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As long as there have been movies, cutting-edge technology has made the experience of watching them better. The history of film is replete with innovators trotting out their latest tricks, to the delight of cinema fans everywhere. If tech is to work, it can’t just be seen as a technical innovation alone. It must also be utilized intelligently and creatively to enrich the storytelling experience.
Innovations that transformed an industry
When a group of inventors in the 1920s figured out how to capture and sync recorded sound with images, their discovery changed Hollywood forever. Talkies trounced silent movies and, as a result, giddy studio bosses trotted out so many musicals that audiences grew weary of them
The era of musicals may have peaked, but sound was here to stay. Since we’ve seen the advent of Dolby and THX, innovations emerged to enrich the experience of watching a good film and opened the possibilities for reaching new viewers.
Technology needs a soul
Cinephiles are savvy. Tech for the sake of tech isn’t going to wow them. Think Jaws 3-D. Once novel and promising, 3-D devolved into something of a joke until James Cameron finally did it right in 2009 with Avatar, which set a global box office record with $2.8 billion in ticket sales.
Yet follow-up efforts to duplicate Avatar’s success fell flat. Studios cut corners, and viewers who shelled out a premium for their 3-D tickets felt cheated. With the release of Avatar 2 coming in December, fans are hoping Cameron has another inventive ace up his sleeve.
Motion capture, long the domain of video games, broke new ground in 2004’s Polar Express, when director Robert Zemeckis converted human performances to animation, but many viewers found the look disturbing — characters hovering between human and robot with zombie-like eyes. Creepy computer-generated imagery helped usher the term “uncanny valley effect” into our common vernacular. In typical Hollywood fashion, a string of bad CGI features followed, including 2011’s flop Mars Needs Moms, and audiences rebelled.
But who can forget Andy Serkis’s motion-capture Gollum in the Lord of the Rings series? It was an extraordinary performance that showcased the potential for CGI. Director Peter Jackson’s fantasy series from Middle-earth grossed $3 billion in the box office universe, the highest of all time. Serkis then starred as Caesar, a CGI ape, in Rise of Planet of the Apes, winning kudos from fans and critics — and rebooting a profitable franchise.
Bringing history to life
Colorization, another tech advancement with huge potential, often left old films looking cheap. Purists were scandalized, and Congress was pushed to adopt the National Film Preservation Act. Then Jackson optimized the technique to huge acclaim to make his 2018 documentary They Shall Not Grow Old. Jackson’s team rescued battered World War I footage and made improvements to color and speed, resulting in a film that packed an emotional punch and connected with audiences.
Although big-budget, VFX-heavy films have dominated the box office — and helped lure folks back to the theater — directors like Jackson have proven that A.I. is equally effective when telling smaller-scale, intimate stories.
The next transformation in film
When technology is designed and utilized as a part of the artist’s vision, it can enhance the experience and further the cinema landscape. But when it is solely used to fill seats and drive revenue, that’s when it tends to fail.
It was with this mindset that I worked with my team to develop a new technology-driven process designed to give artists a wider audience while not diluting the quality of the experience.
International cinema is the next frontier. Never have movies and TV series produced abroad been in so much demand. Parasite made history in 2020 as the first foreign film to win the Oscar for best picture. Another import from South Korea, Squid Game, is Netflix’s most-watched series ever.
Although I’m a film school graduate and a longtime fan of international cinema, even I find subtitles tough to take. In 2009, while watching the Japanese film, Departures, I was struck by how the subtitles seemed at once insufficient and yet so wordy they rivaled the iconic opening scroll of Star Wars.
During the pandemic, the need for content only grew and international content that might have once been ignored by a U.S. audience became “must-see.” Greater international choices led to poor dubbing or distracting subtitles, distancing the viewer from the filmmaker’s vision.
From earlier work after receiving a patent in 2014, I wanted to solve this issue and formed a new company, Adapt Entertainment, and assembled a team of partners who shared my vision. Together with Pinscreen, we’ve created a novel A.I. process to adapt movies into a new language that looks, sounds and feels real. This breakthrough opens new vistas for filmmakers and fans clamoring for foreign content.
We created the first feature film to use this revolutionary process, The Champion, debuted in April of this year. Shot in Polish and German, we were able to use our technology to sync it into seamless English.
When approached with the idea, director Maciej Barczewski was skeptical. He had every right to be. The Champion, which tells the story of a real-life boxing champ sent to Auschwitz, was Barczewski’s baby. And much-maligned deepfakes have gone viral with their scary verisimilitude. Barczewski, a committed professional, didn’t want to see his hard work cheapened. “Don’t make my guys look like monkeys,” he told us.
As a bonus, although our technology doesn’t require the original actors to make a successful conversion into another language, the cast of The Champion participated in the effort by reshooting their lines in a studio, in English, with a series of cameras capturing their facial movements at multiple angles, producing a level of authenticity never before seen. The Champion team was cheered to be part of the effort, and Barczewski’s concerns were eased. “It is the original version of the film but enhanced,” he said. “I love the fact that the audience won’t be distracted by subtitles.”
For filmmakers like Barczewski who lack a big budget, this landmark A.I. provides a realistic method to reach a wider world. It is also great news for viewers, who will have the possibility of accessing films they previously would have skipped. “This technology could change the whole paradigm of international filmmaking,” Barczewski said.
I couldn’t agree more.
Darryl C. Marks is the founder and C.E.O. of Adapt Entertainment