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Updated Aug 30, 2023, 11:47am EDT
tech

Runway CEO: AI could usher in new ‘golden era’ of cinema

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The Scene

When Cristobal Valenzuela quietly co-founded Runway in 2018, few people were thinking about how AI could replace actors and writers. Fast-forward five years and Runway, which uses generative AI to create snippets of film from scratch, has found itself in the middle of the controversy about AI in Hollywood.

I wanted to reframe the conversation with Valenzuela. I think the likelihood of robots taking over Hollywood is low. But I wonder whether AI will be a democratizing force. Every new innovation in filmmaking, from digital film to CGI, should have made it easier for independent filmmakers to compete with big budget studios. But that hasn’t happened. Will AI be any different? Valenzuela discusses that and more in an edited conversation below.

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The View From Cristobal Valenzuela

Q: Runway is famous for being used to make Everything Everywhere All at Once. That had a very short production time and low budget. Are you seeing the technology filter up into films that compare to Avatar, where directors like James Cameron can afford very expensive special effects?

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A: Everything Everywhere All at Once is my favorite film these days. But Runway was only used in a few scenes. The biggest takeaway was not just that it was a low budget movie, but that the editing team was just seven people. I was chatting the other day with the editor of the movie and he was meeting with the editors of Avatar. The folks were amazed at how these guys made a movie that won at the Oscars with a small team.

These are tools that can be leveraged by anyone in their homes with their computer or by major production studios. We’re seeing interest from small creators to film companies. And to be honest, for a lot of people who are in the industry on the high end production side of things, this is not new. Toy Story is a computer-generated film. The dinosaurs in Jurassic Park are not real. Marvel movies are CGI. It’s not new that you can mold and use software to tell stories in fantastical worlds.

What’s different now is that the time it takes to make those types of things will continue to go down. And that’s when it really becomes interesting, both for high production because it allows you to move faster and do it at a faster speed. And for folks who might not have ever even thought about the possibility of having access to technology like that.

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The point of every really disruptive technology is to make something more convenient, more accessible, easier to use. And the thing that’s being made convenient, accessible, and easy to use with tools like Runway is storytelling.

Q: How do you view the strike in Hollywood? If Runway is just enabling storytelling, is there an argument to be made that it’s actually good for the people striking because instead of being stuck in a writers room, working for some giant studio, they could go out and make their own film with seven of their friends?

A: I deeply empathize with their concerns. But I return to stories. It’s about how we discuss technology and the future we envision with it. Much of the public discourse around AI and art paints a rather unsophisticated depiction of the creative process. Art has always been artificial in the sense that we’ve always used tools to express our view of the world. Art is a process, not just a tool. It’s about telling a story, not about the tools you use.

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And this isn’t the first time we’ve encountered these questions. People once believed art would die because photography allowed someone to press a button and take a picture. Of course, art didn’t die, and artists didn’t vanish with the invention of photography. On the contrary, it was augmented. New artists and creative mediums emerged because of it.

Q: Could AI benefit actors who may not ‘look the part.’ Maybe they have a certain skill like the way they talk or the way that they use facial expressions, but special effects layered on top of them might enable them to play a completely different role.

A: Photography invented the idea of being photogenic. And that became an industry with actors and models and everything else. And to your point, with regards to what happens with folks who might need CGI and visual effects treatment that a Marvel star can get, that’s going to become more acceptable, more powerful.

I don’t speak English as my native language and make a lot of grammatical mistakes. And a lot of people don’t understand me because I have a thick accent. It would be great if I want to be an actor globally, but I can now speak English [more clearly]. And I can be much more tuned to cultural differences for audiences and for markets.

So my success is not based on the producers I work with or who I know. It’s based on my skills. Maybe I have great stories to make, but never found myself with the right tools to be able to do it.

Q: Imagine if Antonio Banderas had decided he’d like to change his voice. That would totally change the trajectory of him as an artist.

A: That’s what makes Antonio Banderas special as well. We’re not going to get rid of accents. But also think about all the other Antonio Banderases out there that never had the opportunity to develop themselves as artists.

If you think about it, we consumed the golden era of cinema. But we might actually be coming to a new golden era of cinema. New types of movies and a volume of content and stories that we might have never thought of before will start to appear. That’s going to be incredibly liberating and different and creatively exciting. Because we’re going to start hearing from more Antonio Banderases every day.

Q: What are your customers doing with Runway these days and has it changed much?

A: We just released a big improvement and update to Gen-2, which is our latest video generation model, allowing you to generate up to 18-second long durations. The previous one was four seconds. I just saw a major music artist release their next single using Runway. Filmmakers are using it for storyboarding.

So imagine a world where you take a picture of a location or prop that you want to use for your movie. The way you are used to doing things is you might spend a week trying to make an animatic (an animated storyboard). Now you can just put it into Runway and direct how it’s going to move and how it’s going to look.

And then you can shoot it in real life if you want to do that. All on premise as well. And then there’s been an incredible creative explosion of short films being made with Runway. Everything from 40 second videos to 10-minute videos are coming up.

Q: What’s the tradeoff with tools like Runway, compared to really expensive CGI? Is it that you lose some control?

A: The best way to think about what we’re doing is to think about the core technology of Runway as a new camera, and the camera can be used by someone like James Cameron. Now, movies are not made with one camera. They’re made with different cameras and different lenses and different tools and different systems and different editing software. So it’s never going to probably be the case where one tool rules them all.

If you speak with any creative artist, there’s a combination of things. Experimentation is a key component of art and filmmaking as well. This new camera allows you to do things that perhaps you couldn’t do before, or perhaps things that were too expensive to do with other forms.

For example, creating animated films or creating explosions and nature movements — things that are extremely hard to record, simulate, or generate — are now way faster and better. I don’t think it’s going to be a replacement. It’s more like ‘Oh, I have a new piece of technology. I can start embedding that into my process.’

Q: If Runway is a camera, what is the shot that Runway is good at?

A: It’s really good at nature. Nature is extremely hard for humans because there is randomness and there’s some coherent entropy that, for us, is really hard to create. It’s really good at water, trees, foliage, skies, sand, dust, clouds. You get really beautiful results. You can also push the boundaries to science fiction. You have robots and space and spaceships. A lot of what we do is find filmmakers who want to use the camera to do amazing stuff.

Q: Are you starting to see inklings of what is going to happen as people experiment with Runway?

A: Definitely. Any art form is about iteration. It’s becoming more common to work as an editorial director of sorts. In a world where creating content becomes almost zero cost, you can make anything. What matters is how you put it all together. Like a curator in a museum, you can pick any artist in the world, but the artist that you pick and how you position them and tell a story around them, that’s what makes the exhibit really good.

Q: Even in the days of film, you were curating. That’s where the term the cutting room floor comes from. So what’s different?

A: With non-destructive editing in the digital age, people were incredibly free to try new things. You see montages like in Requiem for a Dream that are fast, almost hip hop driven. There’s a lot of experimentation to get to that. It would be almost impossible when you were cutting them.

An interesting technique now is image to video. You can take a real photo, and then you can create a video from a camera angle that’s never been taken before.

Q: Is it just editors using Runway? How could actors use this technology?

A: Actors, filmmakers, writers, painters. I think all of them as artists, they’re all playing and understanding this new technology. Video to video becomes an interesting idea. I can take an existing video of myself right now and change the aspect ratios and transform myself into something else. I have seen a lot of actors working or experimenting along those lines.

Q: Did you watch the series on [George Lucas’] Industrial Light and Magic?

A: I love that. A part of that first episode where a reporter asks the lead animator at the time inside ILM, ‘what does it mean to be a visual effects person?’ Like, this is a role you just came up with guys. What does it even mean? Maybe there’s another set of new visual effects artists that are going to emerge in the same way that happened more than 40 years ago.

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