Artificial Intelligence at the Core of Bucheon Film Festival Revamp

At a conference on film and artificial intelligence this weekend in South Korea’s Bucheon, it was hard to tell whether the new technology was being embraced, normalized or underestimated.

Bucheon, a high-rise city on the outskirts of Seoul, has long harbored both high-tech and cultural ambitions. The city turned a World War II bunker into a hub for digital art and boasts a comic book museum, a Webtoon Convergence Center and two film festivals, as well as a philharmonic orchestra founded in the analog era.

This year, its long-running Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival (BiFan) launched a competition for AI-produced short films, co-hosted a conference on the topic, and ran a hands-on AI workshop. The embrace of AI felt like a brave response to every mature film festival’s fear of becoming stale.

The Bucheon conference’s impressive lineup of speakers included: Caleb Ward, CEO of Curious Ridge; directors Dave Clark, Kwon Hansl and Piotr Winiewicz; Lee Seungmoo, professor of film at the Korean Academy of Film Arts; and Margarita Grubina and Anna Bulakh from the voice cloning company Respeecher.

Maciej Zemojcjin was on hand to explain how he had created the art installation “Murals”, on display in the Art Bunker, which preserved some of the endangered or already destroyed works created by Banksy in Ukraine.

After last year’s writers and actors strike in Hollywood over the potential threat of AI and the reality that AI is already being used in Korean commercially released feature films like “Wonderland” and TV shows like “Queen of Tears,” a discussion was welcome. (The recently released feature film “Wonderland,” directed by Kim Tae-yong, used voice cloning to add dialogue by actor Gong Yoo that had not been recorded during principal photography four years ago. It was also used to create a younger iteration of a another actor, Lee Eol, who died two years ago TV’s “Queen of Tears” series combined generative AI with virtual production to make actor Kim Ji-won meet his double in a snowy forest.)

Sten-Kristian Saluveer, strategic advisor, director of Cannes Next and CEO of Storytech, led the debate and analysis. He described media and entertainment’s current “poly-crisis” as one where the industry is shifting from an era of producers and individual creators, to an era of user-centric creation – with AI accelerating and empowering users.

Tools like Unity, Unreal, Ableton, and platforms like Substack, Patreon, and YouTube already allow creators to create, distribute, and monetize outside of the traditional studio or TV context.

Korea provides one of the best examples of how new tools can depart from traditional media. Netflix’s globally successful hit show “Squid Game” was seen by 142 million people, Saluveer said. YouTube creator Mr. Beast’s “Squid Game in Real Life” has been viewed by over 628 million users. In addition to his financial windfall, Mr. Beast’s reward was a deal with Amazon Prime Video.

Saluveer also explained two different approaches to AI emerging in the entertainment industry. An American approach where experimentation is prioritized and where tangles, like OpenAI’s clash with Scarlett Johansson over a synthetic voice, will be sorted out in court. The European Union, on the other hand, says that safety is paramount and that regulation should come before industry use.

Saluveer described an AI-driven future as one where everything that can be automated will be automated. Like lemmings chewing on the foundation of a house, AI starts with the simpler things and those closest to hand, like design and subtitling. Over a longer period of time, perhaps ten years from now, IP-generated content may have pushed traditional creators aside. “Author-generated cinema will still exist, but it can be local and niche. Like opera, he said.

Using a clip called “And I Said Nothing,” Respeecher’s Grubina showed the possibility of human redundancy as an imminent possibility. From the smallest samples, such as a still photo or a video clip, it is already possible to clone a voice to a new face, make synchronized facial movements match the sounds exactly, and make the voice speak with a new accent or a new language – perhaps one of the original the speaker does not know. The kit can be used for resurrection, adaptation, scaling, ADR, dubbing and localization.

While talking about a “vote marketplace”, Grubina also touched on the need for permission and ethical use of voices, such as avoiding sexual or political dialogue. Abuses of voice and image cloning have already occurred in the real world, such as the recent case of a Ukrainian woman who discovered her digital likeness was being used to spread pro-Russian propaganda in Chinese to online audiences in China.

Winiewicz revealed a couple of clips from his feature film “About a Hero,” which is likely to premiere at one of the fall festivals this year. Among the hybrid project’s themes are AI itself, the work of legendary German filmmaker Werner Herzog, and the story of Kaspar Hauser, the 19th-century man who had no language experience until the age of 16, but once he integrated into society and started learning, it produced surprising results. Herzog previously made “The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser” and recently issued a defiant statement suggesting that AI will need hundreds of years before it can make a film as good as his.

Winiewicz says that “About a Hero” was not created to challenge Herzog’s words, but rather to play with some of the concepts of AI, such as getting results that depend on the material used as input.

BiFan festival director Shin Chul embraced the challenges of the AI-powered, user-generated era. “Filmmaking will stop being a struggle for money, it will just be one of creative challenges,” Shin said.

He gave AI the material to come up with both the festival’s poster and its trailer. The poster is a colorful hybrid of previous BiFan posters. The short film asks the question “AI, who are you?” The awkward response: “I’m just your mirror.”

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