What We Can Learn From Screenwriting A.I.

  • When an article about a short film written by an A.I. popped into my inbox recently, I clicked on that link faster than C-3PO can translate Ewok.
    I discovered that filmmaker Oscar Sharp had worked with his technologist collaborator Ross Goodwin to build a machine that could write screenplays. Thus “Jetson” was created and fed with hundreds of sci-fi TV and movie scripts. Sharp then gave his team 48 hours to shoot and edit whatever Jetson decided to write.

    The result is a film called Sunspring and you can watch it here.

    As I watched it I had mixed feelings – on one hand the ongoing attempts to get robots to create art is slightly depressing but on the other I found it interesting.   I didn’t critique the film script wearing my script assessor  hat (too easy and hardly fair) I just wanted to see how it worked for me as an audience member.  Despite the script being borderline gibberish, the film weirdly made sense.  We know something has happened even if we’re not entirely sure of the details.

    So what can we flesh and blood screenwriters take away from all this?  Reassurance that robots can’t write screenplays and our jobs are currently safe?

    Sure, but let’s look a little deeper by considering what the bot got right.

    We have no idea what’s going on.

    Now usually “no idea what’s going on” is less than ideal in a script but in this scenario I was aware of how curious I was. I really wanted  to know what was going on – and what was going to happen.  Something the bot got right? I was drawn into the story – because it made me curious.  That sounds a lot like the sort of thing that might work really well in opening scenes.  Make ‘em curious to know what’s going on or what’s going to happen.  What the bot failed to do was to actually clarify what was going on.

    It captured emotion.

    Yes, Sunspring had a great cast but gibberish or not, it was strangely emotional.  Underneath the weirdness of the script there’s an undercurrent of emotion.  We feel something is happening to the characters.  I bring this up because I’ve lost count of screenplays I’ve read by people who actually “get” and have emotions but don’t allow their characters to feel them.  Lack of heart in a screenplay is one of my biggest criticisms. If a bot can do it randomly, c’mon peeps.

    If a bot can do it randomly,
    c’mon peeps!

    It was poetic.

    There were two lines of dialogue that I thought were stand out. “I am not a bright light” was one of them. Intentional or not, it was laden with subtext and one of the saddest lines in the script. It would not be out of place in a play or a novel. But my favourite line was this. “He looks at me and throws me out of his eyes.” Wowser. Just a reminder that by getting a teensy bit poetic with our dialogue we can avoid cliché and discover profoundly moving, idiosyncratic, original lines.

    There were lots of things that the bot got wrong, the script lacked causal links and there wasn’t a clear connection between the emotions and the actions in the story so as a viewer you’re groping to find meaning. But what a great reminder about the necessity of understanding our characters’ conscious and subconscious motivations – why they do what they do. Not surprisingly, poor Jetson couldn’t do that in his/her story but we can.

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    ©Kathryn Burnett 2016 – All rights reserved.

  • author

    Kathryn Burnett

    New Zealand based Kathryn Burnett is an award-winning screenwriter, playwright, script development consultant and workshop facilitator who has worked in film and television for 20 years. She has significant television, short and feature film credits and wrote the multi-award-winning short film “Shelved”. In 2011, she created a series of ideation training workshops and has been helping organisations and individuals be their creative best ever since.

    Wanna fire up your next project? Sign up for Kathryn's excellent Creative Action Plan on her website.


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