AI Art

A while back I saw a video of some Japanese animators trying to do a similar experiment, and both of these experiments have gotten me thinking.

When AI can create characters that are human enough, when they can render scenes that are realistic enough, and they can stumble into interactions between these objects that are interesting enough, will they completely replace human artists? Will entertainment basically become just watching an AI play a system like Minecraft (with much higher fidelity)?

On the one hand, it’s an exciting idea. Set up the right systems with the right kinds of actions and interactions (or heck, let an AI figure that out too, why not), and let the AI loose to explore all the different possible things that can happen. Create another AI that can recognize which of the possible set of actions would be interesting to an audience, and boom, you have an infinite content machine. You could do things like create a model of Middle Earth and have millions of stories about dwarves and hobbits (but not elves; they’d be removed by the interest recognition system).

On the other hand, it would rob the humans of the joy that comes from creating media. Like it or not, anything we can train a machine to do, it will do better than us. This is the whole reason we made them. I don’t think that the automation of media would effect the “high arts,” because the idea of high art is based entirely upon a social construct*.  The people who would suffer would be the people who do the media jobs that effect us all. It would harm animators, film makers, and game creators. It could very easily be a blow to illustrators, pop musicians, and novelists as well. These jobs require audience attention and retention in order to function, and if there are infinite content machines that can be tuned to create content that is massively appealing (or–even more dangerous–content that is specifically appealing to every individual), I find it very hard believe that human creators will be able to keep up.

A way to work against this potential outcome is that audiences come to value the people that are creating things as much as they value the thing being created. This may inoculate the pop music industry, for example, because pop music isn’t about artistic appeal, but human interest. The obvious problem with this, is that when value of media is determined only to the person performing it, you’ll end up with objectively simplistic media. Once again, see pop music. The media being created isn’t the product, the person is. The media is just an excuse for the audience to throw money at the one sided relationship with an idol.

Another thing that may happen is that human made media will continue to be consumed by niche audiences that follow it specifically for the meta-content that it contains. The story of how a piece came to be in the context of the culture and media tradition are what they’d really be consuming. I also find this troubling, however. I prefer as little context as possible when consuming content, because I like to let content speak for itself. I want to bring my own context, and have content speak to me on its own without being bogged down by meta analysis.

Anyway, it’s reality, and it’s problematic. Media creation has already been made crazy by the destruction of local markets, why not add some more craziness in by introducing robot creators as well?

 

* The AIs wouldn’t be able to prevent people from wanting to show their differences in class based upon their art consumption.

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Castlevania Season 1 Review

Castlevania Season 1 Review

Castlevania is a pretty big freaking deal for me. I may not be the biggest fan of the franchise, and I may not have played every game (especially not the 3D ones; this franchise did not make an elegant transition from its two dimensional beginnings). Regardless, the 2D Castlevania games are creations that really get what games are and execute very well in that medium. So to say that I was excited when I found out that Netflix was getting a Castlevania anime* would be an understatement.

Does the show deliver on my expectations? The short answer, “In a way. Kind of. Mostly. Depends on what you focus on.” I’ll start with the stuff that worked for me, just in case you’re the kind of person who gets bored easily and doesn’t finish this short review.

What really worked for me, in general, was the aesthetic of this show. You can tell that the creators really poured over the source materials and pulled out all the inspiration they could from the artwork released with the games. The main characters’ designs harken back to the lavish artwork that came packaged with the games, and the setting had the same kind of atmosphere that you would get while playing.

This show is also very violent (and at times just straight up horrific), which doesn’t necessarily add a lot to the experience, but I feel like it’s one of those situations where to leave the violence out would have created dissonance between the goals of the story and its visual representation. There is a little gore just for its own sake, but for the most part it seemed like it was working toward the goals of the visual story telling.

Another thing that was pretty awesome was the animation… during the fight scenes. The gratuitous flourishes of the Hunter Whip filled my inner fanboy with delight, and the choreography was convincing enough that it never felt like a staged fight. As the characters battled with each other, they carried real weight and impact that is missing from so much fantasy animation these days.** Each footstep shifted the character’s weight, every parry and counter attack had momentum and drama. It was obvious that the people animating the action scenes had watched some martial arts and knew enough about it to make their scenes look like a fight.

Which is why the animation during the rest of the show is so disappointing. When the characters aren’t fighting or there isn’t some big magical effects show going on, the character’s motions are just ugly. They look like the cheap fast crap that you’d find on TV too late at night or too early in the morning. During these moments it became obvious that the characters were designed to look cool standing still, but when you try to get all those little details moving, it looked really bad. The walking animations were especially confusing. Why did everyone in the show stomp around like they couldn’t extend their knees all the way? They didn’t have that problem when they were fighting.

The writing was pretty bad, and despite the fact that Richard Armitage has the voice of a musky, angelic badger, most of the lines sounded really stupid. The number of times Trevor Belmont said, “I don’t care” to show us how non-chalant and “cool” he was (despite the fact that we know from the beginning that he was going to end up murdering a bunch of monsters because that’s what Belmonts do) was trite. Often a character would say something, just to have it repeated again by another character, or the conversation would just go around in circles to fill time.

The plot and pacing felt like a half hearted fan fiction more than a professional production. There was a lot of soliloquy and drawn out talking head scenes in the middle two episodes, which was particularly weird when you think about how the last episode rushes headlong through a battle and then an underground adventure all in twenty minutes. It seems like the pacing of dramatic moments could have been handled much better in order to prevent the need for filler blabber in the middle (especially considering that the whole series is under two hours long).

To end on a high note, I’ll end by saying that I liked all the parts in the first episode when they made Dracula’s head appear in various ways (first formed out of fire, and then created from a flock of crows/ravens). I also thought it was kinda cool that they showed him as more of a tragic character than a simple metaphor of “evil,” but I feel like the presentation of those ideas could have been more eloquent. Maybe trust the audience to pick up on ideas sprinkled tastefully throughout the story rather than smacking us with an info dump when all we really want to see is a Belmont whacking things with a whip.

And that’s pretty much all I have to say about that. The series is really short, so it’s hard to think of anything else right now. Trevor Belmont is sexy. Richard Armitage is my bishi. This show’s writing sucked, but I liked the parts with the whips and the swords.

* I’m gunna call it “anime”, because it obviously follows the Japanese animation tradition. Fight me.
** I blame computer games and computer animation. CG always looks so dang floaty.

On the Reality of Fantasy

I was wandering around the internets when I came across this quote from Hayao Miyazaki (Golden Times, English translation from RocketNews24).

You see, whether you can draw like this or not, being able to think up this kind of design, it depends on whether or not you can say to yourself, ‘Oh, yeah, girls like this exist in real life. If you don’t spend time watching real people, you can’t do this, because you’ve never seen it. Some people spend their lives interested only in themselves. Almost all Japanese animation is produced with hardly any basis taken from observing real people, you know. It’s produced by humans who can’t stand looking at other humans.

This got me thinking, and the problem is more widespread than just anime. I get the feeling that in some ways, all fantasy media is headed in a direction that is more navel gazing, more insulated, and more distant from reality.

Disclaimer: I really enjoy a lot of modern fantasy. I read Brandon Sanderson all the time, and I play fantasy games almost constantly. Many current fantasy creators are extremely talented, and I tip my hat to their abilities. That doesn’t mean that the current state of the genre is above criticism, though.

My criticism is that modern fantasy fiction is being written for and by people who have a hard time with reality, and fantasy is their catharsis. This is shown in how these stories use fantastical elements to abstract away and simplify reality, or how the protagonists often have super powers (or super features) that make them “better” than the normies.

While part of the point of fantasy is to talk about reality using symbolic or abstract metaphors to simplify otherwise difficult ideas to express, I feel like many of the abstractions in modern fantasy simply blur reality rather than illuminate it. Rather than put an idea in a new light that makes it easier to see, these abstraction simply paint over the stuff that the creator doesn’t want to deal with. Are the realities of intergender relationships too hard? That’s fine, have your protagonist take three wives and have nobody care. Is it too inconvenient that in your medievalist setting that information spreads slowly? No big deal, just have a wizard make fantasy email. Are you stuck in a situation with no rational way to the conclusion you want? Better write a fantasy where your characters can become gods whenever you want.

The problem with this is that it makes stories boring in (at least) two ways.

The first is that when all conflicts are solved by godlike powers, there’s basically no stakes. The drama is completely gone. Even in stories where you KNOW the protagonist is going to succeed, even the satisfaction of finding out HOW they succeed is gone. In a better story, the slow revelation of new information, new aspects of the setting and characters creates an ongoing trail of discovery. In worse stories, the people who are “supposed” to succeed simply gain the ability to do so (or in some particularly stupid stories, had the ability from the beginning) for no rational reason.

The second problem is that it creates art that is meaningless. This is similar to the problem of coming up with “original” ideas. If an idea is completely original, completely disconnected from prior experience, then it’s going to be basically meaningless. This is because meaning only comes from connecting new experiences to previous ones. Likewise, if the creator uses fantasy to gloss over human experiences–either because they don’t understand them or find them too difficult–then that removes a connection between the creation and experience. It makes it harder for the fantasy creation to be meaningful.

This may, however, be simply a symptom of wider cultural trends than a problem specifically with fantasy. As humans amass into larger and larger groups, and streamline our lives with technology, by necessity we have to simplify the kinds of interactions we have. To do otherwise would be to live in an increasingly and unmanageably complex world that we are not equipped to handle. Abstraction is used to save us from ourselves.

Perhaps that’s all this boils down to then, the improper use of a necessary tool. Let’s leave it there for now, and I’ll let that thought simmer. Maybe I’ll make another post later.