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Surprising Science

Movie-Making Algorithm Debuts at Sundance

A machine that uses mathematics to compile videoclips, voiceovers and pieces of music has some raving and others crying fowl. But does this random cinema better approximate life?

What’s the Latest Development?


A machine that makes entire movies by compiling 3,000 video clips, 80 voiceovers and 150 pieces of music debuted at Sundance this year. Called whiteonwhite, the program works similarly to Pandora. “Each clip has a specific tag that triggers the selection of the next clip. The tag ‘white’ might pull up 80 ‘white’ clips, from which the computer chooses one. Music and voiceover are assembled in similar ways. The process of selection is logged on a separate monitor for the audience to watch.”

What’s the Big Idea?

Sometimes whiteonwhite makes a hit, say audience members. Other times it makes a dud. In this sense, it follows in the footsteps of other artists who have introduced the idea of randomness into their works including William Burroughs and John Cage. The creators of whiteonwhite take the process of filmmaking as a metaphor rather than a film’s content: “We all have good days and bad days. We have moments where something interesting happens that you might try to hold onto, but you can’t. In that way, the film is just like life.”

Photo credit: shutterstock.com


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On February 8, 1915, at Clune’s Auditorium in Los Angeles, California, D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation premiered. The fledgling art form of film would never be the same, especially in America, which even half a century after the end of the Civil War struggled to come to terms with race. Now, a century after Birth of a Nation’s premier, America still struggles not only with race, but also with how race plays out on the silver screen. For good and ill, Birth of a Nation marks the beginning of the first 100 years of the American Cinema—epically beautiful, yet often racially ugly.

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