At the AI Film Festival, humanity triumphed over tech

In the third episode of “Creative Dialogues,” an interview series produced by the filmmaking division of generative AI startup Runway, multimedia artist Claire Hentschker expresses a fear that AI will commoditize the artistic process to the point where art homogenizes, regressing to a sort of derivative sameness.

“Are you getting this increasingly narrower average of existing things?” she asks. “And then — as that keeps getting averaged — is everything is just gonna be a blob?”

Those are the questions I kept asking myself Wednesday at a showing of the top 10 finalists at Runway’s second annual AI Film Festival, which are available on-demand on Runway’s website as of this morning.

Runway held two premieres this year, one in Los Angeles and a second in New York. I attended New York’s, which took place at Metrograph, a theater known for its arthouse and avant-garde bookings.

AI film festival
“Pounamu,” about a young bird exploring the wider world.
Image Credits: Samuel Schrag

I’m pleased to report that AI isn’t hastening in a blob future … not yet at least. But a skilled directorial eye — the human touch — makes a clear difference in an “AI film’s” effectiveness.

All of the movies submitted to the festival incorporated AI in some form, including AI-generated backdrops and animations, synthetic voice-overs, and bullet time-style special effects. None of the elements seemed quite to the level of what state-of-the-art tools like OpenAI’s Sora can produce, but that was to be expected, given that most of the submissions were finalized early in the year.

Indeed, it tended to be obvious — sometimes painfully so — which parts of films were the product of an AI model, not an actor, cameraman or animator. Even otherwise strong scripts were sometimes let down by underwhelming generative AI effects.

Take, for example, “Dear Mom” by Johans Saldana Guadalupe and Katie Luo, which recounts the story of a daughter’s loving relationship with her mother — in the daughter’s own words. It’s a tearjerker. But a scene of a Los Angeles freeway with all the telltale weirdness of AI-generated video (e.g., warped cars, bizarre physics) broke the spell for me.

AI film festival
A scene from “Dear Mom.”
Image Credits: Johans Saldana Guadalupe and Katie Luo

The limitations of today’s AI tools seemed to box some films in.

As my colleague Devin Coldewey recently wrote, control with generative models — particularly video-generating ones — is elusive. Simple matters in traditional filmmaking, like choosing a color in a character’s clothing, require workarounds because each shot is created independently of the others. Sometimes not even workarounds do the trick.

The resulting disjointedness was on display at the festival, where several of the films were little more than tangentially related vignettes strung together by narration and a soundtrack. “L’éveil à la création” by Carlo De Togni and Elena Sparacino demonstrated just how dull this formula can be, with slideshow-like transitions that would make for a better interactive storybook than film.

Léo Cannone’s “Where Do Grandmas Go When They Get Lost?” falls into the vignettes category as well — but triumphs despite this thanks to a heartfelt script (a child describing what happens to grandmothers after they pass) and an exceptionally strong performance from its child star. The rest of the audience seemed to agree; the film got one of the more spirited rounds of applause of the night.

AI film festival
Giant grandmothers as imagined by AI.
Image Credits: Léo Cannone

And for me, that really sums up the festival in a nutshell. The human — not AI — contributions often make all the difference. The emotionality in a child actor’s voice? That sticks with you. AI-generated backdrops? Less so.

This was certainly true for festival Grand Prix winner “Get Me Out,” which documents one Japanese man’s struggle to recover from the psychological toll of his immigration to the U.S. as a young child. Filmmaker Daniel Antebi depicts the man’s panic attacks with the help of AI-generated graphics — graphics that I found to be less successful, ultimately, than the cinematography. The film ends with a shot of the man walking up a bridge just as the streetlights dotting the pedestrian lane flicker on one by one. It’s haunting — and beautiful — and surely took ages to capture just so.

AI film festival
A man wrestles with his emotions — literally — in “Get Me Out.”
Image Credits: Daniel Antebi

It’s very possible that generative AI will one day be able to re-create scenes like this. Perhaps cinematography will eventually be replaced with prompts — a victim of the ever-growing datasets (albeit with troubling copyright status) on which startups such as Runway and OpenAI are training their video-generating models.

But that day isn’t today.

As the screening wrapped up and the award recipients marched to the front of the theater for a photo op, I couldn’t help but notice the cameraman in the corner documenting the whole affair. Maybe, on the contrary, AI will never replace some things, like the humanity we humans deeply crave.

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