Disclaimer

Many of my essays are quite old. They were, in effect, written by a person who longer exists in that my views, beliefs, and overall philosophy have grown and evolved over the years. Consequently, if I were to write on the same topics again, the resulting essays might differ significantly from their current versions. Rather than edit my essays to remain contemporary with my views, I have chosen to preserve them as a record of my past inclinations and writing style. Thank you for understanding.

April 2001

Synthesized Voices

Hollywood's impending death

Brief Description

Hollywood is dead. Long live Hollywood. Hollywood depends on several things, but anyone would agree that the one thing that is more vital than anything else is actors. Sure, all the other jobs are important, but ultimately it's about the actors. We will have fully artificial actors within twenty years (we would have them a lot sooner if movies were still silent). When that day comes, movies won't be about expensive, stuck-up actors anymore. They will be about good story-writers. Making movies will become a profession for writers and directors (with a soundtrack composer hired on the side). All other jobs (actors, producers, stage-managers, set-designers, coffee-getters, food-caterers, "extras") will be gone forever. Sounds kinda nice, doesn't it?

Full Description

Sections:

Introduction

It might seem strange that in the midst of my essays on such issues as world-dominating robots, abortion, religion, and genetic technology that I would care to write about movies. What could possibly be more banal that simple entertainment? There are no less than four reasons I think this topic is worth discussing. One, despite the comment I just made, entertainment is extremely important to us. We live our lives experiencing stories. Back in our ancestral tribes we listened to memorized spoken stories. The first books gave rise to recorded epics. The printing press brought stories to the masses. Modern day is no different. Movies are one of the biggest businesses in the world. They affect our lives to varying degrees. If something is going to fundamentally change about this particular industry, it is certainly worth making light of.

Two, the movie industry employees a lot of people. Hollywood is, for all practical purposes, a fairly large city who's entire existence and economy is centered around making movies. India is another country with a huge movie industry. Since my prediction is that most of these people will be out of a job in a few decades, this is surely an important topic to be aware of.

Three, most people haven't even considered this idea. That alone makes it interesting. Talking about wild futuristic ideas is always fun, but hearing something that you haven't heard before is really stirring, and I just don't believe most people have really taken in how this industry is going to change in the very near future.

Four, perfectly synthesized voices will have many other applications aside from movies. Robots, which will be so common in the future we will probably literally be tripping over them, will be much more intimately interactive with humans if they can produce the nuances of true human speech, with all its emotional and expressive inflections.

History

So, what is the main idea I am trying to get across here? Following the past progression of computer-generated movies, it is inevitable where movies are going. Let's look at a short time-line. Computer generated movies got their first real headline with Pixar's Toy Story in 1995, the first full-length movie to be completely computer generated. Not a single photon of light in the movie originated in the real world and was recorded on film, be it old fashioned or digital film. Toy Story was a hallmark. No other movie in history had accomplished the goal of a totally artificial visual experience for the observer. However, Toy Story was aptly named because as it turns out this movie had extremely cartoonish looking landscapes, buildings, and in particular, characters. This is forgivable. It was a ground-breaking phenomenon after all. Was the first rocket ever launched the most superior rocket ever designed? Of course not, and the same goes for computer generated imagery.

Toy Story spawned what has now become the big business of computer generated movies, including the most notable (in chronological order) Antz (1998), A Bug's Life (1998), Toy Story 2 (1999), Dinosaur (2000), Shrek (2001), and the absolutely mind-blowing Final Fantasy (2001). This list doesn't even take into account movies that aren't entirely computer-generated but make use of entirely computer-generated characters, such as the notable Jurassic Park, amongst many others. There is a clear pattern across these movies. The images they incorporate are becoming increasing real with each successive release. To look at images in Final Fantasy and compare them to Toy Story is to look at what appears to be generations of technological advancement, and yet only six years have passed so far. It is obvious where this is leading. In the near future, perhaps by 2010, we will see the first computer-generated movie that won't appear cartoonish. The landscapes, structures, animals, and people will be photographically indistinguishable from a typicially recorded movie. Things will never be the same after that. Why build a set and travel all around the world looking for backdrops, and hire extras, and go to all the trouble of processing celluoid when you can do the whole shebang in a moderately sized office?

Character voices

There is a hitch to transforming the entire movie industry over to computers. We won't need actors for their beautiful faces and sleek physiques anymore, but we will still need them to come into the recording studio to speak their lines. It's as if the entire movie industry will become Disney, an animation studio using people to speak the necessary parts for animated characters. Something feels inherantly backwards about this if you think about it. If you had asked the most knowledgable professionals in vision, hearing, computer graphics, and computer sound in 1985 or 1990 whether we would be able to produce photographic animation or perfect synthesized speech first, I believe most people would have said the visual problem would be the more challenging. It just seems so big, trying to create fake pictures of a fake world with fake objects that move in fluidic and natural ways. Compared to producing a fairly simple sound waveform of amplitude modulated sine waves, it seems clear which problem is more difficult, and yet it seems to be going the other way. It appears as if we will have perfect imagery before we have perfect speech.

Bringing it all together

Putting this bizarre circumstance aside for the moment, I can come back to the main issue, which is that regardless of the fact that either photographic imagery or synthesized speech must come first, they will both arrive in fairly short order. Another small hitch is the animation. We presently use motion capture to record the motions of virtual characters. Obviously this is a problem if I am prescribing getting rid of all the actors. Bottom line, I believe that future virtual characters will know how to move themselves. For more details on this I refer you to my mind wanderings topic, Evolving virtual characters. I am predicting perfect imagery by 2010 and perfect voices by 2015 or 2020. When that day arrives, it's all over for Hollywood. Making a movie won't be about a producer's ability to pool resources and organize a large team for several months. It won't be about auditions for small parts or pitching large parts to egotistical popular actors. There will be no movie-star trailers on the set of a movie being filmed in 2020. There won't even be a set. Making movies will become an artform of storytelling, as it should have been in the first place.

The skills of a future movie-maker will be as follows. He or she must know how to tell a story. In other words this person must be able to visualize a scene and string together scenes in an artistically successful manner. He or she must have the ability to know what the characters are like, since there will be no actors to constrain or guide this process. What do characters look like? What sort of mannerisms do they have? How do they walk? What is the sound of the their voice? If the characters don't have the flare of Julia Roberts or the bite of Jack Nicholson, then they won't be interesting. Likewise, he or she will have to know how to layout each scene. In other words, they will have to play the role of present day director in a movie. Those are the two most important people in making a movie in 2020, the person who conceives of, writes, and designs the story, and the person who "directs" the animation. They may of course be the same person. There is one other job that will remain important. The movie will require a soundtrack. That's it. No producers, no executives, no actors, no set-designers, no stage-managers, no extras, no land-permit negotiators, no peons running around delivering coffee and danishes on demand, no major food caterers feeding the huge staff of today's major production houses. Anyone will be able to do this in their own home on a personal computer. Take that Hollywood.

Kinda makes you long for a good old fashioned Hitchcock flick, doesn't it?

I would really like to hear what people think of this. If you prefer private feedback, you can email me at kwiley@keithwiley.com. Alternatively, the following form and comment section is available.

Comments

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Name:Keith Date/Time:2011/08/25
NOTE THAT ALL COMMENTS OLDER THAN THIS ONE PREDATE THE COMMENT SYSTEM. They originated as email feedback and have been retroactively converted to public comments to seed the new comment system. As such I have redacted them where appropriate for the purpose of preserving their anonymity.

Name:Anonymous Date/Time:2005/02/09
this is a really cool way of putting the movie industry. i have never really thought of the way you put it, but now that i do it makes perfect sense. i am doing a paper on how the movie industry affects our lives and your paper really opened my eyes on how to write it. thanks!

Name:Anonymous Date/Time:2004/12/25
Hi

I was fascinated by your article. I've been saying for a long time that Hollywood would go completely digital pretty soon. It's inevitable.

What's even more fascinating is that I'm sure we'll have counterfeit people around the same time as well. Counterfeit politicians, leaders, military commanders and such. We won't know whether the person broadcasting will be the real thing or not.

A counterfiet president could issue a command or statement over the media, on tv or so on, and nobody would know the difference.

Still further, the computers will be powerful enough to interact in real time with real people. We'll have synthesized psychotherapists, lovers, pornography...

The implications for "reality" will be indescribable.

Name:Anonymous Date/Time:2003/06/18
Dear Mr. Wiley:

My name is [...], I'm a writer living in [...]. I'm just finishing up a novel and was doing some research on synthesizing voices and found your article.

I don't know if you watch the TV series 24 or not, but in one of the last episodes a computer programmer selected a sound byte of a person's voice and then generated a complete dialogue from it.

Do you know if this can actually happen, or is it pure Hollywood?

I would appreciate any direction you can give me on this subject.

Thank you for your time.