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A.I. Artificial Intelligence

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Original author: 
Russ Fischer

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Earlier today we were talking about the anniversary of Jurassic Park, released on this day in 1993. But in mid-1990, director Steven Spielberg wasn’t yet set to film Michael Chrichton’s novel, which hadn’t been released. Having made Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Spielberg had grown up a bit with the romance Always, released six months after the third Indy picture, and was poised to take over another film related to growing up: 1991′s Hook.

So this 1990 interview catches Spielberg in what looks now like a transitional phase, before the staggering success of Jurassic Park and the first flowering of the digital effects age and the opening of the DreamWorks era. The director talks about many aspects of his career: his non-blockbuster choices (The Color Purple, Always, Empire of the Sun) and lack of Oscar nominations for some of his work. He talks about his desire to make Rain Man, which took director Barry Levinson to the Oscars in 1989, and which Spielberg directed before commitment to Indiana Jones interceded.

This is a candid half hour with a man who was already one of the biggest directors in the world, but who also has many successes in front of him. It’s a great conversation with which to cap off your afternoon.

[The Playlist]

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Stanley Kubrick’s professional career began April 12, 1945, as the high school junior — with a prolific track record of absences — wandered the streets of the Bronx and snapped a picture of a crestfallen newsstand dealer surrounded by headlines announcing the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. As childhood friend Alexander Singer tells the story, Kubrick immediately ran to his home darkroom, which his father had built to encourage the scholastic underachiever’s budding interest in photography, printed the picture and made a sale that same afternoon to Look Magazine. The following year, when no colleges would accept Kubrick because of his poor academic record, Look hired him as a full-time staff photographer.

Singer and Kubrick had forged a bond over shared scholastic apathy and mutual respect of each other’s extracurricular achievements — Singer as editor of the school literary arts magazine, and Kubrick as the kid with a camera around his neck: “almost a caricature of what you’d imagine a teenage cameraman would look like,” as Singer describes. When plans to photograph a feature-length cinematic adaptation of Homer’s Iliad written and directed by Singer proved too ambitious, Kubrick struck upon the idea to instead translate one of his own photographic essays to the big screen.

That essay was Prizefighter, published by Look in January 1949, and described by Kubrick biographer Vincent LoBrutto as the moment he came of age as a photojournalist. The seven-page story depicted scenes from the life of Bronx-born middleweight boxer Walter Cartier as he trained and prepared to enter the ring against moments from his romantic and domestic lives. Often working under stark, overhead light with infrared film (also favored by his idol, Weegee), Kubrick captured high-contrast images that emphasized Walter’s physique and cast brooding, incisive shadows on his face.

Prizefighter would go on to define Kubrick in other ways, though. It might have been his dawning moment as a photojournalist, but the essay would also serve as the basis of the first film Kubrick would direct, called Day at the Fight, released two years later.

The 20-year old Kubrick made the decision to shoot his first film on 35mm rather than the lighter, more economical 16mm format favored by amateurs—a bold decision by someone who later described the entirety of his motion picture camera training as a hands-on demonstration at an equipment house. Kubrick and Singer used Bell & Howell’s Eyemo, a lightweight camera introduced 1926 for use in newsreels and military applications and advertised, perhaps over-optimistically, “as convenient to carry as the average size ‘still’ camera.” Kubrick photographed most of the project solo, and Singer joined on a second ringside camera to capture the live fight scene. A third camera operator also filmed from high in the auditorium.

Comparing the Prizefighter contact sheets side-by-side with Day of the Fight, one gets the sense that much of the creative legwork had been worked out during the photo essay, which, despite its ostensible documentary subject matter, was chiefly constructed through deliberately-staged scenes. But Day of the Fight is a distinctly cinematic work; particularly remarkable is Kubrick’s ability to control time and add an element of suspense in portraying Walter’s anticipation of the fight, a trait missing in Prizefighter. The first-time director was also aided by the fact that the physical spectacle of boxing lends itself to cinema. After all, the first feature-length film ever released was a 1897 St. Patrick’s Day fight between James J. Corbett and Bob Fitzsimmons. Many of the same setups from the contact sheets and short film are repeated in Kubrick’s subsequent work, particularly his second feature, Killer’s Kiss, a seedy yarn about a down-on-his-luck fighter.

Although Kubrick is regarded as the most critically and commercially successful photographer turned full-time feature filmmaker, this mainstream acclaim might also be the reason his name rarely enters the discussion of the legendary New York-based photographers and their progressive contributions to avant garde and non-narrative filmmaking. This tradition includes Paul Strand (Manhatta, 1921), Rudy Burckhardt (The Pursuit of Happiness, 1940) Helen Levitt (In the Street, 1949), Ruth Orkin & Morris Engel (The Little Fugitive, 1953), William Klein (Broadway by Light, 1958) and Robert Frank (Pull My Daisy, 1959), among whose varying innovations include discrete handheld photography, examples of “life caught unawares,” and blurring lines between documentary and staged situations. Kubrick’s perceived youth and inexperience may be another factor in this oversight: though several writers have supported their praise of The Little Fugitive by recalling that the ten-years-senior Engel claimed a 25-year-old Kubrick attempted to rent his uniquely-constructed equipment for his own first feature (Fear and Desire), Kubrick’s production predates The Little Fugitive by several months. Furthermore, much of Kubrick’s early work has not been widely available to the public — per Kubrick’s wishes, Fear and Desire only recently resurfaced after decades of suppression.

One could hardly argue Day of the Fight is a major work in the context of documentary film or Kubrick’s entire oeuvre, but it remains a fascinating key to understanding the development of Kubrick as an artist and entrepreneur—an under-appreciated example of the maverick cinematic approaches developed by street photographers. Undoubtedly, Day of the Fight is one of the most assured and mature endeavors undertaken by someone approaching a film camera for the first time.

Jon Dieringer is an independent curator and the editor and publisher of Screen Slate, a daily online resource for listings and commentary of New York City repertory film and independent media.

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What goes into creating an engine that can drive the best in current-generation quality and go beyond? IO Interactive technical director Martin Amor speaks to Gamasutra about his work on the Glacier 2 engine, created for the upcoming Hitman: Absolution.

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Daniel Wilson is a PhD roboticist who made his name with a series of fun, light science books about robot uprisings and similar subjects. But his new novel, Robopocalypse, is anything but fun and lightweight: it's a gripping, utterly plausible, often terrifying account of a global apocalypse brought on by a transcendant AI that hijacks the planet's automation systems and uses them in a vicious attempt to wipe out humanity.

Robopocalypse opens on the first days after the terrible robot war, with Cormack Wallace, a human soldier, contemplating a "black box" containing the war's history as recorded by Archos, the rogue AI that nearly exterminated the human race. After this bit of stage setting, we go back to the months before the war, when a researcher unwittingly creates Archos and then loses control of it when it murders him. A series of small, grisly episodes follow in which automation systems are compromised by Archos and domestic robots, autonomous cars, and other devices turn on their owners. These presage the war that is to come.

But the war, when it arrives, is far more brutal than Wilson hints. Archos possesses perfect global coordination, and so when the killing begins, it is near-total and so swift that humanity hardly knows what's coming. Cars mow down people in the streets (even as their owners, trapped within, scream in horror and beat at the windscreens); elevators and domestic robots conspire to drop terrified people down empty shafts or shake them to jelly; planes crash themselves; buildings seal themselves and asphyxiate their occupants.

But some humans survive, thanks to luck and sheer numbers and a bit of cunning, and these humans live to fight. Slowly, and with little success (at first), humanity strikes back at the robots, learning something about the threat they face. Archos is adaptive, though, and every successful measure evinces a countermeasure, horror piled on horror that will have you glued to the pages.

Like Max Brooks's World War Z, Robopocalypse is structured as a kind of oral history, composed of vignettes that take the form of first person accounts, transcripts, technical documents and so on. This is a great literary device in that it dispenses with much of the stage-business in novels where characters get from A to B so that the reader can see what's going on -- rather, the author is free to jump from anyplace to anyplace else, telling the story with a viewpoint that's both omniscient and intimate.

But Brooks's novel had very little in the way of recurring characters, while Robopocalypse quickly converges on the stories of a dozen or so freedom fighters whose lives gradually become entangled. This recurrence gives Robopocalypse something World War Z lacks: heart, in the form of character arcs, wherein heroes learn and change and grow, and we get to root for them.

The film rights to Robopocalypse have been bought by Stephen Spielberg, who has announced a big-budget feature for 2013. If the script is at all true to the novel, it might just be one of the best and scariest science fiction movies of all time.

Robopocalypse

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