adverbs and adjectives in your script? There’s an algorithm for that. Want to ensure your characters’ dialog all sound different from each other? There’s an algorithm for that. Want to generate alternative, less cliched, rewrites of a page that keep its general meaning? There’s an algorithm for that.”
An A.I. that will auto-generate a few pages of sci-fi or horror-toned ideas to inspire a human writer is just another iteration of this, as would be a bot that looks at your writing and tells you if scripts of that type have made money at the box office in the past. (The GPT-3 software used by Vaus and Weiss is called Shortly Read. Its website describes it as an aid for writer’s block. “Just click the button and the A.I. will continue writing your story, generating new creative ideas and story developments.”)
“Make no mistake, machine learning algorithms are booming,” Kirke said. “In the future, they will be able to collaborate with us on developing certain movie structures, as well as our writing tone and style. And let’s not forget the poor Hollywood reader and junior executive who has to plow their way through so many appalling scripts every weekend, panning through mediocrity for that tiny sparkle of gold. There can be no doubt that ML algorithms can be used to reduce the mind-numbing workload of these people, to narrow down their focus by highlighting the obviously humdrum scripts and the potential zingers?”
Solicitors is far from a fully blown showcase of the role that artificial intelligence will play in the future of movie production. But, at under four minutes, we might consider it a pretty good teaser trailer.