Maine filmmaker George Daulphin uses AI to create alternate universes in his work, including sci-fi short “Stygian Blues.” Photo courtesy of Man-Like Machines

The movies have a uniformly negative view of artificial intelligence. Think “The Terminator,” and any other flick where a computer brain gains sentience, decides we humans are too messy to live, and wipes us all out.

Well, AI-instigated nuclear annihilation is one thing, but being replaced is another. So stated the picketers in the recently concluded writers and actors union strike, who shut down the entertainment factories largely over the insidious creep of artificial intelligence into the previously all-human arenas of screenwriting and performing. Sort of a Frankenstein myth, except our rampaging monster steals all our jobs.

Why is AI use in movies so controversial?

The strikers finally settled only after receiving assurances that studios would knock off plans to use AI services like ChatGPT to generate scripts (thus throwing human writers out of work), rewrite existing scripts (ditto), and even come up with new show and movie ideas without the need for people, except as sort-of writing janitors to clean up around the edges. Actors, too, are worried that studios will insert AI-generated performers into scenes, such as a proposed single-day rate for extras whose computer-captured likenesses could be used in perpetuity without paying the original actors.

Hollywood has tried to kill off the writer before.

In Robert Altman’s still-scathing 1992 Hollywood satire, “The Player,” a group of movie producers complain about the high cost and troublesome creative needs of screenwriters, with Tim Robbins’ murderous exec ultimately musing: “I was just thinking what an interesting concept it is to eliminate the writer from the artistic process. If we could just get rid of these actors and directors, maybe we’ve got something here.”


The curse of “content.”

Movies and TV are art, but art that uniquely requires a whole lot of collaboration – and cash. The people at the top want financial rewards at the lowest cost, and A.I. represents a bloodlessly technological workaround to that whole pesky “worker” situation, with its writer’s block and human rights and all. The word “content” has entered the lexicon so stealthily that it’s easy to forget how anti-art the term is. “Content” means feeding the streaming machine, producing entertainment just diverting enough for people not to get off their couches. Content devalues writing, acting, directing – basically anything that strives for greatness – in favor of “good enough to keep watching.”

A human artist has some thoughts.

Naturally, only an artist could encapsulate the existential artistic dilemma, so here’s Australian songwriting legend Nick Cave, after someone showed him a “Nick Cave song” written by AI: “This is what we humble humans can offer that AI can only mimic, the transcendent journey of the artist that forever grapples with his or her own shortcomings … with all the love and respect in the world, this song is (expletive), a grotesque mockery of what it is to be human.”

The backlash can be ugly.

Technological progress provokes fear and wonder in equal measure as the majesty of what humans can accomplish comes yoked to the realization that our time at the top is over. A truly fun and ambitiously scrappy horror movie called “Late Night With the Devil” just hit streaming, an ingenious, visceral low-budget shocker (with a great lead from David Dastmalchian). It also committed the unforced error of using AI to generate some incidental imagery amidst the bloody goings-on, provoking a perhaps outsized backlash. The filmmakers contend that their AI noodling comprised just three still images in the final film, but the PR damage was done, indicating just how raw fellow creatives are at any AI encroachment.


But is AI in the movies all bad?

There’s a Maine filmmaker named George Dalphin who makes art under the evocative-under-the-circumstances name Man-Like Machines. In works like the webseries “Your Universe Is Weird” and sci-fi shorts like “Stygian Blues,” Dalphin and his (human) collaborators use the AI image source MidJounrey, among others, to craft truly remarkable and deeply funny alternate universes. I love his stuff, having voted to give several awards to “Stygian Blues” at the Maine Film Association’s Winter Film Challenge a few years back.

One human’s final thought.

In the hands of an artist, AI is just a tool, like auto-tune in music – you don’t want to hear all auto-tune, but in Daft Punk’s hands, it can lift music to some new and exciting places. Dalphin, a novelist and musician as well as filmmaker, certainly isn’t letting computers churn out content under his name. He’s an artist playing around with an interesting new medium to produce fascinating work. As he assured me when we talked about “Your Universe Is Weird,” all the actual writing and voice acting was done by himself and his (again, human) partners. Even then, I recall something like a warning in Dalphin’s voice when he noted that there were AI services out there that could have written it. AI is coming, people – it’s all a matter of how much power we want to give it.

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.

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