As Hollywood actors and writers strike, a company called The Simulation (formerly Fable Studio) has introduced Showrunner, a new AI application that can create 22-minute generative AI TV fan and parody episodes of popular shows. To demonstrate the power of Showrunner, The Simulation released a 22-minute TV episode of South Park today, “Westland Chronicles,” which centers on the ongoing WGA (Writers Guild of America) strike and a Hollywood studio, Bizney, that uses AI with disastrous results. The episode, and Showrunner’s technology, confirm the threat of AI is a real, not existential, problem. Indeed, Showrunner’s creators say it’s too dangerous to release to the public.
The Simulation has no relation to South Park’s producers. It chose to mimic South Park for its demo because of the series’ minimalist animation style, and the volume of existing content to train the models. The output, using basic prompts, is an episode complete with story, script, voice recording, animation, editing, and scoring all done by Showrunner. The company repeatedly emphasized that the episode has no commercial purpose, and is more akin to fan art.
“Artists and storytellers are now discovering just how effective AI has become,” Producer and The Simulation CEO Ed Saatchi explained in an interview last week. “It’s both exciting and extremely disturbing, which is why we wanted to share the results of our research in a non-commercial way to show both artists and Hollywood producers that the threat is real.” Saatchi said Showrunner is only available to researchers and journalists, and the company has no plans to otherwise share it with the public.
“We are building a simulation where AI characters live 24/7, grow and have rich stories,” said Philipp Maas, who created Showrunner AI. “Every week of simulation time, a 22-minute episode is generated of what happened in the AIs’ lives. Imagine reality TV for AIs.” Maas started working on the Showrunner program last year when powerful open-source AI models like Open AI and Stable Diffusion were released. Anyone can download an open-source AI program from Git and run it on a PC with appropriate power, for free. The secret sauce is in the training of the models, and the skills required to prompt them.
Saatchi and his team at The Simulation have already been working with AI for the past five years. Two months ago, Fable announced an AI feature, White Mirror, which will be released this fall. Fable’s critically acclaimed VR Film, Wolves in the Wall, released in November, 2019, starred Lucy, an AI-enabled character. She was built using Open AI’s Chat GPT. Inside the simulation, the user is cast as Lucy’s imaginary friend. Fable experimented with Lucy, taking her outside the Wolves story, and treating her like a child star who played a role in their VR production.
To further demonstrate the capabilities and speed of Showrunner, The Simulation team fed my likeness and voice into Showrunner, and with a simple prompt, which you can see in the video below, Professor Fink visits South Park for a fifteen-minute episode that ends with an unexpected cliffhanger.
“Not only can Showrunner generate original TV episodes, it can also put you into those episodes,” said Saatchi when we talked. “Warhol said that in the future everyone would have their 15 minutes of fame. With Showrunner, everyone may end up having their own syndicated 7 Season TV show, starring them. Film and TV can become more like novels and painting— one mad artist’s vision brought entirely to screen without dilution or compromise.”
The technology, as we see from these samples, can produce something that looks and feels, and sounds like a South Park episode, but as with even the best fan art, after you watch for a minute, you notice it is slightly off. It still needs humans to manage it, to train it, to tell it what to do, and what it did wrong. That’s the thing about AI. It learns from its mistakes. Although these episodes don’t feel like the real thing now, it will get better and better until it does
“We have simulations tied to many different TV shows including original shows,” noted Saatchi, “and we’re in talks with several studios and also working with top creators to build original IP, with several original and IP-driven AI TV shows in the works.”
At the moment, Showrunner represents the sum of all Hollywood’s fears about AI, but perhaps not for the reasons you think. For the first time, writers can own the means of production. Showrunner will someday enable them to upload scripts, storyboards, and actors, and pitch their movies as animated mock-ups created by AI. In other words, what may seem bad for writers, paradoxically may give them more power than they have ever had before.
A writer friend with a relationship with the union put me in touch with the Writer’s Guild in Los Angeles but they declined to comment on this story.
Charlie Fink is the author of the AR-enabled books “Metaverse,” (2017) and “Convergence” (2019). In the early 90s, Fink was EVP & COO of VR pioneer Virtual World Entertainment. He teaches at Chapman University in Orange, CA.