Friday, March 1, 2013

The Brave New World of Actors without Actors

Back in 1994 I wrote a paper, entitled "On the promises of multimedia authoring," for a recently created journal called Information and Software Technology. This was for a special issue about multimedia; and the paper was basically a speculation of the implications of a recent publication from Japan entitled "IMPACT: An interactive natural-motion-picture dedicated multimedia authoring system." The operative word in that title was "natural;" and I felt it necessary to consider the implications of synthesizing "natural" media objects.

To do this I envisaged using such a system to produce a television commercial. More specifically, I assumed that a "natural" authoring system should be able to synthesize a commercial showing Madonna operating a copy machine. After the paper had been published, one of the editors approached me at a conference and confessed that she thought I had gone a bit too far off the wall with my fantasy, even though she appreciated the point I was trying to make (to distinguish the mechanical processes of filming from the creative processes to dreaming up such a commercial in the first place).

We can now jump ahead less than twenty years. What do we have? According to a report for Crave on CNET News by Christopher MacManus, we have a CGI synthesis of Audrey Hepburn starring in a television commercial for a candy bar! For those of us who remember the real Hepburn, the results are pretty scary. Perhaps that is the point, though. Fewer and fewer people are out there with vivid memories of Hepburn, not just in her films but in the many aspects of her life that managed to catch the attention of cameras. A new generation has taken over for whom Hepburn is a visual artifact rather than a Hollywood star.

I fear it will not be long before a string quartet by Ludwig van Beethoven may be reduced to nothing more than an auditory artifact, rather than a vital part of the education required for the thoroughly human activity of making music.

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