Last November I shot (in four days, on location near Whitby, UK.) a very low budget film based on H.P. Lovecraft’s ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’ Since 2019 (and just prior to the pandemic) I began to make very low budget – black and white – scratch horror films (Often shooting without a script).
These films where zero budget and each one tested something I was particularly interested in – like how far has greenscreen / chroma key come along for low budget filmmakers – I found that out by making a version of Lovecraft’s ‘At The Mountains of Madness’ entirely using green screen and shot in the back room of my house – you can see the full zero budget film here:
My plan with my version of H.P. Lovecraft’s the Shadow over Innsmouth was to do a lot of the horror special effects with old school techniques like stop-motion animation.
I shot the film last November and I’m only picking up postproduction on the film now (about 12 months after we wrapped photography) as other scriptwriting work (my bread and butter freelance gig– and my other comedy feature film – now near complete – SOBER (look out for this in 2024)– took precedence).
Picking up postproduction up 12 months on – and it feels like we are in a completely different place – on a different planet and in a different solar system. Sure I still want to do some creature effects using stop motion. But now we have AI – text to video. A total and complete game changer for low budget filmmakers.
What Am I TALKING ABOUT?
Have you heard of RunwayML?
There are hundreds of these (often free to use) tools that have appeared in the last twelve months that are rapidly (and I mean speeding) moving towards being able to create Hollywood level SFX – for well – not a fraction of the cost, no – in some case FOR FREE.
Have you seen what these thing can do out of the bag? And even in the last few weeks – these AI powered image and video generation tools have improved beyond what anyone thought possible back when I shot my film 12 months ago. Did I mention this stuff is FREE TO USE in many cases????
I spent a good chunk of last year learning about Virtual Production and how to use UNREAL ENGINE – Unreal Engine is a tool for building virtual worlds for games – but its rapidly being deployed as a tool for building worlds for FILMS and TV shows.
Unreal is complicated to use at first and it can be daunting (you need to learn a slightly new language and understand differences in terminology – actor for instance means something different to Unreal Engine Bods for example). Unreal Engine is a game changer – VP – and some of the VP techniques which can be cop-opted for low budget filmmaking is ALSO a game changer – and combine this stuff – with AI – and did I mention that UNREAL ENGINE IS FREE??? (as is Blender) as is a host of APPS (mostly on iPhone) that turn Unreal Engine and world building in that setting into a powerhouse – as yes, most of the apps ARE FREE…
So – this is all hugely exciting and will be highly damaging for a lot of people as well. The genius SFX man Phil Tippet was once set to work on Jurassic Park as a stop motion animator – then Spielberg announced (out of the blue) he wouldn’t be using stop motion and instead would be using CGI to give life to the dinosaurs – this is about to happen to again – except this time it isn’t just the genius Phil Tippet whose disappointed he’s out of a job – its going to a HUGE (the scale will be unparalleled) part of the SFX visual design / graphics and video / film industry – who will be put out of work (its already happening) – while AI does the job, cheaply and instantaneous, yes, I mean INSTANT – there is very little lead time needed for image to video generation – you tell the tool what you want – within seconds you’ll have it – don’t like the result? Change the prompt and go again – this stuff gives directors what they want in seconds when it works correctly- once its close enough, its easy to meld. The instant results – are a killer for people who do VFX for a living.
So, where does this AI stuff leave scriptwriters?
At the moment – nothing AI can do can match an original script – a fresh new idea by a human writer – a new concept, new characters and an engaging fresh approach to the classic archetypal human story… AI CANNOT (yet – if ever) match that.
Could AI come up with a new Star Wars movie? (Or even Rebel Moon?) yes, probably, and very soon – it really will be able to churn out new chapters in the Star Wars legacy – will then be any good? Its still the old tale of Rubbish in – Rubbish out. AI Needs to be trained and needs to be given good insight – in – so that the output is more what we want. Will an AI script work completely? – Not yet – we’re a long way from AI producing a script (an original at least) that won’t need a human to fix it, and well, humanise the characters. But Star Wars isn’t an original – could it producer a tropey (YA Style) formulaic script? Yes, we will get there very soon – not an original – but anything formula, anything in a series or very narrow genre (like Star Wars) or even episodes of children’s shows – or soap opera scripts – we’re close to getting AI that can manage those with some human help.
AND – a first draft of an AI script? Might be minutes – not days, not weeks – not three months standard on a first draft of a feature film – but a feature length first draft – in minutes. Would I use the software as pro scriptwriter? YES – but I’d take the first draft and meld it – get it to work, do the stuff AI can’t do – but I would let it run – and I would definitely train an AI script generator to work in manner that would benefit the project. And I’m a pro scriptwriter with 25 years’ experience.
Is AI going to do to scriptwriters what it IS NOW doing to SFX and games coding guys? Maybe, but one thing is always for certain.
GOOD STORIES trump everything else.
You can have all the SFX and Unreal style world building and free software that makes making something like The Mandalorian or Rebel Moon – very very easy, and very affordable to do – so everything is possible with AI – but that doesn’t mean any of this is interesting.
Let’s go back to Phil and Jurassic Park – would Jurassic Park have worked as a film If the dinosaurs were done with stop motion? The answer to that is YES – because the story and the characters worked – the CGI was a tool – to help get the story across.
There have been hundreds and hundreds of movies who have used CGI extensively – does the CGI make the film work or not? NO – the story does.
Ray Harryhausen the stop motion animator on classic films like Jason and the Argonauts IS still renowned today for his SFX and many of the films he worked on – are still far better than modern films that have spent millions on CGI – the difference isn’t the difference between CGI and old school stop motion – the difference between a successful film and one that doesn’t work – is the story, and the storytelling power of the director and writers.
Spielberg would have made Jurassic work with stop motion – he made it work with CGI – he made JAWS work with a rubber shark.
If you took Spielberg back to the 1920s and gave him a silent camera and some black and white film – and the Keystone Cops – he would make that film work too – because he’s an expert storyteller. That’s the big thing. CGI / AI / VFX – none of that STUFF matters. Its being able to tell engaging stories well.
So, CGI made anything possible if you could afford to do it – and AI is going to make CGI STYLE sfx free for people to use – so anything is now possible for a low budget – does it mean any of it will be any good? No, having everything possible for free doesn’t make any of it interesting when it comes to storytelling – to make CGI or AI interesting – you need to be a great storyteller – these things are tools – like a new camera or new lens – they’re used to service the story.
So, the way the game is played with AI in filmmaking will change – but the rules of the game – are the same – the stories and the characters are what matters – not what tools they’re made with – so in the end, nothing has changed – jobs will be lost and new ones will be created – and a handful of people might brake through with some AI – text to video made movies – but most people trying to use these tools to tell a story properly – need to known first HOW TO TELL A STORY – the film and TV business is an elite INDUSTRY – Spielberg – Scorsese etc – these guys are at the top – because they’re great storytellers – send them back to the stone age and they’d be doing great cave paintings – the story is the ‘ting – not the tools.
So, I’m going to finish my feature film – The Shadow Over Innsmouth using some AI generated SFX – probably runway ML or PIKA – but I was telling this story anyway and the film itself won’t succeed or fail – because of AI – it will work or not – because of my storytelling ability.
So, watch this space, and writers – stick to worrying about telling good stories – not what tools come along.
Matthew Cooper has been a script writer for hire and UK script consultant for over 20 years. He’s written for most of the UK soaps, including writing award-winning episodes of Emmerdale, EastEnders, Hollyoaks and Family Affairs and has been BAFTA shortlisted and Royal Television Society nominated as a script writer.
His directorial debut, the rubber reality horror thriller ‘Markham’ was released in 2020, his second feature film as director ‘At The Mountains Of Madness’ hit the screen in 2021 and his third horror feature film (and final part of The Sekurig Trilogy) When The Earth Gives Up The Dead (2022) was released on Halloween 2022.
Matthew has recently directed ‘H.P. Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth’ which is currently in post-production.
His latest feature film SOBER is near completion – a comedy starring Dean Smith (Last Tango in Halifax / Still Open All Hours) and Tom Gibbons (Funny Cow / The Archers) will be released in 2024.
You can find some of his broadcast credits on the IMDb.