A Semi-Improvised Nano-Budget Quantum Short Film



When I went to the directors of Peninsula Arts Contemporary Music Festival at Plymouth University in the UK and told them I wanted to make a short film, I was surprised when they said “yes”! I was surprised because I’m not a film-maker and they’re not a film festival. However I think my pitch won them over thanks to its small budget (initially I pitched zero pounds), and because of the unusual way I wanted to present the movie. Thankfully they were very generous and raised the budget from 0 to 2500 pounds – that’s two thousand five hundred pounds, not twenty five thousand by the way!

So what did they find so unusual about the way the movie is to be presented? Well, imagine you are sitting in the cinema watching a short 15-minute film. On-screen two students arrive at their friend’s apartment for her birthday outing. Rather than finding their friend they find a sealed coffin-sized box. Realising their friend is inside they ask themselves, why has she sealed herself in the box? And what will happen next? The first question I can answer below, but the second cannot be fully answered here – even by myself (the film’s writer and director!) This is because the film’s plot can change each time it is watched.


This happens because the cinema audience will be unconsciously changing the story as they watch, through subtly collected signals about their reactions to the movie as it plays out. Their heart rate and brain waves will seamlessly select what happens next in the movie using computer film-editing technology.

The two students Carl and Uma arrive at the apartment of their friend to try and cheer her up on her 21st birthday. They find Sammi, a physics student, has sealed herself in a coffin-shaped box with a cyanic acid capsule connected to a Geiger counter. It would appear that at any time a large enough burst of cosmic rays in the atmosphere could trigger cyanide gas and kill Sammi; in fact it could already have happened. Carl – also a physics student – realises Sammi is performing a twisted version of a famous quantum physics experiment about the nature of reality, but one that was never meant to be performed in real-life.

Over the next 10 minutes – through clips from Carl’s mobile phone and a mysterious camera attached to the bedroom wall – we learn the true reason for the experiment. However precisely what happens and what we find out, may change each time this computer-controlled film is seen, depending on the audience’s feelings. For example if the audience seem inattentive during a section of story which is fairly relaxed, the next section selected by computer could be more upbeat. Or if they seem too happy during a section which is meant to be sad, the next section to be selected could be the saddest possible.

To enable this, we are working with Technical Director Dr. Duncan Williams, a computer expert. A sample of the cinema audience, up to 7 people, will be invited to wear discrete biological sensors (heart rate, brain wave, etc) that will feed to a video computer. The computer will intelligently edit together the film live, based on audience emotions and attentiveness, from pre-recorded footage. To allow this we have developed a “parallel” script. It contains multiple different movies, all of which will be filmed. However, the final film can change each time as it is edited live by an intelligent computer in the cinema. As a result the soundtrack will also be cut up and will be generated algorithmically by the audiences’ emotions.

This will not be the first algorithmic film shown at a festival, recent examples include ‘whiteonwhite: algorithmicnoir’ at Sundance 2012. Nor is it the first interactive film. However unlike many previous algorithmic films ‘Many Worlds’ is a linear plotted live-action movie, not a surreal cut-up, or computer-generated abstract shapes. Also unlike previous interactive films, the audience will interact with the storyline in an unconscious way, and thus remain immersed in the film.

Schrodinger’s original quantum thought experiment, which involved putting a cat in a box with cyanic acid and a Geiger counter, implies that according to the laws of modern physics – his cat is paradoxically both alive and dead until the box is opened! In ‘Many Worlds’ we will find out if Sammi’s experiment is the result of a depressed mind stretched to snapping point, a genuine experiment to find if the apocryphal cat could be alive and dead, or a way of finding out if her friends are also her enemies, Just as the observation of Schrodinger’s Cat kills it or keeps it alive in the quantum world, so the observation of the audience changes the fate of characters in “Many Worlds.”

Our aim with this film has been to focus all the effort on the story and the computer technology. The budget can be kept nano-sized for a number of reasons. Firstly we are embedded in a Faculty of Arts which gives us access to cameras and recording technology for no cost. Secondly the research group I work at, the Interdisciplinary Centre for Computer Music Research, are co-organisers of the festival and hence I am able to take some time during work hours to write the script and develop the film.

The co-producer is Andrew Eccleston who has collaborated with myself on some of high profile projects, including filming them for archive purposes. The Director of Photography is the University’s most experienced photographer. The set is the spare bedroom in my house. The actors will either be Masters Acting students at the University or young actors within the region. Finally, editing suites are also available on campus. In fact we’re expecting most of the budget to be spent by Duncan on buying and developing the technology to measure and analyse audience bio-signals.

The “parallel” script is semi-improvisational and so will contain guides for each key story action. The two of the actors who are playing student physicists will be asked to read books on quantum mechanics and the ideas of Schrodinger’s cat and the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. We’re also going to ask the “actor in the box” to sleep two nights in the room before the 3 day shoot, and on the first night to party in the room with the other two cast members.

The film premiere also needs to be carefully planned. It will be shown in a standard cinema during the festival. However two flat screens will be placed discretely below the main cinema screen. We will devise a process to select 7 volunteers to have their mood analysed. Then if the audience wish to, they can watch the two small screens which will show the bio-signal analysis happening live (or they can simply ignore them remain immersed in the story).

The film will be shown twice in the festival – once in the above form with the two small screens. The second showing will be at the end of the festival. Duncan Williams will edit a blu-ray in which the cinema screen can be divided into multiple sections. All versions of the script start the same way so the blu-ray will start normally. Then when the script comes to a dividing point, the screen will divide into two and both story versions will be played out on the split screen. Then when another dividing point comes, the screen will divide into three sections. Obviously at each dividing point, dialog will start to clash from the different script versions. We are fine with this as the audience will already have seen a normal coherent version; and this splitting version will be quite an experience in itself, giving the audience a more direct experience of the world of possibilities in this multi-streamed “quantum” movie.

In the final analysis, creatively the emphasis will be on good acting performances, producing an amazing story, and creating a good production framework and team with which to make things happen. With the help of Andrew and Duncan, and team of actors we have just started auditioning, we are confident this will be an exciting and ground-breaking experience for both us and the audience!


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