The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 42.0°F | Partly Cloudy

FILM REVIEW

Hollywood Cuts Costs With Computer-Generated Pictures

Kangaroo Jack Hailed as Achievement of the Digital Age

By Amandeep Loomba

Staff Writer

Editor’s Note: Like the film it covers, this article is a joke.

On January 11, 2002, Hollywood ushered in a brave new era of entertainment by releasing its first 100 percent digital motion picture. Kangaroo Jack, the story of two young men from Brooklyn chasing a kangaroo that stole $50,000 of mob money, was created using nothing but the latest in digital technology. “It’s truly e-mazing,” said Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA).

At a press conference before the film’s premiere, Valenti pointed out that “films have been heading in the digital direction for some time. As we have crossed the digital divide into the 20th (sic) century, Hollywood is proud to make the transition from atoms to bits. And bit by bit, we’re finding that machines make better pictures than people do.”

In a cheery, sing-song voice, Valenti noted, “They can make machines to save us labor. Now, they’re doing our hearts the very same favor.”

Kangaroo Jack was assembled by a cluster of high-powered computers running software developed by programmers at Warner Brothers studios.

“By feeding the computer a number of examples of previous films that met with success, we can generate movies that seem entirely new using only successful recycled ideas,” explained Marcus Bayes, the programmers’ press liaison.

“To tell the truth, it’s not very different from the way most Hollywood movies are made. Computers are just better at putting it all together,” he said.

The highly sophisticated software ranks individual ideas and assembles them into a kind of matrix where the potential for entertainment is maximized. “For instance, the character Louis Fucci was developed by the computer to appeal to black audiences. So the computer wrote him as a sassy, sharp-tongued black man. However, the computer calculated that he could be 30 percent funnier by also making him overweight. So the film featured a portly, sassy, sharp-tongued black man and at least two scenes in which that character had no shirt on.”

Bayes added, “We’re not sure why the Louis character has his shirt off in those scenes; we had to trust the computer on that one.”

The computer also determined that the Fucci character would work best against a white male with an Italian name. Thus, the character of Charlie Carbone came into existence. While the computer did find that audiences found homosexuals in the media to be entertaining, it also discerned that the film required a heterosexual love story. Thus, the computer generated the compromise of having the Charlie Carbone character be a straight, but slightly effeminate, hairdresser.

The software was additionally configured to appeal to the age group of 5 to 55, and to maintain a PG rating. “We found that as you lowered the age factor, the chances of having fart jokes in the film were raised significantly. But having the camels do the farting, now that was pretty much genius on the part of the computer,” said Bayes.

Of course, some bugs still remain in the system. But the developers remain confident that they will soon be worked out. The film’s digital music consultant, Alain Touring, explained the difficulties they ran into while generating the score for Kangaroo Jack. “We were using the latest version of Windows Media Player to catalog music that would be used as a basis for the ‘new’ music in the picture. Unfortunately, we came across a bizarre copyright bug and were only able to digitize a single album.”

That album, Dr. Dre’s Chronic 2001, served as the sole source of musical inspiration for the computers that scored the film. “Actually,” Touring recalled, “we could only get it to accept two tracks off the album. So the whole film sounds like reworked versions of two Dr. Dre songs.”

“However,” he added, “they are pretty catchy.”

A digital picture, however, allows for perfect digital copies. When asked about the danger of the film being pirated on the Internet, Andrei Markov, Kangaroo Jack’s lead programmer, said that “while no anti-piracy method is foolproof, we have taken a number of measures to counteract pirating of the movie.”

“First and foremost,” Markov proclaimed, “we worked on the ‘social engineering’ aspect of anti-piracy. That is to say, we needed to attack people’s reasons for wanting to pirate the film in the first place.”

To accomplish this, Markov and his development team tweaked the parameters of their custom software until the film achieved its goal of being almost 100 percent unwatchable. The research conducted by production company Jerry Bruckheimer Films showed that “movies that nobody wants to watch tend not to be pirated,” according to producer Jerry Bruckheimer.

“We’ve found virtually zero percent penetration of pirated copies of Armageddon, Jury Duty and the Police Academy films on all the major file sharing services. So we’re quite confident that the film will not be pirated.”

Bypassing the traditional method of hiring writers, actors, set-designers, cameramen, and virtually everyone else associated with the production of a film greatly sped up the filmmaking as well as making it more convenient, according to Bruckheimer.

As the man largely responsible for the film’s production, programmer Markov said his own favorite films were “probably Kieslowski’s Decalogue and the films of Jean Renoir in the 1930s.”

When asked how he felt about making films with no human beings involved, Markov said, “Well, we don’t expect human audiences to respond so well to Kangaroo Jack. But maybe some computers or high-end calculators will enjoy it.