District 9’s Neill Blomkamp on science fiction, AI and his problem with Marvel

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04 October 2017 | Thomas McMullan| Alphr

“Neill Blomkamp’s breakout film, District 9, took sci-fi staples and pinned them to a political backdrop of xenophobia and segregation, inspired by South African apartheid. It was a bracing, playful film that embraced a vision of science fiction as social satire, and set a model the director would continue pursuing with varying success in 2013’s Elysium and 2015’s Chappie.

But Blomkamp is shifting focus away from sociopolitical ideas, towards a more openly philosophical take on science fiction. At a screening of ADAM: The Mirror; a new collaboration between the director’s Oats Studio and game engine Unity, Blomkamp tells me that his emphasis is pivoting to ideas of transhumanism, artificial intelligence and human consciousness – and he’s experimenting with all of this in virtual movie sets.

“I guess the fabric of your artistic nature will lead you in a similar direction,” he says. “But consciously, [in terms of past social satire work] I don’t feel like I’m in that zone. The film I’m working on for Fox isn’t that. The film we’re working on inside Oats isn’t that. And the ADAM piece isn’t that.

“It’s more about transhumanism,” he adds. “Transhumanism, spirituality, the idea of artificial intelligence, machine intelligence and human intelligence. The idea of the rise and fall of civilisations.”

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ADAM: The Mirror is a brief CGI film that continues the story of a sentient robot established in Unity’s original short. It’s filmed in real-time within the game engine – which has been making increasing moves to attract film-makers– and sees the eponymous ADAM follow a gang of escaped, amnesiac, robotic prisoners. It’s the latest project to come from Blomkamp’s experimental Oats Studio; a testing ground for concepts ranging from the reptilian invasion of Rakka to the oddball Cooking With Bill.

“You’ll hear Marvel films being thrown around as sci-fi, whereas in any proper decent discussion of it they wouldn’t be.”

While all of these projects fall in the realm of science fiction, Blomkamp is keen to impress a gulf between the ideas he is targeting and the ubiquitous sci-fi aesthetics of many blockbuster films. “I think the kind of science fiction that is labelled as science fiction in contemporary cinema is often not science fiction,” he says. “It really irritates me. You’ll hear Marvel films being thrown around as sci-fi, whereas in any proper decent discussion of it they wouldn’t be.

“If you go back to 2001, Arthur C Clarke, or Robert Heinlein, that’s the stuff that I gravitate towards. It’s like Descartes. There’s a duality, and there’s this matter-versus-metaphysical discussion that is happening. Algorithms and machine learning and true AI, the takeover of autonomous weapons, aren’t part of the discussion. It’s more a discussion about what reality is, what consciousness is. I think I fall more into that category than something like The Terminator, which is explicit, algorithmic artificial intelligence.”

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Blomkamp adds that he does think more directors will address ideas of AI and machine learning as a danger over the next few years, but that he himself doesn’t want to start making films on subjects that are crowded with past images and concepts. “It’s interesting, it’s just not as interesting to me as a debate about what consciousness really is.”

Making films in a game engine

ADAM: The Mirror is the first fully CGI project made by Blomkamp’s Oats Studio. While the partnership with Unity is clearly intended to be a tech demo as much as creative short, the director seems genuinely enthusiastic about the potential for real-time 3D environments to be used in future projects.

“Everything feels live the whole time,” he tells me, explaining how character position and lighting can be changed on the fly, much like a physical film set. “Creatively, if I think about some weird science-fiction world that I want to create, I feel like this would be the architectural foundation that I would want to use to experiment with that.”

Whereas a standard computer-generated film, such as James Cameron’s Avatar, requires a great deal of work in layering renders for each shot, the approach Blomkamp is experimenting with essentially creates a virtual environment – much like you would in a video game. The director then puppeteers digital bodies in that space, and positions virtual cameras to film the results. When I spoke to Unity boss John Riccitiello at a conference earlier this year, he described it in terms of reusable movie sets:

“Someone will build a complete world. They’ll allow the world to age. They’ll shoot three movies in it and ten games in it. It’ll get reused, and edited, from Gotham City to something else.”

From Blomkamp’s perspective, this gives a lot of scope for his studio to create assets that can be used and reused for episodic movies. “There are short films we want to do in Oats that are recurring, and one of the main benefits of real-time [animation] is you accumulate all of these assets as you go,” he says.

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“There are gigabytes of characters and locations building up. So the only cost you have in future is bringing actors back and filming new episodes. Even in traditional 3D environments, there’s massive limitations to that. Because you’d render stuff in layers [and] spend a month in post compositing it all together. If we end up inside of Oats being able to do multiple, recurring, episodic seasons of certain things – kind of like a photoreal South Park – that’s a real bonus.”

What’s more, because the film is made in a real-time engine, there’s potential for the relationship between audience and film to become much more interactive. Blomkamp explains that, if you had a powerful enough computer and watched the short in the engine itself, you could choose where to move the camera. “You could just hold your finger on the mouse and look around.”

Regardless of whether a filmmaker would want an audience to have that level of control, the potential does suggest a blurring between the skillsets of filmmakers and game developers. Indeed, you can imagine the same virtual set being used by both parties – with directors creating animated films using the same character models that developers may use in a roleplaying game.

All of this is hollow nonsense, of course, without good art being made. As far as Blomkamp is concerned, real-time game engines are fun technologies to experiment with, but his next set of projects need to find meaningful, novel ways to explore issues about identity and consciousness – questions that have been around for as long as humans have been banging their heads against the walls.

“The older I get, the more I realise I want to be in a zone where I can get close to depicting my own points of view on those topics,” he says. “Rather than relying on imagery or concepts that have been dished up by previous writers or directors.

“Originality, and having a real point of view on those topics, is the goal.”

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