'Real Artists' Imagines a World Where AI Replaces Human Filmmakers

Actress Tiffany Hines plays the lead character in ‘Real Artists.' (Courtesy of Smarthouse Creative)

If you're the sort of sentimental filmgoer who believes in the power of auteur directors and star actors to carry a movie, Real Artists, a new, slickly sinister short film, will provide much to talk about—and fret over.

Written and directed by up-and-coming San Francisco filmmaker Cameo Wood,  the 12-minute movie tells the story of a young woman (played by Tiffany Hines) who lands her dream job at a major digital animation studio. She soon discovers a creative process so machine-driven and manipulative that it's impossible to tell who—or what—ultimately has control over the end product and its reception.

Wood came to filmmaking from a career in tech. Real Artists, which is based on a short story by fantasy writer Ken Liu, is up for a "Best Short" prize for emerging filmmakers at Saturday's AT&T Film Awards in Los Angeles, with director Ava DuVernay presiding over the event. KQED caught up with Wood to hear more of her thoughts about this weekend's festivities and the future of the movie industry.

Cameo Wood directs a shoot.
Cameo Wood directs a shoot. (Courtesy of Smarthouse Creative)

What inspired you to make this film?

I love science fiction and have a background in neuroscience and artificial intelligence. So when I read the short story that Real Artists was based on, I thought this is a movie that I could uniquely tell in an authentic and science-based way.

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Although your film is set at a fictional animation company, Semaphore, it clearly takes a dig at the real-world animation player, Pixar. Why go after that studio in particular?

It sort of digs at Pixar. I think we as a society are very tolerant of companies abusing our email, relationships, locations, conversation, etc. for marketing use. It makes sense to me that in the near future, corporations can verify Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) with neurochemical means, not just pieces of paper. I think this may be the future, and it has nothing to do with Pixar per se, but rather with large and powerful corporations in general. Also, I think that it is very human for us to believe that artistic merit is based in our humanity. We don’t like the idea that Artificial Intelligence (AI) could make better films than any human auteur. So the film is mostly about how people would respond to learning that a highly respected animation company is using AI to make their beloved movies. I have nothing against Pixar. I love their work; they are the epitome of animation excellence. And so, of course, we modeled Semaphore after them. That said, there is a line in the film about hiring women to work in the industry that is certainly a dig at all animation studios, Pixar included. They all need to do better. We need more women directing and leading the development of films. Pixar has a massively influential impact on world culture, and they need to do better.

San Francisco Filmmaker Cameo Wood with the cast and crew of 'Real Artists'.
San Francisco Filmmaker Cameo Wood with the cast and crew of 'Real Artists'. (Courtesy of Smarthouse Creative)

What message do you want to convey about the future of filmmaking with this movie?

We already use AI in filmmaking. We use AI to cut trailers, write screenplays and even analyze scripts. I think that as AI becomes more intelligent and nuanced, we absolutely will see more of an analytical and algorithmic focus on screenplays and production.

The film presents quite a dark view of the animation industry. Can you envisage any rays of light or redeeming qualities? And if so, what are they?

My film does portray a potential dark future, but I am personally very optimistic. Movies like Moana show what I hope is a new wave of storytelling that embraces and lifts up cultures, instead of making caricatures of them. I think that animation is a very special medium that engages and inspires people of all ages. Now that animation tools are becoming cheaper and easier to use, I think that it will become much easier for a person to make a film on their phone or home computer, and have it be as beautiful and dynamic as the films we see today. Animation is also special because of how easy it is to re-dub animated films into other languages, so that films appear to have been made in the native language of the viewer. This is exciting and empowering, and something Pixar does perfectly.

How important are the AT&T Film Awards to you in terms of your trajectory as a director?

The AT&T Film Awards are very prestigious, and the Emerging Filmmaker Award allows all three nominated directors to meet with Ava DuVernay to discuss our careers and projects. Because I live in San Francisco, not Los Angeles, I find that any chance to show my work in front of professional L.A. audiences is always a massive benefit to my career. Plus, this award comes with a large cash prize, which would help me with my next film!

How would you describe current landscape of opportunity for movie directors of color and female movie directors? What will it take for things to get to a place of more equal opportunity?

It’s a strange balancing act. For my film, I insisted that the cast and crew be 50 percent people of color and 50 percent women. That was a massive challenge, mostly because there are so few of both of these groups in the industry. We were relentless, though, and we achieved 75 percent women, 50 percent people of color, 20 percent LGBTQ, and 20 percent people with disabilities. I’m incredibly proud of those numbers and I look forward to doing it again.

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