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Curtain rises on tech's next big movie role
Will human involvement in cinema shift to the periphery?
Written in London surrounded by large displays at an exhibition and dispatched to silicon.com via a free wi-fi service at 10Mbps.
First, films were black and white and silent. Then came sound, colour and widescreens, surround sound, and now 3D. But where are the movies going next?
It is not often that I take time out to visit the silver screen and watch a film. But when I do, I find myself engrossed in the special effects and that almost invisible seam between reality and animation. Am I seeing a real hero and heroine, or avatars? Is the scene real or is it pasted in?
Hollywood was into illusion from its inception, but now it isn't a frame or two, or a scene - it can be an entire movie: no actors and actresses, just avatars, and it is more and more difficult to detect what is real and what isn't.
Incorporating human imperfections?
The computer-generated scenes and characters are stunning, with feathered hair, skin with pores and blemishes, sweat and secretions of the right colour and viscosity, and movement with human imperfections.
Five years ago, female avatars looked so perfect and moved with such grace they couldn't be perceived as human. But, bit by bit, human traits have been incorporated into the software to make characters as interesting as we are.
One of the most subliminally attractive features of our species is our individualism, which lies in visual, acoustic, and behavioural imperfections. Avatars now share these qualities.
So where does the industry go next? Better technology and a greater choice of channels will drive greater demand for content, but the budgets may be shrinking. There is also a lot of competition for eyeballs, and the old model is unlikely to cut the mustard for much longer.
If computers can create characters and scenes, how long before they will be able to read a text, parse the characters, write a script and produce a complete movie? Not as long as we might guess - experiments are already underway.
The games industry has invested heavily in automatic reskinning, rescening, and recharactering well-crafted and successful products. As I watch movies I see so many twists on the same theme recurring over the past 50 years that there has to be scope for an equivalent process in the movie industry.
The transition will no doubt be by degree with the human contribution migrating from the core to the periphery, and the production facility moving away from the big studios toward the small independent business, and ultimately to the home.
Don't these changes all sound very familiar, and haven't we been here many times before? But not with the same consequences, I fancy.
Moving in this direction will also give birth to even more movie formats, business models, and an increase in the opportunity for audience participation in every dimension we can - and can't - imagine today.