How Algorithms Make Films

By Anja Kummerow

Do we have to be afraid of artificial intelligence? Will it be superior to humans? Susanne Steinmassl has dealt with these questions in an infinite film. What is also unusual? In "The Future Is Not Unwritten", algorithms are directing.

What would you say if you had a chip implanted in your head and spoke fluent Chinese immediately? Susanne Steinmassl finds the idea of "being able to load a new language into her brain tempting". Artificial intelligence should not be seen as something that is only threatening – this was something that Steinmassl realized little by little. The starting point of her journey was the year 2015 and the Swedish series "Real Humans". Her interest was aroused and so the artist started to explore human-looking robots.

Pioneer in Artificial Intelligence

The more Steinmassl read, the more she wanted to know. That eventually led her to the country that uses humanoid machines more often than any other nation: Japan. "In Japan my work was accepted in a different way and people had a different perspective on the subject – that was very exciting for me. From then on, I mainly started to work with artificial intelligence, which makes the robot come alive." Her work focuses on artificial intelligence. Steinmassl started to read everything about this topic and she explored AI philosophically and from a religious point of view. Nietzsche was consulted as well as the Bible. "I went through all the phases, from 'Oh God - that frightens me' to total fascination, for example when dealing with the fields of application of AI such as medical technology," says Steinmassl. "In the end, it's all about using technology to overcome the weaknesses of the body and the brain in order to prolong life. AI should thus expand humanity with the aim of becoming immortal." That is her conclusion.

3D Avatars and Actors

On the one hand the film is an examination of all aspects of this new way of life, but on the other hand it integrates them and lets them speak for themselves. "Various forms have integrated the film. We used real film scenes as visual material, this is how we tackled the question: What is the human being? In Japan we shot the scenes without people". Steinmassl got 3D artist Phyllis Josephine on board to create 3D avatars. "The film constantly switches between organic and technical material."

Susanne Steinmassl doesn‘t know how the sequences are joined together. The spherical sounds, the texts by philosophers or Internet pioneers – she didn‘t chose anything. Artificial intelligence is not only the main protagonist of the film, but also the director. Together with the programmer Maximilian Heitsch, she set up a neural network that constantly creates its own, new images based on an algorithm for machine learning. "We rely on the cooperation between human and machine. The film is a hybrid version of both: we put something into it and want the machine to create something itself".

Susanne Steinmassl, director of »The Future Is Not Unwritten«

An Algorithm Makes a Film

For this purpose she and her team of up to thirty people send "training material" to a database and the algorithm then uses this data. "The combination of the components is unique."

"Smart Film" is the name of the new genre. "This form is intelligent and is constantly changing, transforming itself." Steinmassl's idea also fascinates others. Her work is supported by the Munich University for Television and Film and the Kirch Foundation, which granted her a scholarship to be able to work intensively for a year on the subject.

The invitation from Lufthansa and the German Music Technology Association MusikTec to the SXSW Conference in Austin, Texas, shows that Steinmassl has recognized the sign of the times. In Austin she spoke with the artist Sean Rogg at a panel discussion in the German House about "AI & Creativity". "A topic you can talk about for hours," says Susanne Steinmassl. "Above all, it was important for me to emphasize that artists also work with the topic of AI. Only if our society participates in the discourse, artificial intelligence can develop in a democratized and decentralized manner."

A Film Without a Beginning or End

Always evolving, this is also what the film "The Future Is Not Unwritten" does. The core team is still working on the project. New material is entered, the neural network works with it and learns from it. The film itself has no beginning and no end. It is an infinite film. "It's over when you switch off the device," says Susanne Steinmassl.


More informations

Medien Netzwerk Bayern: Künstliche Intelligenz in der Filmwelt

IMDb: Real Humans

Maximilian Heitsch

HFF München

Stiftungen Bayern

Medien Netzwerk Bayern: Die bayerische Digital- und Kreativbranche im German Haus