Movies of the Future: Storytelling with Computers

By Beacham, Frank | American Cinematographer, April 1995 | Go to article overview

Movies of the Future: Storytelling with Computers


Beacham, Frank, American Cinematographer


Research spurs new story forms; but will audiences buy it?

The concept is new, bold and certain to be controversial. Take a computer, infuse it with a detailed database of information about a story, and then let the computer present the story to the audience in its own way.

The storytelling computer - responding to the background, interests and preferences of its audience - decides what images or sounds to use in the presentation. It allows the story to take different points of view, choose different characters and scenes and have different pacing, and even sets the total running time.

Development of computational storyteller systems is a key research element into Movies of the Future at the Media Laboratory on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. This new branch of research, led by Professor Glorianna Davenport at the Interactive Cinema Group, seeks to create a series of new cinematic storytelling forms.

Though Davenport and her half-dozen graduate students don't suggest an end of the linear narrative technique used in traditional films, they recognize that digital technology has created the possibility of new storytelling techniques that take advantage of variable, non-linear playout of image and sound.

The Movies of the Future research covers the gamut of traditional motion pictures - including feature films, documentaries and home video - yet spans to new narrative forms with unfamiliar names such as elastic media, "Thinkies," and multi-threaded interactive movies. Along with the new storytelling forms come a range of tools designed to help creators shape their stories. These tools include prototypes of advanced new software for pre-visualization, writing, editing and the creation of human interfaces.

Why, some may ask, are computers needed to help tell stories? Because, says Davenport, there is a growing need to communicate in ways that speak to the opportunities and choices that now surround us in the emerging digital age. As the old boundaries between filmmaker and audience rapidly shift, the new story forms will have far greater complexity and will permit the audience to engage in various ways to shape their cinematic experience.

Multi-threaded Movies

One promising new story form is the multi-threaded movie, where a story progresses in several ways simultaneously. Multiple "threads" are created and at times these threads intersect. As the movie gains complexity, it becomes a huge web of interaction.

Robert Altman's Short Cuts is a traditional film that might be compared to the multithreaded movie. Here Altman interwove multiple stories into a single linear motion picture. However, in Short Cuts, the director chose when to cut from one story to another. In the multithreaded movie, the computer, using the filmmaker's instructions, makes the cut.

But the influence of the computer goes far deeper. At any given presentation of the multithreaded movie, the computer can determine or select the basic story structure. It can pick from literally thousands of individual image, sound and music clips to assemble its own scenes. The relationships of characters (as well as their number) may change depending on the version of the story the computer decides to tell.

The computer gets its intelligence from the filmmakers. The creative work of the writer, director, editor and cinematographer is contained in the story engine, the software that allows the computer to make its choices. The task of the filmmaking team is to dream up the story, collect its parts and create a map the computer can act upon. This is called knowledge representation.

"We are moving toward knowledge representation as the basis for a computational agent who will put the story together for you," said Davenport. "The computer knows about how different elements of the story function. It knows what a scene is and what movement of a story is. …

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