Human Actors Bring an AI-Written Script to Life

The future of artificial intelligence in the arts is collaborative.
April 6, 2021, 1:00pm
Scene from a film
Image: Calamity AI screengrab

We've seen software being used to automatically generate scripts for  Seinfeld, a Batman film, and a Hallmark Channel original, usually for hilarious results. It's a good gag, but usually no one takes the joke far enough to make these scripts come to life. Enter Calamity AI, a pair of film students in California collaborating with an AI to write original short films and producing them for YouTube.

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The results are a fascinating mix of human creativity and the limits of machine learning. The most striking film is the most recent, Date Night, which begins with a nightmarish date between a young couple. It involves hypnotism, screaming, and wine. At the end, the camera pulls back and the script gets meta. The actors take the whole thing seriously and deliver performances that breath life into the software-generated script. By the end, I could envision a future where AI script writers are part of the creative process. If only humans would take them seriously.

Date Night was produced by Eli Weiss and Jacob Vaus, the minds behind Calamity AI. According to Weiss and Vaus, the pair discovered a GPT-3 based software program called Shortly AI. Shortly bills itself as a tool that helps writers get through writer’s block. If you’re stuck in a project, you can feed Shortly a little bit of information and it’ll generate bits of script to help you push through the block.

“We started putting in the beginnings of scripts and letting it write the rest,” Vaus told Motherboard on the phone. “We were taken aback by how well it was able to copy the voice and tone of the script...we were having fun, we were in awe of it, and we decided to just make one of the movies.”

Vaus and Weiss feed Shortly the first few lines of a script, then take what it generates and produce short films with it. None of the films run longer than a few minutes and the pair said that that short duration speaks to one of the limitations of the technology. “It seems to, after a while, get very specific and dark and it writes itself in loops,” Vauss said.

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In Calamity AI’s first film, Solicitors, the four minute short is dominated by the idea of drug dealers. The idea is repeated over and over again. 

“We don’t edit the scripts, but we’ll try out multiple versions,” Weiss said. “We’ll write the first half page of a script and have it generate a few consecutive pages. We’ll do this a few times and pick the one we think is the most entertaining.”

Weiss said he understands the industry's hesitancy, but that she believes it will eventually embrace collaboration with AI. "If you’re writing a feature length script and you’re stuck at one scene, to be able to click a button and generate four different ways that scene could go and get some inspiration and pick a path, that’s something that I think people will start to do more often," he said.

Studios are already embracing artificial intelligence. Data scientists working for 20th Century Fox developed a machine learning program that watches movie trailers and predicts how likely people will be to watch the finished movie.

Weiss and Vaus said they’d continue to use AI in their films. And they also know that it takes a human element to make the whole thing work. “Somebody else could direct Date Night and it would look completely different,” Vaus said. “Whatever the AI writes, there’s still a limitation. A human has to interpret it.”