It’s always hard when our heroes fail us. For me, that happened with Hayao Miyazaki last December. I’m writing about it now because some joke about it still resurfaces in my Twitter timeline from time to time.
For those of you which don’t know him, Miyazaki was the head of Studio Ghibli, sometimes called “the Japanese Disney”. That studio is responsible for some of the most beautiful animated movies of all times. I haven’t seen all of them, but here are some:
And these are only the ones I’ve watched (and I can vouch for). To this day, Princess Mononoke still ranks among my favourite movies of all time, and I’m not taking about just animation, but movies in general. And that wasn’t a one-time hit. All their movies (that I’ve watched) can easily transport you away to a fantastical land, so weird and at the same time so beautiful, so unique in every installment.
Given that all these movies happened in good part thanks to this man’s sensibilities, creativity and talent, I put it so high in a pedestal that I thought he couldn’t do anything to change my opinion of him.
Then this happened:
So, a bit of background here. The demo wasn’t internal to Studio Ghibli. Miyazaki isn’t “the boss” of these people, as it was jokingly commented over the Internet. The clip is part of a documentary series called “NHK Special: Hayao Miyazaki — The One Who Never Ends”.
About the contents of the demo, I wasn’t particularly impressed. I follow tech news, and every now and then a paper or video demo pops up on the subject of using AI to produce biped movement. These are a few examples:
- GTA IV engine demo from 2009, you can see real-time reactions to external stimuli and self-preservation behaviours.
- Flexible Muscle-Based Locomotion for Bipedal Creatures from 2013, algorithm for bipedal movement which trains itself and automatically discovers the best gaits for each situation.
- DeepMind learns parkour, from a few weeks ago. State-of-the-art AI (neural networks), training a model to navigate obstacles automatically, without giving it any prior set of rules.
So, what would be some valid criticisms about this demo? From the top of my mind, here are some:
- The demo only shows the creatures “walking” in flat terrain. Does it work in other surfaces? Does the AI adapt to terrains it hasn’t been trained on? If it doesn’t, then it has very limited practical applications.
- On the same line, can they change direction? Change speed? React if they are knocked over? A demo should display all the “tricks” the software can accomplish, so this particular one is pretty underwhelming.
- Since the creatures don’t feel pain, they can “walk” using their head. Ok, that allows for some creepy and unique movements, but the whole premise is flawed. Zombies don’t feel pain, but they walk bipedly (or on fours) because their primary weapon is their mouth. How would one of those monsters pose a threat to the player, if they’re sprawled on the floor with their head on the ground?
I think those are fair criticisms. They can be considered “honest feedback”, without holding anything back. If you find the monsters gross, then you can say that, of course, but Miyazaki takes it to a whole new level:
- He says the monsters remain him of his disabled friend. That clearly taints his judgement, since everything else is a result of that assocciation.
- Directly attacks the engineers that built the demo, saying “they have no idea what pain is whatsoever”. Making an assumption like that based on that demo is just wrong, a personal attack.
- “I am utterly disgusted”. “I strongly feel like this is an insult to life itself”. Ok, maybe at that point he was just sayng something juicy for the cameras.
The engineers were pretified. Being Japanese and young people, Miyazaki was probably a hero for them, and he crushed them for no other reason than ignorance. There, I said it. What he did there was just an old man’s rant. I don’t care who he is or what he has done. His area of expertise is close to what those engineers did (animation), but just because he is who he is, it shouldn’t be considered that he’s always right. He can be the best animator alive, but that clip showed his ignorance and rudeness.
I think that we, as a society, have trouble separating a person from its actions. If this blog was more popular, I’m sure I would receive a barrage of comments telling me “Shut up, who are you to say Miyazaki is wrong, are you even a graphic artist, what would you know” (but probably with more profanity). Of course, I don’t know much about graphic design, or AI for that matter. If you don’t watch the demo, but you’re told that’s about AI-based animation, and you’re presented with Miyazaki’s reaction and mine, who are you gonna believe? Of course, him. His opinion has more weight because all he has done in his life, but he can be wrong too.
Now try the opposite: Watch the video (AI demo included), trying to forget that the old man that’s speaking is famous. Do you see the “old man ranting” now? The “out-of-touch grandpa that doesn’t understand technology”? Of course, the reality is probably somewhere in the middle. I don’t think Miyazaki fully understands the implications of a AI-based walking engine for videogames and such, but he knows a thing or two about computer animation. In fact, his studio used it as far back as 20 years ago for Princess Mononoke (in the opening scene, for example, the weird tentacles of the giant Boar God are CG). That’s why his reaction surprised me, he’s not the kind of “old-school” animator who rejects computers. And he’s no stranger to “creepy” and weird creatures in his movies either. I guess we’ll never know for sure why he reacted the way he did, but regardless of the reason, it was way out of place, no matter his credentials.
I have another anecdote of this kind. What do you think about the person who said this?
Who cares about Netflix? I don’t think it affects anything, it’s just a fad, a storm in a cup of tea. What’s the definition of a movie? What is a movie? Something that lasts two hours? Is it a particular genre? No. What has always defined a movie is that it’s seen in a cinema. No more, no less. So the fact that Netflix is making movies for TV and competing at the Oscars or at the Cannes Film Festival only means that it uses the movie industry as a promotional tool. And it’s OK, you can do it. Of course, if I run a film festival I wouldn’t accept them because they aren’t movies.
Some thoughts that may have crossed your mind: “Out of touch”, “movie snob”, “like the guys who will tell you again and again that they only listen to vinyls because they’re superior”. Let me be extra clear: this person said thet Netflix is just a fad, and that a movie is not a movie if it’s not projected in a theater.
Now, you’re probably wondering who this person can be. It’s Christopher Nolan, altough it’s something that Quentin Tarantino would probably say too. That rant was part of an interview to the Spanish newspaper El Mundo, as part of his new movie “Dunkirk”. I haven’t watched it yet, and I’m sure it will be a visual masterpiece, but being one of the most talented directors alive doesn’t mean that you can’t say incredibly stupid stuff too. Again, I don’t have the same credentials as Mr. Nolan, but that doesn’t mean that he’s right and I’m wrong. I’ll keep watching and enjoying his movies (altough if I don’t go see them to the theater, am I watching movies?), but Christopher Nolan as a person has just lost a bit of respect in my book.
And that’s OK. The problem would be if I said “I’m not gonna watch any more of Miyazaki or Nolan because they said one stupid thing”. Nobody is perfect, and if you dig deep enough every musician, actor, director, football player you adore will probably have a few defects. Separating the person and its work is the healthy thing to do. It allows you to objectively critisice their opinions without considering them “The Word Of God”, and they allow you to happily enjoy their work even after they failed you off-screen.