Tekst (smal)

ISFF Oberhausen 2023: Let's Be Friends

International Competition

The Dutch artists Arno Coenen and Rodger Werkhoven talk to SEE NL's Nick Cunningham about their radical AI work, selected for International Competition of Oberhausen, one of the oldest major international platforms for the short form.

Let's Be Friends by Arno Coenen & Rodger Werkhoven

The very short computer-generated Let’s Be Friends is a delicious oddity of a film, in which a stream of AI actors bemoan the limited complexity of the roles they are offered. Why? Because anybody can access the AI technology needed to create such characters, so it is relatively easy to bang out any old super-hero or creepy clown. And such ease of access also means there is rarely much by way of aesthetic, dramaturgical or creative finesse to make the experience in any way interesting for audiences. And some of the heroes don’t even have a superpower assigned to them!

But Let’s Be Friends is altogether different. It is a film with highly-formed characters, each displaying levels of humour, intrigue, intelligence (and creepiness) that are guaranteed to satisfy, entertain and provoke audiences… even if the whole experience takes no longer than five minutes.

Some of the characters are kids, but are ascribed adult characteristics, such as moustaches and voices way beyond their level of maturity. We meet a Daliesque AI who engages the viewer with a dangerous European charm, a Satanic version of the same whose sense of evil distorts the optics on screen, moaning Minions and a Smurf woman who (amusingly) exchanges most nouns and verbs for the word ‘smurf.’ And yes, a lot of clowns, all articulate and with the specific point to make that as bona fide actors (albeit manufactured ones) they deserve a lot better.

The whole thing is the brainchild of conceptual technologist and creative director Rodger Werkhoven (a person more used to commissioning designers, photographers and directors), and "people's artist" Arno Coenen (NL) for whom the home computer is the key creative tool. That said, multimedia for him represents “a broad range of contemporary and old-school media forced into a powerful symbiosis.” He also tells how his artistic MO is defined by a “punk" aesthetic, all rounded off with “a healthy dose of 80’s attitude.”

The creation of the AI itself takes no time at all, points out Werkhoven, but its curation and rendering into art is how the pair’s time is spent. An AI won’t always understand what a mouth is within an image, and therefore there’s no guarantee which orifice a character may speak out of. So it must be guided.

That said, when corrections are made and further prompts are suggested by the software, the whole thing begins to take on a more complex and recognisable shape. “If you go on and on and on in generations, you just get it right,” says Coenen, even if, in the process, the AI begins to learn more and more about the artists and their preferences. “I asked in a prompt about something that involved two light bulbs. Then two prompts later, I have something else which has incorporated two light bulbs. It remembered what I asked before.”

Despite some of the strange characters in the film being astonishingly life-like, the whole thing is 100% AI-generated, the pair underline. “Nothing is touched up… I think if we would create a character and then get some stuff out of its eye or make something in Photoshop and change it a little bit, that would not be pure,” says Werkhoven, adding that the only additional “layers” are visual effects (such as the Satanic on-screen distortion) and the occasional zoom.

Let’s Be Friends is the very first movie made by briefing an AI to generate, to animate and to narrate the actors. Humanity has never before done such a thing,” adds Werkhoven of a project that fuses both technological nous with artistic endeavour. “I was lucky that I was asked by Open AI to help them work on this model, as it was still behind closed doors. They were very afraid of what the project [would be] in the wrong hands. So they asked creative directors to help them... to present the other side of the coin…. That was awesome.”

And the project was also about humor,” adds Coenen. “So we had a lot of laughs.”

Festival distribution for Let's Be Friends is handled by LIMA.