New Tech Offers An ‘Ear To The Weird’ at AI Film Festival

If you were among the 415 people who gathered at downtown L.A.’s ornate Orpheum Theater for the second annual Runway AI Film Festival you are probably already over the palpable fear and loathing AI has caused among some in the entertainment community.

No pickets, protests or encampments surrounded the applied AI research company Runway‘s May 1 event at the 1926 movie palace on Broadway — and there was no red carpet in sight.

Last year the festival was held in New York and San Francisco. This year it opened in Los Angeles, with a second iteration on May 9 at New York’s Metrograph Theater. In L.A., the jury showcased 10 experimental short films from 3,000 submissions, 10 times more than in 2023. Organizers handed out top cash awards ranging from $1,000 to $15,000. The big winner was Daniel Antebi for “Get Me Out,” about a man who repeatedly struggles to escape a suburban American house that will not let him leave.

It appears no humans were harmed in the making of this festival. As one panelist joked, even industry players who publicly criticize the new technology are “using” in private (in Hollywood, this contradiction may also apply to Ozempic).

Even humans on X, formerly known as Twitter, did not appear to be raging against the machines. Wrote one:

Does it matter if it’s AI if it still makes you cry?

@semil on X about AI Film Festival honoree ‘Where Do Grandmas Go When They Get Lost?’ by Léo Cannone

In fact, the absence of anti-AI rhetoric led a panel of professional AI users to confess they have developed an unexpectedly intimate and productive relationship with the technology.

They described AI as the kind of objective new partner that quickly executes new visions: It never gets tired or runs out of production funding, doesn’t give notes, and doesn’t insist you come in to the office on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Haters gonna hate — but AI does not. It does not differentiate between failure and success. It’s a creative executive without the annoying “executive” part.

The AI Film Festival on May 1 at the Orpheum Theater in Los Angeles. (Photo by Diane Haithman)
The AI Film Festival on May 1 at the Orpheum Theater in Los Angeles. (Photo by Diane Haithman)

“AI has given me an ear for the weird,” said artist and musician Claire Evans, who sat on an industry panel that preceded a screening of this year’s top 10 AI videos, all under 10 minutes and culled from 3,000 entries. While before she may have not expl0red something that seemed too left of center, Evans said that now “I’m looking for that feeling …the wonkiness, the failure.”

Fellow panelist Joel Kuwahara — co-founder of Bento Box Entertainment and a confessed introvert — likened AI to a therapist. He said AI is there when he wants to tweak an image, alone, all night long. And when he rejects a result, he joked, “I’m not hurting anybody’s feelings.”

The panel was moderated by IndieWire Senior Vice President and Editor in Chief Dana Harris-Bridson. It also included Runway CEO Cristóbal Valenzuela and Paul Trillo, a filmmaker noted for the first commercial use of OpenAI’s text-to-video generator, Sora, for the music video for Washed Out’s “The Hardest Part.”

Trillo said the power of AI lies in devising new worlds, not competing to re-create Hollywood’s current production norms. And, he added, “it has made my work more weird…finding pathways that you wouldn’t have discovered before. That internal journey is fundamentally unique to AI…there’s no judgment to AI — yet.”

The industry panel at the AI festival in Los Angeles on May 1. (Photo by Diane Haithman)
The industry panel at the AI festival in Los Angeles on May 1. (Photo by Diane Haithman)

Weird worlds: the winning videos

From the 10 videos screened at the fest, it would seem that the creators are embracing Trillo’s theory. In general, they are creating fantasy worlds —some magical, some dystopian — rather than using the tech to realize, say, a re-boot of “The Nanny” for network TV.

Top prizes went to Samuel Schrag‘s “Pounamu,” in which an animated kiwi bird “chases a dream through the wilderness” (Gold, $10,000); Junie Lau’s “:e^(i*π) + 1 = 0” (Silver, $5,000), taking the viewer inside the world of a retired mathematician who creates digital comics which, according to the program, ignites “an infinite universe where his digital children seek to decode ‘the truth’,” and Honoree Léo Cannone ($1,000) for “Where Do Grandmas Go When They Get Lost?” examining the fantastic possibilities through the eyes of a child.

The Grand Prix ($15,000) went to Antebi for “Get Me Out,” which combined AI technique with live actors. The protagonist, Aka, wrestles with a second self that literally lays bare what’s under the skin — muscle, blood and bone.

We cannot hit the snooze button on this technology

Filmmaker Daniel Antebi

In an email conversation with TheWrap, Antebi was blunt in expressing fears about AI. “AI tools are going to eradicate jobs, steal from creators, and create more noise across our already schlock and bot-infested world,” he wrote, adding that “it may be too late for legislation to protect people’s work and likeness in the use of training AIs.”

But, Antebi added, “We cannot hit the snooze button on the technology as it comes toward us. Like many issues — what we resist persists.

“I don’t think I won the AI fest for clever use of the tool, but because the panelists who are artists and professionals resonated with the storytelling in the piece crafted by a team of highly passionate humans.”

The winning AI films are available on Runway’s website starting on May 10.

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