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What We Can Become Once We're Obsolete
These days, my attention span wrecked by technology and the pandemic, I hardly ever bring more than 80% of my focus to bear on a movie. I started out texting a friend about Phil Tippett’s magnum opus Mad God while I watched it, occasionally taking a photo of some bizarre image onscreen to send him. But eventually I put my phone down, turned out the lights, and stopped paying attention to anything else.
I’d come to Mad God via Light and Magic, a six-part documentary about Industrial Light and Magic, the special effects facility created for Star Wars that became the go-to FX house in Hollywood. The most poignant figure in that series was Phil Tippett. As a kid, Tippett was inspired by the great animators Willis O’Brien (King Kong) and Ray Harryhausen (the Sinbad films) to make his own animated home movies; he grew up to create the holographic chess-game creatures for Star Wars, the loping Tauntauns and lumbering AT-ATs in Empire Strikes Back, and won an Oscar for the monster of Dragonslayer. The crowning achievement of his career was to have been a project for which he would perfect something he’d been working on since he was a boy—animating realistic, believable dinosaurs. You can still see the test footage of velociraptors he created for Jurassic Park, snapping and swaying their tails, blinking birdlike, their tongues flickering.
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Unknown to Tippett, his colleague Dennis Muren’s computer effects crew were experimenting with creating their own dinosaurs. Over the previous two decades, George Lucas had sunk millions into the computer graphics division of ILM. They had produced the most impressive examples of CGI in movies yet seen—the Genesis test simulation in Star Trek II, the polymorphous liquid-metal robot of Terminator II—but these were all inanimate, artificial forms; hard-edged, smooth-surfaced. No one had ever convincingly animated a naturalistic animal, or flesh. Muren’s crew finally produced a single test shot of a Tyrannosaurus Rex walking. It only lasted a few seconds, but it was enough to convince Spielberg that CGI had become sophisticated enough to render a living creature that an audience would accept as real. Lucas’s investment had paid off; this technology would change movies as much as color, or sound. When he saw it, Phil Tippett was initially resistant, but slowly understood that the art form to which he’d devoted a career’s labors was now obsolete. He spoke the line that Spielberg would put into the mouth of Sam Neill’s paleontologist in the film: “I’m extinct.”
A lot of artists know the feeling; we’re belatedly learning how factory workers felt half a century ago, watching themselves be replaced by robots. Apps like DALL-E and Midjourney allow you to enter any handful of descriptors (“fear” in stained glass, Waiting for Godot as painted by Norman Rockwell, a cat wearing a helmet saying “HAM”) and, within seconds, present you fully rendered images— some uninspired, some garbled (the apps won’t create recognizable likenesses, so the faces all look like Francis Bacon portraits), but some unexpectedly arresting. An artwork generated with AI recently won first prize at a regional fair—an artistic echo of Deep Blue’s victory over Gary Kasparov. I’ve occasionally wondered how long it would be before you could design a Tim Kreider algorithm—feed everything I’ve ever written into an AI, have it analyze the diction and cadence, colorful metaphors/similes, ratio of anecdote:reflection, toss in terms like “dry humor,” etc., and start cranking out new Tim Kreider essays on the subject of your choice, indistinguishable from those by the unreliable wetware original. Ha, ha!
By now, pretty much any idle dystopian daydream you care to entertain is already in beta; an AI called “Jasper” can generate writing for emails, ad copy, blog posts—you just enter in your company/product name, a description, and “tone of voice” (e.g., one demo is an ad for a fitness class written in the prose style of Hulk Hogan). Of course there’s a difference between craft and artistry; this is all basic information-delivery prose, and I suppose it’s no tragedy that people who hate writing are freed up from the chore, the same way mathematical illiterates like me get to use a calculator. So far as I know no one has created an AI that cranks out counterfeit Conrad, Woolf, or Nabokov that would fool a scholar or, more importantly, move a reader. Though one tech writer experimented with using it to compose a “think piece“ for Medium, and found it disturbingly indistinguishable from a human-generated Medium think piece (which raises the questions of 1.) how many Medium pieces are already written by robots and 2.) how much original thought is involved in the typical “think piece”). A friend’s 12-year-old son had an AI write an essay for a school assignment about the ethics of having an AI write an essay for a school assignment.
This would all be awesome if, as in some midcentury science fiction story, it freed us all up to live lives of leisurely overconsumption and pursue our real interests; instead, this being America, we’re fucked—including those of us lucky enough that our real interests were our jobs. And note that quite a lot of geniuses have paid the rent and supported their real art with capable hackwork. Ted Chiang, one of the greatest living sf writers, recently dismissed the threat of AI in a Q&A: “We are nowhere near having real AI. What we call AI is just a tool of capitalism. I don’t fear AI; I fear capitalism.”
Whether they ever perfect a Tim Kreider AI or not, my own chosen vocation—writing, or rather literature—is already obsolete, a boutique industry, the technology of print long overtaken by radio, movies, television, the internet. Books no longer have the cultural impact or persist in collective memory the way they did in the era when I was born, when everyone talked about the latest Pynchon or Didion; they come and go in a week, fleeting as memes. Even movies are obsolescent—at least the kind of cinema I grew up admiring is—supplanted by long-form TV, computer games and VR, podcasts and webisodes. Someday soon, YouTube influencers and TikTok stars will be bewildered to find their own media as passé as network TV or Top 40 radio. We’re all Phil Tippett now.
Phil Tippet didn’t become extinct; he evolved. He wasn’t put out of a job on Jurassic Park because his hands-on animation technique wasn’t the only skill he’d developed over the course of his career; no one in the industry had observed and analyzed animal movement as well as Phil Tippett. He physically acted out the dinosaurs’ parts for the computer animators; the set piece of the kitchen scene is, nearly shot for shot, identical to the one Tippett had animated himself. His final credit on the film was “Dinosaur Supervisor” (hence the internet meme: “You had one job, Phil”). He went on to supervise the effects on several other films (the arthropodal alien hordes in Starship Troopers and hulking police robot inRobocop). But the craft he’d devoted his life to—that sleight-of-hand that brought plasticine models to life on a tabletop landscape, the dreamy interior flow of move, shoot, move, shoot, for tens of thousands of timeless hours—that was over, as a commercially viable art form.
If I were writing this for Wired or Business Weekly the moral of the story would be that your ostensible professional skill isn’t the only one you’ve developed, and now that you’ve been laid off it’s time to identify the secondary, underlying marketable skills you have in your “toolbox.” But I’m not writing this for them; I’m writing it for you, and I hate that happy capitalist your-murder-is-your-own-fault horseshit. I’m more interested in what happens to us after obsolescence—what we can become once we’re no longer of use. Your talent becoming unmonetizable could, in theory, be liberating rather than (or as well as) ruinous.
Walter Benjamin writes that, once woodcuts ceased to be the most efficient method of reproducing images, they became an art form. Painting acquired a new significance after its reproductive purpose was obviated by photography; those recently unveiled portraits of the Obamas aren’t to capture a likeness for future generations, for which they’ll have thousands of hours of video footage, but to enshrine a public image. Stop-motion animation was once the best way moviemakers had of making imaginary creatures move—giant apes and dinosaurs, cyclopes and gorgons. Now it’s an archaic art form like woodcuts or stained glass, opera or the novel. When a technique loses its utility, the artifacts of its production methods come to the fore, become its aesthetic, like scaffolding coming down to reveal a statue.
Phil Tippett adapted to survive, but he never abandoned his passion. He started work on his animated feature Mad God in 1987, and finally released it last year. I watched it on Shudder, a streaming service specializing in horror, though I wouldn’t exactly call it a horror film, except in the same sense that Hieronymus Bosch is horror. You could describe it as a hero’s journey, but one more like Dante’s than Odysseus’, a pilgrimage through an infernal landscape. At more than thirty years in its making (with lacunæ), Mad God is a film out of time—a little like The Other Side of the Wind, Orson Welles’s long-posthumously released film (an art film about the New Hollywood, released long after art film and New Hollywood were both dead). Its imagery is reminiscent of vintage phantasmagoria like Eraserhead, Delicatessen, or Terry Gilliam. There are homages to 2001’s monoliths and stargate sequence. And it is old-school, King-Kong/Seventh Voyage of Sinbad stop-motion animation, one of the last motion picture technologies everyone could understand, a magical artifact of persistence of vision, that quirk of perception that makes movies possible.
I’m not a Luddite about CGI; it’s been used to create astonishing, even beautiful imagery. But at least part of Mad God’s power is that it is painstakingly handmade, its characters literally moved by the invisible hand of their maker. (Many volunteers assisted Tippett on the film over the years, but all working under his supervision.) Although Tippett introduced motion blur in Empire and Dragonslayer to smooth out the action for modern audiences, he always preferred the stuttery, hard-edged aesthetic of classic stop-motion animation; as with any art form, its adepts embrace its limitations, and make virtues of them. (I, a former cartoonist who loved spastic whiplash curves and densely textured crosshatching, still can’t force myself through all four panels of a clean dead computer-drawn comic.) Tippett had always suffered from anxiety and depression, and the deep absorption and exacting, fine hand-eye work of stop-motion reliably quieted his mind. He had to be institutionalized toward the end of Mad God’s production; it took him a while to recognize that his mental health was deteriorating because his normal working methods were hard to distinguish from the symptoms of mental illness. This film is the product of obsession, of love.
In this regard, it’s similar to works of outsider art like Henry Darger’s 15,000-page illuminated manuscript, or James Snodgrass’s wall-sized painting in Baltimore’s American Visionary Art Museum that, from a distance, looks like a reclining nude, but up close resolves into thousands of individual figures clustered in mad rallies and frantic parades, whirling sabbats and writhing orgies—like Mad God, a panorama of Hell. The fascination Tippet’s film exerts reminds me of something David Foster Wallace wrote about David Lynch: part of what unsettles the viewer about his films is that you don’t have the usual sense of a filmmaker’s agenda, the implicit contract between artist and audience; you’re not sure what Lynch wants from you. Artists like Lynch or Tippet don’t want to teach you a lesson or sell you something; they just want to show you what’s in their heads. An AI wouldn’t make something to show you what it sees when it’s shut down.
Untitled painting, James Snodgrass, ca. 1990-94
A thunderstorm broke over the city as I was watching Mad God, and presently there were flashes of lightning over New Jersey, long rolling rumbles of thunder across the Hudson, and dense halos of rain around the streetlights below my windows. It was that deeply cozy feeling of being snugly ensconced on your couch in the dark with a storm outside, watching something new and strange and riveting that you know you’ll never forget. I was reminded of the summer afternoon in an East Village sublet years ago when I first happened across Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc on TV, and sat entranced by those grotesque and angelic faces. Watching it, I felt sort of the way you feel when you’re seven years old and see something that’s not meant for anyone under the age of fourteen. Normally I keep something playing onscreen up until I go to sleep, lest my brain attempt to share any unwelcome insights with me. But after Mad God ended, I didn’t turn on anything else. It was like savoring that resonant silence after a symphony ends. I just wanted to sit there, warm and enclosed in the dark, lit by diminishing flickers of lightning, reluctant to break the weird spell of the film—this last masterpiece of an art that died in my lifetime. I didn’t want it to be over yet.
 “The Summit on AI in Society” at The University of Chicago Institute on the Formation of Knowledge, keynote speech and fireside chat with Ted Chiang, October 13th, 2022, paraphrased in a tweet by darryl li, @dcli, October 15th, 2022, so take this quote’s accuracy with the usual internet dosage of salt
 Snodgrass, incidentally, was the same guy who blew the whistle on rigged quiz shows in the 50s.
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