HAL: IS THAT YOU?

As much as things are changing in the world of motion picture and television image capture and processing, the computing industry is changing at a far greater pace. In late October, I attended the Visual Effects Society’s Production Summit, and the opening remarks from futurist Dr. Rich Terrile were prescient. Dr. Terrile, a NASA scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, has the amazing title of “doctor of evolutionary computing.” He spoke about Moore’s Law [a term coined by Caltech professor Carver Mead] that states that the power of computers doubles roughly every two years. Everybody in that space assumes there will be an end to Moore’s law, but so far it has not been reached, and, in fact, as Dr. Terrile explained, technology’s computational power is now faster than the human brain.

That’s a scary thought: machines on the verge of waking up? Who can forget Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey, based on the fiction of noted futurist Arthur C. Clarke. The film arrived in theaters in 1968 and featured a computer – HAL (Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer) – that was conscious and making decisions (not all of them very good)! We are nearly 10 years past HAL’s time, but if, or perhaps when, machines do become conscious, will they have an unconscious as well? I put that question to Dr. Terrile and his response was a wry smile.

Suffice to say such futuristic queries are now discussed in the present tense. Just look at how Moore’s Law has radically altered our own industry – computational power provides the ability to create images (in small, inexpensive cameras) that 20 years ago were unimaginable. And just as no one, 20 years ago, could predict the technology we’d be using today, hardly anyone can predict, with any certainty, what our industry will look like 20 years from now. What everyone does know has been voiced by Chris deFaria, Executive Vice President, Digital Production, Warner Bros., who has said: “If you’re doing business as usual, you’re in trouble.” Staying vigilant about change is a timeless theme for our membership. But even that is a delicate balance because until the machines “wake up,” and there’s a HAL inside of every camera, where the focus in a scene is placed, for example, remains an instinctual, emotional and experiential choice made by the 1st AC.

Trends come and go and it can be a slippery slope to throw all your eggs in one basket, or as Dr. Terrile describes,  “submitting to the curve of inflated expectations.” The process goes something like this: A new technology arrives and the early expectations are that it will transform everything. 3D, which is in a trough right now – some of it’s great, some of it’s terrible – is a good example of that in our industry. Slowly, over time, the new technology that would change everything is widely adopted and expectations level off to a more realistic level. The attempt to bring color grading on to the set is a workflow that may expand rapidly, and then, in my opinion, level off, given the added time it takes for us in production. My friend, Leon Silverman, ASC, General Manager, Digital Studio, Walt Disney Studios, and President of the Hollywood Post Alliance, describes new workflows as “snowflakes.” Every single one is different and the minute they hit the ground they don’t exist anymore! For the last two decades I’ve been advocating the creation of an end-to-end (device independent) color management system, which everyone can understand, that could change those snowflakes into common practice.

No matter. Moore’s Law marches on, transforming the world around us; and because this new (or next) generation of Local 600 members has grown up with new technology as a way of life, they will be soundly prepared. As for the current generation (you know, all us old film guys!), they, too, are prepared thanks to the training and education this union provides and places such a premium on. Still, I am a bit envious of those computer chip engineers: How cool would it be to get twice as smart every two years?

Fraternally,

Steven Poster, ASC
National President
International Cinematographers Guild
IATSE Local 600