Many Worlds is a short film that utilizes film-making and soundtrack technology which will transform how we experience movies. It is a movie about a physics experiment that should never be performed. At its heart is the idea of one thing being many at the same time. So I will now tell you Many Worlds is about three things simultaneously: Immersion, Music and Reality.
1. Many Worlds is about More Enjoyable Movies that Make More Money
Interactive cinema is a joke. There is no such thing. If it is interactive then it’s not cinema. Any 12 year old can tell you the difference between the latest Harry Potter movie and its video game spin-off. When you’re watching a movie, you can bring out the popcorn and relax – letting the director take you for a ride. We want to forget the world around us and be drawn into the wonders of the screen and the sound system. The idea of somehow giving buttons or joy-sticks to people in a cinema to control how the characters in the movie behave is ridiculous, it would destroy what most people love about cinema: the gloriously immersive world.
However, interactive cinema would be a tremendously useful thing if it wasn’t such a joke. How often do studios test multiple cuts of a film when early cuts fail? Or worst of all: they release a film into the general public to have half the cinema goers find it boring or unsatisfying. But what else can studios do? Given a particular audience in a particular country, at every point in the movie, the film is at risk of losing peoples’ interest or trust in its story. However you can’t change a film once it’s released – directors and studios have to somehow create a film with a plot and character development which captures and keeps the imagination of as many people as possible.
This isn’t just a problem from the studios’ point of view. We film-goers are then bombarded with crap that makes us want to walk out of the cinema, or worst stay in the cinema and suffer because we spent so much on the ticket! It would be great if the film plot or character could change if we were finding them boring. The difficulty is, we’d want it to change without us doing anything! So somehow a movie has to read our mind while it’s being shown – impossible, right?
Well actually no – that’s exactly what Many Worlds does. It is a short 15-minute drama about a bizarre physics experiment cooked up by a depressed girl and unleashed on her friends. The film “reads the minds” and the bodies of the audience, and changes its plot while they watch it. How is this possible? Well first of all multiple versions of the film were shot (Many Worlds has four possible endings). On the way into the cinema, a sample of four audience members volunteer to represent the emotional mood and interest of the whole audience. They are fitted with small sensors (no more intrusive than say 3D glasses). For each of the four a different biological reading is taken: heart rate, muscle tension, brainwave activity, and what is known as skin conductance. These are then analysed by intelligent computer algorithms developed specially for Many Worlds and used to estimate the audience mood and therefore what version of the next scene should be chosen. I call this an “I-Film”.
Wouldn’t this mean the studio would have to make multiple versions of various film scenes? It’s true they would, but bear in mind that in the current situation, if a studio makes 10 films, and only 2 of them are major hits, then they’re reasonably content. However suppose Warner Bros makes an I-Film which costs 50% more because they have to film multiple versions or cuts of scenes; but that as a result this film is much more likely to be a hit. Then they may only have to make 5 films to get 2 hits. Bear in mind they wouldn’t necessarily have to make major script changes for each version – the way a film is cut, or changes in lighting or the way an actor delivers a line, can have a major effect on the emotional trajectory for the audience. There is already software available which can automate elements of editing a movie.
Wouldn’t it be unwieldy to measure peoples’ reactions in real cinemas? Well is it unwieldy to wear 3D glasses? 3D glasses have been hugely invested in by the major studios and television makers. On the glasses you could put micro-sensors that measure the pulse in someone’s temple, and measure their brainwaves. Alternatively you could put infrared or heat detecting cameras at the front of the cinema pointing at the audience, and using their movement and body temperatures to estimate their mood.
Any studios fancy doubling your hit-rate?
2. Many Worlds is about Music
The core ideas behind the BCMI-MIdAS project were inspired by my obsessive use of an MP3 Walkman during longs walks and workouts. On the long walks I would be trying to manipulate my mood, usually to either be happier, more excited or more relaxed. Sometimes, if annoyed, I wanted music that matched my mood. This would lead to me testing different shuffle settings and madly skipping around the MP3 player until I found tracks with the right mood. Similarly during my long workouts I would skip multiple tracks searching for the next right “inspiration.” BCMI-MIdAS came from my desire to automate this process, by automatically creating music based on my detected mood.
This manipulation of mood by sound is also a vital tool in the film director’s toolbox. Imagine a scene in Godzilla where hundreds of people in New York City are running away from the lumbering monster with comedic polka music playing. Now imagine the same scene with dark and threatening orchestral music getting louder. This is an incredibly expensive and complex scene visually, and yet a simple change of soundtrack changes the whole experience. The Many Worlds film has a soundtrack which is controlled live by the mood of the audience sample of four people. This can allow for mood control if the audience gets bored or restless – for example make the music deeper slower and more discordant to create more fear. It can also be used for psychological control – hypnotizing the audience with repetitive sounds; and for physical control – e.g. using very low bass sounds to effect the audience.
Although in normal the films the director can use the soundtrack to attempt to control the audience’s attention and mood, once the film is released – the director is stuck. Having films with sound tracks that change in the cinema based on the audience’s mood, is cheaper than creating a full I-Film with multiple scenes; but this sound-only technology still could be extremely effective (think of the Godzilla example).
3. Many Worlds is about how We See the World
If I hit a ball on a billiards table, watch it roll for a second, look away, and then look back – it will still have been moving – time will still have been passing – even when I’m not looking at it. This intuition is not only mine, but was at the basis of all physical theories of the world for 2000 years, until Einstein and Quantum Mechanics came along. According to them, if you’re not looking at the ball on the pool table, it’s not actually moving or in any particular location – it is your observation that gives it a position and speed. So the inventors of Quantum Mechanics basically said that if a tree falls in a forest and there’s no one there to see it, it doesn’t fall! It’s not until you go for a walk in the forest and observe that tree on the ground that you can say anything about it. Until someone goes for that walk, the tree both falls and doesn’t fall, simultaneously.
This may sound like wordplay but it is a major philosophical problem at the heart of modern physics to this day. The most popular way of demonstrate this physical problem is the thought experiment called Schrodinger’s Cat: the cat is put in a covered box with poison gas which can be triggered by an uncertain atomic event. Put the top on the box and ask: has the gas been triggered or not? Is the cat alive or dead? It is both until you open the box and observe the cat. Similarly in the film Many Worlds, the audience’s observation of the film changes the film itself (through the monitored audience sample). And the cast of the film Many Worlds are put into the middle of Schrodinger’s Cat experiment, but the box does not contain a cat…
Many Worlds is funded by Peninsula Arts and the Interdisciplinary Centre for Computer Music Research at Plymouth University. It will be premiered at Plymouth University’s Jill Craigie Cinema on 23 Feb 2013.
Media & Innovation award-winning composer Alexis Kirke is best-known for his interdisciplinary work (he has been called “the Phillip K. Dick of contemporary music”). He is based in the South-West of England and is composer-in-residence for the Plymouth Marine Institute – the UK leader in Marine research and work on sustainability, marine pollution and conservation. Alexis is a permanent Research Fellow Plymouth University’s Interdisciplinary Centre for Computer Music Research, and has completed two PhDs, one in Arts and one in Technology. He is a poet and critic published internationally, who has been invited to read at Glastonbury Festival, and edited the UK’s first poetry webzine ‘Brink’. His music has been performed on BBC Radio 3 / World Service and at the London Southbank; and he has been featured in Wired, Independent, Guardian, Discovery News, New Scientist, and Gramophone. His new opera ‘Open Outcry’ is being put on by Barclays Bank at The Lord Mayors residence in the City of London.
Be sure to catch Alexis Kirke’s prior Film Courage article