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The Real Threat Of Automation & AI In Filmmaking, And Why Specialists & Freelancers Are At Risk

There’s a lot of speculation about how AI, automation and other technological breakthroughs will change the film industry in years to come… But I think much of it misses the mark. 

Those with a more dystopian outlook believe AI has the potential to assume the role of screenwriters, directors, editors, and other key creatives. Personally, I don’t think that will ever happen.

Sure, computers are already writing screenplays (poorly) and automating complex processes like color correction, but we’re nowhere near the point of replacing human artistry with technology.

And no matter how advanced the tech becomes, for most above-the-line positions, AI/automation will probably enhance the creative process more than it will hurt it.

That’s just my prediction of course, and I certainly don’t have a crystal ball. But I think it’s safe to say the impact at the top won’t be felt for quite some time.

In the interim, there’s a much more pressing issue that is rarely discussed, despite it already affecting the largest pool of talent in the industry: freelancers and specialists.

The current technological landscape really doesn’t jeopardize the role of a director or producer in any way. But what about the average below-the-line working filmmaker?

This is a far more pertinent discussion to be having, as the impact of bleeding edge tech is already changing what it means to make a living in this industry for many.

Most obviously, complex technical tasks are becoming easier to perform thanks to more intelligent software and hardware, which (in some cases) is devaluing the currency of specific skills and trades.

Let me use the role of a colorist as an example, as that’s a corner of the industry that I know quite well.

A decade ago, no one knew the first thing about the color process outside of some very highly paid specialists.

If you needed your film color corrected, you would have to send it to a post-house and pay more to finish your film than you spent on your car.

Then, things began to get democratized.

Color tools were integrated into every day editing software. Blackmagic released a free version of DaVinci Resolve, a system that once cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Countless filmmakers began to learn how to color, and as the laws of supply and demand dictate, the role of a colorist became more accessible and less lucrative (despite it still being a well paid position).

Today, if you need your feature film colored, it will cost a fraction of what it did just a decade ago. And with a half-decent colorist behind the wheel, the results will look better than ever.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

The vast majority of advancements in color over the past decade had nothing to do with automation or AI. That’s what’s coming next, and it will likely change the role of a colorist more in the next 5 years than it did in the past 25.

We already have automated color tools that can match shots or fix your white balance or prep your timeline with a single click… Not long ago, this type of technology was unfathomable. But in a few years, it will look primitive. 

I may not believe that a computer will direct a movie any time soon, but I’d certainly believe that one might color grade a feature. Or sound mix one. Or handle closed captioning and deliverables while simultaneously outputting a QC report.

And that’s just post-production. Those in production roles are already feeling the effects too.

Breakthroughs in camera and lighting technology have made capturing stunning images incredibly simple.

Autofocus has gone from a consumer tool that could never be used professionally, to an industrial tool used on the biggest motion pictures.

It can’t be long before we see the first AI powered camera or lighting system or sound mixer hit the market. Tools will emerge that can make complex creative and technical decisions on the fly, faster than a human could.

In many ways, these type of technical achievements should be celebrated. Not just for what they represent in terms of progress, but also because technology has a proven track record of democratizing the filmmaking process.

It has never been easier to make a movie that looks and sounds like the real thing (even on a micro-budget), as it is today. The barrier to entry for new voices is lower, and more artists are actually able to create without restriction. This will surely only continue to improve with time, and that’s a very good thing.

Even on the freelancing side, there are some advantages. Many specialists are able to use advancements in technology to enhance their day to day work, spending more time on important work and less time on mundane or repetitive technical tasks.

So it’s not all bad news…

But in the long run, I do see this as an uphill battle for many freelancers and specialists working in our industry, despite any tangential advantages in the present moment.

As I see it, the issue is really two-fold:

  1. New tech has lowered the bar for becoming a specialist, and with greater supply the currency of various positions will continue to be diminished.
  2. These technological advancements will only grow exponentially over time, so the trend is moving in a direction that is hard to ignore.

If you’re a freelancer/specialist looking to break into the industry today, you’ll almost certainly be paid less for your given skill than what you might have just 5 or 10 years ago. And even once you’re in, there’s no guarantee of upward mobility or increasing revenue… At least not like there used to be.

I don’t mean to deter anyone from pursuing a freelance career or specialization, despite the point I’m making. There’s still opportunity in those arenas, and there will be for many years to come.

But I do think it’s critical that the most vulnerable in our industry grasp the reality of where things are heading.

As we can already clearly see, the greatest negative side effects of AI and automation are primarily affecting below-the-line positions. Those who spearhead projects, whether executives, producers, directors, or other creatives, are reaping most of the rewards.

From the top-level, the cost of producing material is going down, while production quality increases exponentially each year. That does have some drawbacks too (namely more competition in the market), but overall it’s having a positive effect.

Right now, if you’re on the “creator” side of the business, you have boundless opportunities ahead of you. Movies will be cheaper and easier to make than ever, and even your wildest visions can be realized. Not to mention the profound affect AI will have on distribution and marketing in years to come.

Will this lead to even more over supply of content in the market? Perhaps… But overall, higher quality production value for fewer dollars is a good thing in my books.

On the “employee” side of the business, things are less certain. No one’s job is getting eliminated tomorrow (or at least not many), but the sustainability of various roles and careers is unknown.

If I were to give a singular piece of advice to filmmakers looking to protect their livelihood moving ahead, it would be to keep an open mind to entrepreneurial endeavors.

As it stands now, those who control projects – whether business owners, executive producers, content creators, or otherwise, are at a major advantage going forward. They always have been, but the gap is starting to widen quite rapdily. 

That doesn’t mean you can’t still thrive as a freelancer or specialist – there are plenty of people making a great living in the industry today doing just one thing, and more power to them.

But not everyone will be so fortunate, and very few filmmakers that I know really fall into that category.

Almost every day, I come across a filmmaker who is upset about how much money they are making. Or perhaps more commonly, how little they are being offered for their specialized skills and knowledge.

I constantly hear things like “I can’t believe he asked me to edit that video for $500!” or “they want me to come out and shoot their movie on my RED camera for free!”

This will only become more commonplace the years go on. You can’t fight it. All you can do is stay nimble, keep your mind open, and have a willingness to pivot toward the territory of owner/creator as opposed to employee.

If you’re a freelance editor, perhaps you consider re-configuring your operation into a small post-production house.

If you’re a freelance writer, maybe it’s time to start producing your own original content and owning the IP.

If you’re a sound designer, why not build a website to sell your custom sound effects?

These are just some examples of how we can start moving away from the passive role of freelancing, and toward a more active role of an owner. 

No one needs to quit their job tomorrow, but the time to diversify your efforts is now.

Owning a business – especially one that generates intellectual property like feature films – will always give you options. Things won’t always be easy, but at least you will have choices.

That doesn’t mean you need to stop doing what you love, or that you need to go back to school to get your MBA. It’s just about shifting your perspective on how you operate, and making changes that protect your bottom line.

If you simply commit to a single specialization and try to ride it out, the road ahead might be quite bumpy.

But really, this is just my guess.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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About Author

Noam Kroll is an award-winning Los Angeles based filmmaker, and the founder of the boutique production house, Creative Rebellion. His work can be seen at international film festivals, on network television, and in various publications across the globe. Follow Noam on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for more content like this!

9 Comments

  • Michael Radetzky
    April 17, 2021 at 10:01 am

    Hi Noam,
    very good blog. I love it.
    I am just now writing a thesis about AI and filmmaking on the legal point of view.
    Maybe I can ask u sometimes.

    Reply
  • Michael Nicholas
    Michael Nicholas
    January 18, 2021 at 3:44 pm

    I left the post business (I worked for a visual effects studio for 8 years) for exactly the reasons you outlined – automation and cheaper labor outside of LA were eliminating the need for skills and knowledge I spent years learning.

    I am not bitter about this – I feel that technology and the global economy will keep advancing despite my objections; but surviving as strictly an “editor” or “compositor” was looking less and less lucrative every year. I went from being underpaid in 2006 to overpaid in 2012, despite the fact that my day rate stayed exactly the same during that time span. I left the industry in 2013, and am now trying to come back as a content creator/owner.

    I signed up for the Backlot program and am excited about your guidance on this journey!

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      January 18, 2021 at 6:59 pm

      That’s fascinating to hear, Michael. I think your story is a perfect case in point for the landscape of the industry today.

      Super excited to have you on board with The Backlot and hope it helps you on your new path.

      Reply
  • Lucas Lyra
    January 16, 2021 at 4:48 pm

    It is exactly what I have noticed in the market here in Brazil. So what I decided to do this year: develop my own content and try to depend less only on customers.

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      January 18, 2021 at 6:58 pm

      Great decision. Glad to hear you’re on the entrepreneurial path.

      Reply
  • Pat Murphy
    January 15, 2021 at 9:42 pm

    Great post. As a freelance editor I saw my rates begin to go down about 2-3 years ago. It’s now at the point where I’m happy when I find a client willing to pay my baseline day rate. Because of this I’m making the shift into becoming more of an entrepreneurial filmmaker, owning my content and coming up with creative ways to monetize it.

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      January 18, 2021 at 6:57 pm

      Great to hear you’re making that switch, Pat. I think it’s a very wise decision. Best of luck moving ahead!

      Reply
  • Casimir Artmann
    January 14, 2021 at 12:23 am

    I see advances in technology as a way to make better stories, for a lower cost. Thus make it possible to have a bygger veriety of films.

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      January 14, 2021 at 2:26 am

      Absolutely – that’s the big upside!

      Reply

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