Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Creative robots? Machines and the creation of music, art, and movies

A computer science professor, a new media curator and critic, and an AI entrepreneur building audience demand analysis software (no, this isn't the beginning of one of those 'walk into a bar' jokes) recently got together to think about, and talk about, artificial intelligence (AI) in the creative industries.

It all happened when the Canada Media Fund recently hosted Analog, a conference that showcased a handful of AI experts in Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal. The events offered an in-depth, nuanced look at the implications of AI in artistic endeavours. In Toronto, the CMF’s director of industry and market trends, Catherine Mathys, along with a computer science professor, a new media curator and critic, and an AI entrepreneur building audience demand analysis software took on the many facets of the debate around AI and the arts.

Creativity (Re)Considered

To think through the role of technology in creative practices, we first need a working definition of what creativity is. Does it refer to creating something out of nothing? Is it an ability to see invisible rules and bend — if not break — them? Is it remixing and recontextualizing ideas that are already known or in circulation? And whatever the answers to these questions may be, we need to ponder if there’s a net positive role for artificial intelligence in the creative process.

Defining creativity used to be fairly straightforward. Visual arts, music, and inventions were things made by people, using physical tools and artistic techniques. Similarly, defining ownership used to be more or less routine. With creativity melded with machines, however, it’s a different story. Once cut-and-dry issues such as copyright and authorship find themselves pondered by legal scholars and practitioners as a result.

The Computer Scientist’s Point of View

Are we using our creative brains on patterns we’ve seen before? Is our creativity anchored on things we’ve done and liked before? These are just a few of the questions University of Toronto Computer Science Professor Steve Engels asks. His work with AI finds its applications in such projects as games for the blind or to improve the cognition of seniors, and programs that generate music.

As an academic, Engels’ interest lies in the deployment of AI as a cognitive tool — something that supports human processes. One of the challenges, he says, is to figure out where the boundaries are between what’s best made by a human and what’s best made by a machine.

As a concrete example, he points to his work with the video game design community in Toronto, which has been experimenting with ‘authorless music.’ As the name suggests, that is music generated by a computer trained on algorithms. For game companies with limited music budgets, Engels says it can provide a “good enough” and affordable solution. He does, though, acknowledge what he calls “the Britney problem” — if an AI is trained on Britney Spears songs, there’s a non-zero chance that its output will sound like Britney Spears.

“It can produce Bach or it can produce Britney,” notes Engels. “It’s based on the dataset it’s trained on. It has a space it plays in, and when it goes outside of that space it tends to create things that are off the rails and don’t even sound like music.”

The Curator’s Point of View

The role of humans in creativity is critical. It is only by expressing aspects of the human condition that art ‘speaks’ to people, stressed new media curator and art critic Shauna Jean Doherty. She is therefore optimistic about a future in which AI intersects with art, but understands there are scenarios on the edge of both that represent real challenges.

She shared the example of the French art collective Obvious, creator of the first AI-based artwork that sold at auction. In the words of Hugo Caselles-Dupré, of Obvious, “we fed the system with a dataset of 15,000 portraits painted between the 14th and the 20th centuries. The ‘Generator’ makes a new image based on the set, then the ‘Discriminator’ tries to spot the difference between a human-made image and one created by the ‘Generator.’ The aim is to fool the ‘Discriminator’ into thinking that the new images are real-life portraits. Then we have a result.” The resulting piece sold at auction in 2018, and did so with a $400,000-plus price tag — over 40 times the most optimistic estimates.

Doherty’s concern is that AI can “fetishize” the creative process. “By human standards it’s not great artwork, but by machine standards it might be okay. [But] It’s not enough for me as a critic and curator to say ‘it’s made with AI.’ A lot of it really looks the same.”

The AI Entrepreneur’s Point of View

In 2016, University of Waterloo grad Jack Zhang developed an AI-based system that could weigh a plotline against some 40,000 attributes to predict ― and optimize ― the resulting movies’ chances of success. As Zhang explained at that time “before a single word was written, we used a computer program to analyze a massive amount of data to see what kind of plot elements in the film were driving audiences. So we correlated that with audience taste and behaviour data and see what type of plot would draw in what type of audience, and then feed that information to screenwriters who would closely work with our computer program to create that screenplay.”

A trailer for the movie, in this case a horror movie, was created for $30. Not knowing what to expect, the trailer was posted on Facebook. The result: 2.7 million views for a movie that didn’t exist. In other words, there was demand the supply did not meet. Zhang saw a market opportunity, something he recently explained in detail in an episode of the CMF’s Now & Next podcast.

The software he has since built out goes beyond AI assisting with the creative process. It is also capable of what he calls “audience demand analysis,” which can begin with the creative process and go all the way through to marketing and distribution.

Zhang looks at the creative process in film and TV as two-pronged problem. There’s the systematic and the random — the former being what is known, and the latter being what is unpredictable and often unexplainable. As he explained at Analog, his software seeks to combine these two domains. This does not mean it’s a replacement for creativity. But it provides the ability to run probabilities in a business known for being largely unknowable.

Incidentally, Zhang’s film, based on a trailer and some AI-fuelled instinct, began as a crowdfunded Kickstarter project, and is now financed with a $3.5 million budget, with production scheduled to begin in Q2 2020.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

How Viacom made the shift from MTV to digital video for a global audience

On this episode of the podcast I've been hosting we explore how a major legacy media company is navigating the shift from the 'lean back' experience of linear television to the short and on demand mode of viewing on phones, tablets, and other screens large and small.

We’ll look at this paradigm shift in the context of Viacom, one of the world’s largest media conglomerates. Viacom is best known for creating some of the coolest, edgiest, youth-oriented programming ever seen on TV. Think Beavis & Butthead and Comedy Central Roasts, for example.

But all the cool in the world wasn’t enough to defend Viacom from the array of content options people had once the internet became the dominant mode of content distribution.

How has Viacom found its way back to millions, if not billions, of viewers around the world? How is it defending its turf against the likes of TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube?

In this episode we’ll dig into these questions with Brendan Yam, Vice President and General Manager of Viacom Digital Studios International, or VDSI.  He's been with the company since 2005, and for the past year and a half has led the company’s short-form digital content output and its expansion into global markets.

Download a transcript of the episode

Jump to some highlights:

What led to Viacom experimenting with short-form digital video content (2:24)
What works and what doesn’t in this format (8:39)
Viacom’s short-form strategy and its successes around the world (10:43)
Business models in digital video (16:34)

Related Links:
  • During the interview I reference an article on Viacom by Matthew Ball and Jason Hirschhorn. The full title of that article is “Why Viacom Fell (And Why It Can Come Back).” Read it here on REDEF.
  • “Viacom Sets Up International Hubs to Pump Out Short-Form Content” on Digiday
  • “Viacom Digital, Facebook Watch Cut Four-Continent Deal for Short-Form Shows” on Forbes

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

The Environmental Impact of Film & TV Production: Water Bottles, Meat, Idling Engines and More

If you’ve ever seen a TV show or film set on location, you know that production—with its rows of trucks and trailers, power generators, and catering services—is often the equivalent of a small city setting up shop.

A quick tally makes it obvious that non-trivial amounts of waste and greenhouse gases are generated on any set. As people become more environmentally conscious, anything and everything from plastic cutlery to idling vehicles become opportunities to implement sustainable production practices.

This episode of the podcast I host deals with the 'greening' of film and TV production with Zena Harris, a sustainability expert and the president of Green Spark Group.

Highlights include:
  • The origins of growing worries over environmental sustainability on TV and film sets (1:54)
  • Some key contributors to a production’s environmental footprint (5:33)
  • Productions of all sizes and shapes can go the green route (11:50)
  • Industry leaders demonstrating how production greening is done (13:13)

Download a transcript of the episode

Additional links:

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

How Podcasts Got So Hot: An Interview with Nicholas Quah of HotPod

On this episode of Now & Next, the podcast I host, we journey into the business aspects of one of the media landscape’s most talked about areas: Podcasting.

Last season we examined the emerging podcast industry with Vancouver podcasting company Pacific Content’s Steve Pratt and Dan Misener. Since then, their company has been acquired by Rogers Media, while another company we talked about during that episode, Gimlet Media, has been acquired by Spotify for $230 million. The latter also acquired Parcast and Anchor earlier this year, spending over $400 million on podcasting acquisitions in total.

Such acquisitions speak to the industry’s real-time build-out as well as the rapid rate of growth it’s experiencing; i.e. there were about 500,000 podcast series last year, and today, there are upwards of 800,000. And more importantly, from the business point of view: The ad revenue supporting the burgeoning industry is on a major upswing. Between 2015 and 2019, revenues jumped from just over $100 million per year to over $600 million annually and are expected to top $1 billion by 2021.

Our guide for this episode is Nicholas Quah, founder of Hot Pod, the leading newsletter on the podcast industry.

In this episode, Nicholas Quah:
  • Takes stock of the key moves that occurred in the industry over the past year (2:19)
  • Reflects on how the influx of money in podcasting will impact the industry (6:50)
  • Ponders how business models will evolve in the podcasting space (15:04)
  • Shares his thoughts on what the next round of big moves in podcasting will imply (20:07)

Download a transcript of the episode

Related links: 

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Over 50 films in 50 years: The documentarian working at the speed of a YouTuber

This episode of the podcast I'm hosting presents an in-depth conversation with acclaimed documentary filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin, one of the world’s most notable Indigenous filmmakers.

She has made over fifty films over the span of her fifty-year career. Her documentary on the 1990 Oka Crisis is among her most widely known works. Now in her late eighties, Alanis has not slowed down. Her 53rd film, Jordan River Anderson, The Messenger, premiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. It also won the ‘Best Canadian Documentary’ award at the 2019 Vancouver International Film Festival.

A lot has changed in the world of documentaries since Alanis Obomsawin started making films in the 1960s, and much of that change has occurred in the last few years. We are now in the midst of a documentary gold rush, with streaming services and on-demand video platforms opening up new avenues for a genre previously relegated to limited theatrical releases, home video or DVD—and maybe one or two broadcast slots. As a result, we’re seeing documentaries become bona fide hits and some bring in well into the eight figures at the box office. It’s a truly unusual phenomenon in the doc world.

So, what does an iconic documentarian make of all the changes afoot in the world not just of documentary, but of media and technology in general?

In this episode you’ll hear about:

  • How Alanis Obomsawin views the role of documentary filmmakers today (4:15)
  • Her relationship with new technologies (5:26)
  • How tech affects the sacredness of the movie-watching experience (10:52)
  • What keeps her hopeful for the future (17:11)

Friday, October 11, 2019

From Instagram Stars to Invisible Companies: New Approaches to Content Creation

“Everyone wants to be a creator,” says Eitan Pilipski, VP in charge of developing Snapchat’s ever-evolving augmented reality (AR) platform. Pilipski was one of hundreds of executives who took to the stage at Collision. This year, the conference featured a dedicated content track, with practitioners and executives sharing their insights and experiences with creating content across constantly changing platforms and user expectations.

To set a baseline, it’s worth doing a quick tally of the volume of content being created online in 2019. Every day, over 500 million tweets are posted, about 100 million photos and videos are shared on Instagram, about 4 million blog posts go live, and the amount of video uploaded to YouTube every minute now sits at around 500 hours. Every minute.

Indeed everyone can be a creator, and hundreds of millions around the world are making the wheels of the Internet churn like no other form of media ever has. But with all the new form factors for content and new user experiences, both creators and tech platforms are in a state of constant flux. And embracing what at first appears to be chaos but is in fact a highly dynamic marketplace is what it takes to compete.

Take Snapchat for example. If you’re about 30 or older, you may think it’s yesterday’s news. In fact, it’s very much a going concern for teens and twentysomethings, with hundreds of millions of video stories created daily, and those stories yielding several billion views. The company and the community are in an ongoing state of reinvention, creating hundreds of thousands of lenses and filters so people can personalize their disappearing snaps with goggles, elevators, pickles, and anything else that can be imagined and digitized. 50 billion views later, Pilipski, a veteran of AR companies that created early AR applications for phones and smart glasses, sees the bigger picture: “AR used to be just for experts, but now anyone can do it,” referring to the reality-stretching tools Snapchat’s products have put into the hands of several hundred million people.

And Snapchat is but one app out of millions. The burst of content activity is taking place across screens big and small, and media producers and brands are vying for the same attention as every person posting from their smartphone. Consequently, if you’re trying to get the word out about your project, product, or service, it’s harder than ever to break through the clutter. So how are the tech companies, publishers, platforms, and brands thinking about content creation in this free-for-all environment? And what does it take to get noticed in that infinite sea?

Banking and basketball, 3D printed dresses and innovation

A brick and mortar bank faced this challenge when it wanted to communicate a new idea. Wells Fargo wanted to give its customers control over their financial lives with Control Tower, an online product and app that provides access to all accounts, credit cards, and digital transactions in a single place. CMO Jamie Moldafsky delivered the message by giving people control over a favourite pastime: the bank created an app for the NBA playoffs that offered control of the game-viewing experience. People could choose cameras, angles, and favourite players for the version of the game they wanted to see. “And we’re not interrupting people’s lives with something that is irrelevant,” adds Moldafsky.

GE faced a similar challenge, as CMO Linda Boff explained: “The best things we do as a company are invisible, and we wanted to make them visible. And while it’s not easy to get the average person excited about electrical infrastructure or the technology backbone of the aerospace and healthcare industries, you can get them excited about the underlying principle behind it, which is innovation.”

To make innovative thinking visible to a mass audience, GE partnered with fashion designer Zac Posen, equipping him with the company’s 3D printing technology and setting him loose to create eye-catching, futuristic gowns. Three stars wore the 3D printed dresses on the red carpet at New York’s splashy Met Gala this spring. “You used to be able to get all the attention you needed by advertising during Friends or Cheers,” quips Boff. Now, the name of the game is creating buzz and attention in the real world, and having it cascade through thousands to millions of impressions on the likes of Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, as well as through mainstream print and media outlets, who also picked up the story.

Platforms and publishers

It’s no secret that local media outlets have suffered a significant erosion of advertising revenue as a result of the dominance of Facebook and Google, and that algorithms dictate who sees which content, and under what circumstances. Speaking to the tricky economic interconnections between people, companies, and platforms, Justin Hendrix of the NYC Media Lab, described the new phase of the relationship this way: “Media publishers and platforms are now in the ‘conscious uncoupling’ phase, and we’re asking ourselves how do we want to live the rest of our lives.”

Hendrix lays out the facts of how the dynamics have evolved between individual creators and platforms as well as brands and publishers and platforms. “Only publishers with scale can thrive on the big platforms, he points out, and social media stardom, it’s more like a lottery now.” He states that, for most creators, ad revenue on its own is no longer enough to support them, let alone those YouTubers, bloggers, and vloggers that require production or editorial staff to keep to a regular posting schedule.

Hendrix is hopeful, however, based largely upon the flowering of ideas and prototypes coming out of the student groups with whom his lab works. “Things that seem like fringe ideas now may actually end up solving the problem at scale,” he notes. Among those projects are a multi-user AR challenge, created in conjunction with A&E Networks, and a framework for metadata and machine learning for news produced in partnership with Hearst Media.

Are platforms best for marketing, or for monetization?

Platforms aren’t going away, so the fact that so many people use Twitter, Facebook, and Google as their starting point for information is a reality which media organizations now have to contend. Meg Goldthwaite, Chief Marketing Officer at NPR, explained that her public media organization decided to move away from a reliance on social platforms and to more O&O (owned and operated) media channels.

“We’ll never leave radio, but we want to find new places we can meet people,” she explains to the audience at Collision. For NPR, this meant finding out what all the places are. It used to be easy: it was in the car or in the kitchen. Now the audience is spread across multiple platforms and devices, and is consuming the content in conventional broadcast forms and also via streaming and on demand. Some of the places NPR’s audiences can be found are O&O, some are on smart speakers (NPR was an early partner with Amazon and Google and is now also working with Apple and Samsung), and some are open platforms, such as YouTube, where the network’s Tiny Desk Concertspull in several million views per month.

“YouTube is the centre of gravity for young people,” acknowledges Kelly Day, President of Viacom Digital Studios, the two-year-old digital arm of a company whose hallmark for several decades has been youth-focused, category-defining brands such as MTV, Nickelodeon, BET, and Comedy Central. “We don’t use digital to market TV shows but to create digital intellectual property (IP), to build communities, and to serve personalized, on demand content,” says Day. For Viacom, that means targeting and reaching the 2 to 12 and 13 to 24-year-old demographics. And even though substantial efforts are being put into IP on open platforms like YouTube, Day says Viacom is seeing continued growth on the company’s O&O channels, which are netting approximately 5 billion views per month.

Day and her team at Viacom are well aware that teens are spending much of their time on Instagram and Snapchat, so they have developed programming for IGTV, the new product introduced by Instagram in 2018 to accommodate videos up to 10 minutes in length. Such initiatives have the potential to corral audiences and create high engagement that in turn are attractive as sites for branded content or ad placements. Two other recent Viacom acquisitions speak to the ways in which the company is defending itself in the face of declining audiences for linear broadcast TV: the mid 2018 acquisition of Awesomeness TV, the youth-focused digital media network generating hundreds of millions of monthly views, and the early 2019 acquisition of the free, ad-supported streaming platform Pluto TV.

Note: This post originally appeared here.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

When playing video games can pay off: The world of eSports

On this episode of Now & Next, the podcast I host, an in depth look at the world of competitive video game playing, otherwise known as eSports. Our guide through this fast-paced world is professional player Stephanie Harvey.

Stephanie at work

Stephanie is originally from Quebec City, and in addition to being a five-time World Champion for the game Counter-Strike, she is the recipient of such accolades as being named to the Forbes 30 under 30 list and the BBC’s list of 100 inspiring women.

eSports is predicted to become a billion-dollar global industry this year. It’s particularly popular in Asia, where large cities boast thousands of gaming rooms packed, day in and day out, with players vying for video game domination.

As the trend picks up speed, Stephanie Harvey knows that several impediments still exist to its full mainstream acceptance. There are, for example, widely held negative perceptions of the gaming industry that need to be overcome as well as the fact that, from players to spectators, eSports is predominantly a boys’ club. Still, she remains hopeful.

On this episode you’ll hear about:
  • Recent pivotal moments in the mainstreaming of eSports (3:40)
  • How eSports are making inroads in Canada (8:48)
  • The economic structures at work in eSports (11:26)
  • The gender pay gap prevalent in the industry and the place of women in eSports (16:30)