Final: The Future of Acting

Throughout this semester, a gnawing anxiety has been present in the back of my mind. I have ignored it in my blog posts and class discussions because I wasn’t sure if it was relevant to the goals of this class and I wanted to keep an open mind.

Something changed during the discussion in our penultimate class last week.

In hearing Ayal’s pessimism regarding humans’ relationship to immersive, escapist entertainment and Stevie’s ideas about how distributed networks could expand audiences for independent writers and creators, I was inspired to pull at the thread that had been bothering me, namely:

Will we still need actors in the future?

As someone who, in my heart of hearts, believes in the value of the very human craft of acting, this question terrifies me.

Increasingly, commercial actors are pushed into tighter and tighter constraints in terms of what they are expected to look like and the opportunities available to them based on “type,” women and minorities especially. It’s very easy to fall into an apocalyptic mindset: as entertainment becomes more and more data-driven, these definitions of who a person is and can be could become narrower and narrower. We are already experiencing a societal failure of imagination as the wealth gap grows, hate becomes more and more visible, and trafficking in nostalgia becomes the default form of entertainment. The hegemony abides.

If we can generate (in the computational sense) characters, even actors/celebrities, tailored to the precise whims of their target audiences, where does that leave the humans? Will acting become an antiquated skill? Something that people used to have to do before we could create the perfect performer? Will theater meet the fate of vaudeville or the nickelodeon and fade into memory as a curiosity of the past?

I of course hope not. I think most people recognize the value in forms of expression that do not presuppose “realism” and take joy and satisfaction from experiencing them. We still have circus acts and puppetry and cartoons. As the second reading of this course, Flicker, illustrated our minds are looking to make those connections and in fact things that are inherently non-naturalistic (like cuts in movies) actually enhance the emotional impact or aesthetic experience of a piece of work. Just like movies can communicate through cuts, live theater can communicate things through the shared experience that aren’t possible through other medium. What will future immersive mediums do that nothing else can and will human performers have a place in them?

I tried to play with that idea for my final project, starting with an assumption that the human body will always have a place in cinema.

Concept: The Future of Acting, or The Future of Self-Insert Fanfiction

Users can insert themselves into their favorite movie scenes––as their favorite characters or as entirely new characters. They can mimic the performances of the original actors precisely or they can add their own spin. Each performance is stored in a networked database so that users may see the choices made by those before them, conjuring the past recorded forms of previous actors with their own movements.

In this prototyped iteration of the concept above, the Key function of the Kinectron app is used to superimpose a translucent image of the user on top of the selected movie scene. A recording is made of both the scene with the keyed in actor and their Kinectron skeleton. The Kinectron automatically saves the positions of all the joints on all the recorded bodies in each frame of the scene as a JSON file. These JSONs can then be played back and compared, frame by frame to that of the current user. Those who are similar, are automatically grouped and those similarities can be found within multiple parameters.

For instance, if a user lifts their arms up above their head in a certain frame, the keyed images and metadata and all past users who lifted their arms up above their heads at that same frame will appear within that scene in the user’s search. Ideally, cases within the code could be defined that allow for similarities of intention to be found in addition to similarities in position. For example, we can broadly define what an aggressive physical stance would look like as opposed to a fearful or shy one. Based on our current stage of technological evolution, here is where AI would come in handy. I can imagine training a neural network to recognize an actor’s motivation based on the position of joints and to then find others within the network who made similar choices.

Methodology

Finding Videos with YouTube Data API –– code || live example

Video Playback with Kinectron Key –– code || live example (requires Kinectron)

Record Key and Skeleton ––

  • create buttons using the native startRecord() and stopRecord() functions to capture key
  • to record the skeleton in JSON format as a body object, use saveJSON() from the p5.js library
    • you will then have to manually extract the position values for each joint nested within the body object

Compare Skeletons ––

  • use a for() loop to read through each bin in the body.joints array you created above
  • for each joint in each frame, calculate the difference between that joint and the recorded joints from other recordings
    • those who are closer will be most alike

 

Wherefore?

People will be able to compare their own performances as well as the performances of others. I see this not as a tool for competition and deciding who did it “best” but rather as a tool for knowledge building.

At this point, I freely admit that I am––kind of blindly––following an impulse. I can’t exactly draw a line directly between my idea and a future that values human contributions to cinematic performance. I know that the impulse exists in many people to play pretend well beyond childhood and there will always be fan communities. Giving more people access to high quality methods of recording themselves performing and democratizing the way those performances are shared can only be a good thing… right?