Meet Benjamin: The First AI Screenplay Writer

Technological improvements and experiments in AI bring innovations everyday. Multidisciplinary studies and use of AI in creative areas, what was thought only humans may be able to produce, challenges people in all fields and opens up new possibilities. The first AI screenplay writer, “Benjamin”, is one of them.

Image: https://www.thereforefilms.com/sunspring.html
Image: https://www.thereforefilms.com/sunspring.html

Technological improvements and experiments in AI bring innovations everyday. Multidisciplinary studies and use of AI in creative areas, what was thought only humans may be able to produce, challenges people in all fields and opens up new possibilities. The first AI screenplay writer, “Benjamin”, is one of them.

In 2016, filmmaker Oscar Sharp collaborated with an AI researcher Ross Goodwin, (writer of writers in his words)[1] in order to answer the question: ”Can a computer write a screenplay that would win a competition?” They’ve made the sci-fi short film Sunspring, the first film ever written entirely by an AI bot. In the Sci-Fi London contest, it was placed into the top ten out of hundreds of entries. The bot named himself “Benjamin” later, in an interview on stage during the award ceremony.

Starring Thomas Middleditch from Silicon Valley series and Elisabeth Grey & Humphrey Ker, Sunspring begins with:
“-In the future with mass unemployment, young people are forced to sell blood.[2] That’s the first thing I can do.
You should see the boys and shut up. I was the one who was going to be a hundred years old.”*
and continues with utmost surrealism and abstractness. In my opinion, even poetic!

The music of the film, the song called “Home On The Land” is also a result of AI and human collaboration. It can be listened to online[3]. The lyrics of the song is written by Benjamin and music made by Tiger and Man:

I was a boy
I was a stranger
And I
Promised to be so happy
I was a beautiful day
I was a taller talk that I was born
And I was
Ready to go
And the truth was so long ago…”3

Image: https://www.thereforefilms.com/sunspring.html
Image: https://www.thereforefilms.com/sunspring.html

Dadaists and surrealists at the beginning of the 20th century were trying to grasp the essence of the subconscious and used automatic writing which is defined as “Writing said to be produced by a spiritual, occult, or subconscious agency rather than by the conscious intention of the writer.”[4] They tried to dissolve all the meaning in the text and reveal what lies beneath the known and visible. In this sense, the surrealist style in the screenplay and song lyrics resembles a similarity between the style of automatic writing poetry. Also, the concept of “subconsciousness” seems like their common feature.

Image: https://www.thereforefilms.com/sunspring.html

One can also find parallelism between AI bot “Benjamin” and Mary Shelley’s infamous work, “Frankenstein”. Although, unlike Benjamin, Frankenstein’s creature is so ugly, even monstrous and rejected by its creator immediately, the resemblance is undeniable: Frankenstein’s creature wishes to communicate with humans and reads all the books that he can find, it learns the language and speaking. If people don’t see it (for example, if he writes a letter or if it speaks to blind people, etc) they don’t understand that it is not a human and they may even enjoy his company. When you summarize the story: 
a manmade creature, 
wants to communicate, 
reads a lot of books, 
learns writing and speaking, …
Does that also sound similar to you?

There are also many aspects that need to be improved. If you want to watch a surreal sci-fi short film,  Sunspring is perfect. Otherwise, unless the successful acting, directing and contribution of all the “humans”, the film wouldn’t be watchable. “They breath humanity into words that did not come from a human being.”[5] says Oscar Sharp, the director, for the actors in the film. However, it is a sound proof of collaboration of AI and man will push the limits and can take us beyond our dreams. 

The algorithm behind Benjamin is a deep learning language model ‘long short-term memory’ (LSTM) recurrent neural network (RNN). Goodwin describes it as “It’s a lot like a more sophisticated version of the auto-complete on your phone, … at each step, you predict the next word, letter, or space… .”[6] Generally, Goodwin uses Markov chain for his work, however, in Sunspring, he used the LSTM algorithm because it would produce longer strings of letters. So, it can predict paragraphs, instead of few words and generate more original sentences. 

For feeding the algorithm, 199 science fiction screenplays such as Blade Runner, Dark City, Dune, Frankenstein, Matrix, Star Wars, etc.,[7] were used. Which makes 26.271.247 bytes (characters, including spaces) in total. Then, they gave a few prompts to AI, turned it on and it was ready! 

The characters in Sunspring are named as “H”, “H2”, and “C” by Benjamin. Because names aren’t used like other words and are very unpredictable, AI couldn’t learn them properly. So, all character names in Benjamin’s screenplay corpus were changed to single letters by Goodwin at the beginning.[8]

The screenplays which were supplied into the algorithm included camera and action instructions too, so in Benjamin’s output there are instructions as well. But at one point, the act and monologue, mixed with instructions in the output: “He takes a seat on the counter and pulls the camera over to his back. He stares at it.” Which is surprising and even can be called “creative”, Brechtian alienation scene. Who is the one staring at it; the actor, the viewer or Benjamin itself?  

After the success of Sunspring, Sharpe and Goodwin continued their experiments. Next year they produced Benjamin’s Second Film It’s No Game. Benjamin collaborates on a script about Benjamin, it took 3rd place in Sci-Fi London’s 48hr Film Challenge. And in 2018, third is Zone Out, an attempt to have Benjamin write & act & direct & score a film. Now they are working on filming the 4th screenplay by Benjamin.[9]

There are a lot of possibilities ahead of us and the future of AI still blurry. However, it is quite surprising to see the improvements that have already been made and exciting to wait for the next ones. Stay with us for the future and explore it together!

Footnotes:
1 https://rossgoodwin.com/
2 This first sentence is fed as prompt
3 https://soundcloud.com/tigerandman/home-on-the-land
3 First half of the lyrics of the song Home on The Land (from Sunspring’s opening credits) https://www.thereforefilms.com/sunspring.html
4 (https://www.lexico.com/definition/automatic_writing)
5 Oscar Sharp, 20’54’’, 4th episode “Love, art and stories: decoded” of Youtube’s The Age of A.I. documentary The Age of AI documentary (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kr1fmKVY3cA)
6 Ross Goodwin, 14’18’’, 4th episode “Love, art and stories: decoded” of Youtube’s The Age of A.I. documentary (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kr1fmKVY3cA)
7 The titles are listed in Sunspring’s opening credits (https://www.thereforefilms.com/sunspring.html)
8 https://arstechnica.com/gaming/2016/06/an-ai-wrote-this-movie-and-its-strangely-moving/
9 4th episode, 11’-13’, “Love, art and stories: decoded” of Youtube’s The Age of A.I. documentary (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kr1fmKVY3cA)

*All the images, screenplay and the relevant links can be found on https://www.thereforefilms.com/sunspring.html

 

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