Like a tsunami silently gathering far out at sea, a revolution is coming to the movie business. It will make the disruptions that rocked the book and music industries in recent years look tiny by comparison.
In the book world, self-publishing is eating the universe. In music land, A&R guys once discovered the next big thing by stalking venues night after night but that’s all over. These days Big Music just waits for someone to explode on the internet before signing them to multi-million dollar contracts.
Now two technologies are poised to upend the business of the silver screen in the same way but they’re ones you might not expect: Graphics Processing Units (GPUs) and 3D game engines.
Now hold on a second you’re thinking, GPUs already drive the movie industry. Big studios like Pixar, Dreamworks and LucasFilms use massive banks of GPUs to create complex special effects and animation. You’re right but I want you to cast your mind forward just a little further because someday soon those same effects won’t take months to render, they’ll take weeks. A few years later they’ll take days. And soon after that? They’ll do that same rendering in real-time.
And that’s where the magic happens.
To see why you have to take a little journey into the future with me.
As a sci-fi author I spend a lot of time (navel) gazing into the mists of time, trying to figure out where all this is going. I don’t always get it right but I’ve maintained a thousand year timeline of future cultural, political and technological events that I’ve only had to update three times in the last twenty years for obvious misses. My short story “In the Cracks of the Machine” saw the increasing anxiety over the rise of robots, automation and immigration back in 1998 before most folks were thinking about it. I love to look at technology and imagine what will happen if it keeps developing on a long enough timeline.
When it comes to GPUs I see them reaching the capability to render purely photo realistic graphics in real-time in the next decade, maybe even faster.
When they do, it’ll unleash a flood of personal and indie films unlike everything we’ve ever seen.
And it will be absolutely amazing.
To know why, you just have to look at the costs of movie production.
While P2P threatens the studios’ distribution hegemony, making movies still remains a prohibitively expensive and involved process. It’s what Warren Buffet likes to call a moat, something so costly that other companies can’t get into the game without insane levels of investment. PCs made it easy for any would be recording star to upload his music to SoundCloud and the Kindle made it simple for aspiring scribes to bypass the publishing industry choke point, but the movie industry remains largely immune to technological democratization. When it comes to building special effects laden summer blockbusters like The Avengers and Avatar the minimum barrier to entry is at least $200 million dollars. Even animated films like Tangled can cost a whopping $260 million dollars without a single set, costume or location scout. In the near term, those costs are only rising, making even one film a massive financial risk that can instantly kill a studio if it bombs with audiences. John Carter anyone? Can you really blame the industry suits for having little to no imagination or appetite for risk?
But in the next decade, prices to make movies will plunge. The reason is because of the end of a long standing trend in gaming.
If you’ve been gaming since the early 1990’s, than you’ve seen new leaps in visual fidelity every five years. Programmers like John Carmack changed the way we played with every generation, adding new tricks and better and better graphics. I still remember early games like the first Doom keeping me glued to my computer monitor in my dorm and now the game looks positively horrible by comparison to the modern games that blur the boundaries between reality and fantasy.
But that leap in visual fidelity is coming to an end. The cycle of new consoles launched every five years is already over. Instead of dozens of new engines crafted in-house by advanced programming teams to power the latest video games, only a few engines will remain. Once hardware and software reaches the point where it can render photo realistic images in real-time, everything changes. Now programming teams will license or use open source versions of those engines and craft visual programming tools on top of them. This will allow creative artists to utilize those tools to design any type of special effect rapidly and easily. Small clusters of computers will replace massive farms of exotically cooled machines. Advances in AI will allow animators to set actors in motion without ever having to waste time with actual people or people in funny looking motion capture suits. Not long after that the technology will advance to the point where artists will only need a few local computers or a little time on the cloud to bring their movies into reality.
Prices to make movies will drop drastically, breaking open the floodgates of creativity and allowing smaller teams to make movies on an epic scale. A film like Avatar will go from costing $237 million to $30 or $40 million if a studio uses big name actors. If they use unknown actors the price will drop to $10 to $20. Ten or twenty years later, with AI assistance, you might find a single artist creating a mind blowing movie in his garage without any actors or sets.
This parallels what we’ve seen with self-driving cars recently. When tech gets good enough it democratizes the creative process. This year we saw a single kid develop a self-driving car in his literal garage only a decade after it took an entire team of researchers to make a car go seven miles in the open desert for the DARPA Grand Challenge.
Not long ago, movie special effects artists struggled to create images that could fool people into thinking they were real. Movies like 2001’s Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, while representing a huge leap forward, still fell headlong into the uncanny valley, causing revulsion in audiences. In other words, it came close enough to seem almost real, but not close enough to make people suspend disbelief and trust their eyes. In particular, rendering people realistically was nearly impossible. Hair, eyes and skin all looked terrible. In particular, the eyes, the windows to the soul, failed to convince people that what they were seeing was real. Eyes looked like dead fish on ice. But only eight years later, in 2009, Terminator Salvation turned back time and brought us a fully rendered young Arnold Schwarzenegger. With the release of Star Wars: Rogue One comes the resurrection of Peter Cushing an actor who’s been dead for twenty years, the results so lifelike that it brought his former agent to tears.
Reading about Cushing’s revival reminded me of the cyberpunk classic “Remake” by Connie Willis, where a young actress tries to make it in a Hollywood that doesn’t use real actors anymore. Instead they just license the rights to classic celebrities like Bogart and Bacall and make new movies entirely digitally. When I read it in the 90s it seemed very far away but today the algorithms to breath life into a digital human are already here. Now we just need the hardware to catch up with them because they’re computationally expensive.
All these developments will enable new kinds of films to come to market. It will create a flood of garbage, but it will also bring us brand new masterworks from unexpected places.
Just as the changes in the book market have allowed for fiction that breaks out of strictly straitjacketed genre structures and arbitrarily imposed book lengths, movies will break out in similar ways. We’ll see small serialized films only a half hour long and epic four or five hour masterworks that need to be taken in shorter sessions on people’s home media walls. Novels that were too expensive to adapt to films will finally come to the silver screen. Smaller books that would never see the light of day will find a home with dedicated micro studios of people working in their spare time out of their houses. Open source visual artifacts will allow people to drag and drop whole scenes without ever understanding all the creative wizardry behind the scenes. Dropping people into exotic locals will no longer require actually traveling to those places.
George R.R. Martin, author of the Game of Thrones, once talked about why he wrote the series on such an incredibly epic scale. He said that when he worked for the film industry budget always came into play. He would write a massive battle sequence only to have creative execs ask him if he could scale down the finale fight to a tiny scene between the hero and the villain. Oh and can you make it a knife fight instead of a giant tank battle? Because he was a professional he would do it, but it left him wanting just as it left many audiences wanting. When he set out to write Game of Thrones he was determined to make it “unfilmable” by throwing in everything he ever wanted to see, from sweeping battles to multiple points of view. Eventually the technology caught up with his vision. In the near future nothing will be unfilmable.
I write my science fiction with all this in mind. My current series, The Jasmine Wars Saga, sees China explode in a Jasmine Revolution, hurling off the chains of communism to become the world’s first AI driven direct democracy. I weave in everything from epic mech battles to tiny nanotech wars with insectian micro-machines battling it out in people’s bloodstream. Today it’s unfilmable without a $200 or $300 million dollar price tag. Tomorrow? I’ll be connecting with visual artists to contract my indie epic the way I connect with audio recording artists on ACX today for audio books.
When we can render the world in real-time then the only limitations on our creativity will be what we imagine.
I can’t wait.
A bit about me: I’m an author, engineer and serial entrepreneur. During the last two decades, I’ve covered a broad range of tech from Linux to virtualization and containers. You can check out my latest novel, an epic Chinese sci-fi civil war saga where China throws off the chains of communism and becomes the world’s first direct democracy, running a highly advanced, artificially intelligent decentralized app platform with no leaders. You can also check out the Cicada open source project based on ideas from the book that outlines how to make that tech a reality right now and you can get in on the beta.