The Depths of AI
With Richard Fenwick
By Yatin Srivastava
The Depths of AI With Richard Fenwick
With Richard Fenwick
Originally a Graphic Design and Advertising student, even Richard Fenwick didn’t know how his career path would chalk out, but it would turn out that his eagerness to learn different art forms surged by technology would lead him to a course unlike many others. Now, a Writer / Director, Richard sat down with us and explained his artistic journey in the film industry, how he progressed from one art form to another and eventually, gave us incredible insight on his brand new short film titled ‘Soulmate’, the intriguing title that lets viewers into a philosophical conundrum about how they feel about Artificial Intelligence, Consciousness and the technological singularity.
Yatin: How did your artistic journey progress?
Richard: So in college, I was studying Graphic Design and Advertising, but I was constantly sneaking into the film department and learning all there was to learn about the linear tape-based editing system they had in those days. By the time I ended my course, I had a weird mix of Motion Graphics, a few film projects and traditional graphic design projects on paper. At that time, it was really tricky to find a company that would accommodate that mix. I ended up working for a company called ‘Static’, who specialised in broadcast design and who were ahead of the curve. But a couple of years out of there, I started my own company called “OS2”, which was all about using new digital technology to make films. We were just being as experimental as we could to see what happened. Out of that, I ended up in the music industry shooting Music Videos by 2000.
Yatin: That’s incredibly interesting! I feel like that was the absolute golden era of music videos.
Richard: Oh absolutely, it really was! I feel like I mostly came in towards the end of that era and once the scene sort of died down and performance videos flooded the market, I moved towards dance acts – where you could get away with NOT doing performance videos! I was inspired by Chris Cunningham, Spike Jones etc. and that was kind of my path into narrative filmmaking.
Yatin: Being a Graphic Design student, did that help you in your process of figuring out what you wanted to do eventually?
Richard: I never forgot about Graphic Design, but I sort of progressively moved to live action. I think everything I do is informed by Graphic Design. It is a really good core creative discipline. It’s really more about the person than the discipline though. If you have graphic design sensibilities, you will be drawn to it at some time or the other and it just helps develops your habits of organisation, order, composition, the merging of lots of visual elements, and the development of good taste (usually).
Yatin: Your new upcoming short film ‘Soulmate’ is a very interesting Sci-fi based look into AI and philosophy at large. What is it about Sci-fi that excites you?
Richard: I think what I’m most interested in when it comes to Sci-fi is that the future will change us and we have to work out how we’re going to adapt to that. I like to do thought experiments into that. That is sort of the main concept behind Soulmate - where will relationships go as soon as we have technology that can tempt us with something that appears human? Especially if it is mimicking us perfectly or has possibly become sentient… Can it displace and improve upon our human relationships? And at the same time, we as a race seem to be getting further away from being comfortable with real relationships… loneliness is a problem of epidemic proportions!
Anyway, it’s the freedom that you get with Sci-fi to explore fascinating stories that makes it incredibly fresh. People have said to me that Soulmate conceptually feels like a mix between Spike Jones’ ‘Her’ and an episode of Black Mirror and I’m completely fine with those connections. But I hope it also offers a new narrative and sits in an honest space about relationships and what they might look like in 15-20 years. Plus, how technology probably sits at the core of it all.
Yatin: It’s also interesting to note that the short is written from the perspective of a Female character. What was that like?
Richard: I hadn’t thought about that too much, but probably my reasoning for that was that if it’s from a female perspective it’s going to be more about the relationship. while if it’s from the male perspective, the first thing men are going to do in these VR will be related to sex and I think that’s quite boring and obvious.
I think if technology gets to a point where we’re struggling to figure out whether something is real or artificial, or if a relationship really is about love or not, then, can it be, and more importantly should it be? And what are we going to do about that? My character is constantly wrong-footed with this idea that her emotions feel real, so she feels she needs to pursue the relationship. At the same time, the law doesn’t allow that in my story. In the film the simulation is only supposed to be a study to observe the development of AI. That’s the framework and she works as a backend coder but has found this relationship that starts to become quite precious to her. I found that quite fascinating. On the surface, people can watch it as a love story - but underneath it’s about tech addiction and the technological singularity – i.e. where technology is going to lead us when it’sleading and we’re following.
Yatin: What is interesting is that Soulmate is a critique on technology, but you’re inherently using new technology to make it. What interested you about Visual and Special Effects and how did that guide your process in making the film?
Richard: The most important thing for me was to create the simulation as live action footage so it looks real. I wanted to get past the “Ready Player One” look. Games and processing power are heading in just one direction and that’s absolute photorealism. The entire concept of realism is a given for me. So I didn’t want to do technology for technology’s sake. The simulation is filmed as live action in live action environments. Then the post production comes in and fill in the blanks: For scenes where there are screens and interfaces I would say my graphic design / motion design background really helped create those environments for the script. I’m working with a company called Territory studio, who have championed Graphic User Inferfaces for a good time now. They’re leading edge and, to me, have almost singlehandedly propelled GUI’s to the next level - starting with their ground-breaking work on Ridley Scott’s ‘Prometheus’. All of the stuff they do helps the story and I’m really comfortable with that ethos due to my own design background.
Yatin: Are you still making storyboards on paper or have you inculcated technology into that process?
Richard: I’m more used to creating storyboards on paper still I’m afraid. That’s the norm for me. At the same time, I understand the sheer advantage of using technology to propel project visualisation forward. You can use an Ipad and have really great visuals very quickly. For me, I still resort to taking a pic of my drawings and having that ready to go instead!
Yatin: What do you think are the advantages of technology and technological advancement?
Richard: I think there’s pros and cons to everything. It’s always exciting to look into the disadvantages for dramatic work and see where a story can go. That’s certainly more interesting for writers and filmmakers. But the advantages, I’d say, are, well, the sheer level of choice – everyone is catered for now – and the ability to find like minded people and be part of a niche that once would have felt impossible. That’s a huge thing. I mean, the sheer level of connectivity between human beings is now remarkable – again not always positive though! There’s also definitely a lot of advantages to what technological progress has done, and will do, for us as we try to solve the world’s ongoing problems.
Yatin: Lastly, what is in store for the future?
Richard: Other than the release of Soulmate, I want to work on my feature films! I’ve been writing feature scripts for a while now and have 3 developed stories, but I want to do them properly. If that takes 10 years from start to finish that’s okay. I personally would like the first one done within 2-3 years but feature films need time and dedication to ensure they’re done properly. I also want the ideas I explore to be relevant and provide something new, just like the subject matter of Soulmate.