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Title: The iterative frame : algorithmic video editing, participant observation & the black box
Author: Rapoport, Robert S.
ISNI:       0000 0004 6494 0480
Awarding Body: University of Oxford
Current Institution: University of Oxford
Date of Award: 2016
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Machine learning is increasingly involved in both our production and consumption of video. One symptom of this is the appearance of automated video editing applications. As this technology spreads rapidly to consumers, the need for substantive research about its social impact grows. To this end, this project maintains a focus on video editing as a microcosm of larger shifts in cultural objects co-authored by artificial intelligence. The window in which this research occurred (2010-2015) saw machine learning move increasingly into the public eye, and with it ethical concerns. What follows is, on the most abstract level, a discussion of why these ethical concerns are particularly urgent in the realm of the moving image. Algorithmic editing consists of software instructions to automate the creation of timelines of moving images. The criteria that this software uses to query a database is variable. Algorithmic authorship already exists in other media, but I will argue that the moving image is a separate case insofar as the raw material of text and music software can develop on its own. The performance of a trained actor can still not be generated by software. Thus, my focus is on the relationship between live embodied performance, and the subsequent algorithmic editing of that footage. This is a process that can employ other software like computer vision (to analyze the content of video) and predictive analytics (to guess what kind of automated film to make for a given user). How is performance altered when it has to communicate to human and non-human alike? The ritual of the iterative frame gives literal form to something that throughout human history has been a projection: the omniscient participant observer, more commonly known as the Divine. We experience black boxed software (AI's, specifically neural networks, which are intrinsically opaque) as functionally omniscient and tacitly allow it to edit more and more of life (e.g. filtering articles, playlists and even potential spouses). As long as it remains disembodied, we will continue to project the Divine on to the black box, causing cultural anxiety. In other words, predictive analytics alienate us from the source code of our cultural texts. The iterative frame then is a space in which these forces can be inscribed on the body, and hence narrated. The algorithmic editing of content is already taken for granted. The editing of moving images, in contrast, still requires a human hand. We need to understand the social power of moving image editing before it is delegated to automation. Practice Section: This project is practice-led, meaning that the portfolio of work was produced as it was being theorized. To underscore this, the portfolio comes at the end of the document. Video editors use artificial intelligence (AI) in a number of different applications, from deciding the sequencing of timelines to using facial and language detection to find actors in archives. This changes traditional production workflows on a number of levels. How can the single decision cut a between two frames of video speak to the larger epistemological shifts brought on by predictive analytics and Big Data (upon which they rely)? When predictive analytics begin modeling the world of moving images, how will our own understanding of the world change? In the practice-based section of this thesis, I explore how these shifts will change the way in which actors might approach performance. What does a gesture mean to AI and how will the editor decontextualize it? The set of a video shoot that will employ an element of AI in editing represents a move towards ritualization of production, summarized in the term the 'iterative frame'. The portfolio contains eight works that treat the set was taken as a microcosm of larger shifts in the production of culture. There is, I argue, metaphorical significance in the changing understanding of terms like 'continuity' and 'sync' on the AI-watched set. Theory Section In the theoretical section, the approach is broadly comparative. I contextualize the current dynamic by looking at previous shifts in technology that changed the relationship between production and post-production, notably the lightweight recording technology of the 1960s. This section also draws on debates in ethnographic filmmaking about the matching of film and ritual. In this body of literature, there is a focus on how participant observation can be formalized in film. Triangulating between event, participant observer and edit grammar in ethnographic filmmaking provides a useful analogy in understanding how AI as film editor might function in relation to contemporary production. Rituals occur in a frame that is dependent on a spatially/temporally separate observer. This dynamic also exists on sets bound for post-production involving AI, The convergence of film grammar and ritual grammar occurred in the 1960s under the banner of cinéma vérité in which the relationship between participant observer/ethnographer and the subject became most transparent. In Rouch and Morin's Chronicle of a Summer (1961), reflexivity became ritualized in the form of on-screen feedback sessions. The edit became transparent-the black box of cinema disappeared. Today as artificial intelligence enters the film production process this relationship begins to reverse-feedback, while it exists, becomes less transparent. The weight of the feedback ritual gets gradually shifted from presence and production to montage and post-production. Put differently, in cinéma vérité, the participant observer was most present in the frame. As participant observation gradually becomes shared with code it becomes more difficult to give it an embodied representation and thus its presence is felt more in the edit of the film. The relationship between the ritual actor and the participant observer (the algorithm) is completely mediated by the edit, a reassertion of the black box, where once it had been transparent. The crucible for looking at the relationship between algorithmic editing, participant observation and the black box is the subject in trance. In ritual trance the individual is subsumed by collective codes. Long before the advent of automated editing trance was an epistemological problem posed to film editing. In the iterative frame, for the first time, film grammar can echo ritual grammar and indeed become continuous with it. This occurs through removing the act of cutting from the causal world, and projecting this logic of post-production onto performance. Why does this occur? Ritual and specifically ritual trance is the moment when a culture gives embodied form to what it could not otherwise articulate. The trance of predictive analytics-the AI that increasingly choreographs our relationship to information-is the ineffable that finds form in the iterative frame. In the iterative frame a gesture never exists in a single instance, but in a potential state. The performers in this frame begin to understand themselves in terms of how automated indexing processes reconfigure their performance. To the extent that gestures are complicit with this mode of databasing they can be seen as votive toward the algorithmic. The practice section focuses on the poetics of this position. Chapter One focuses on cinéma vérité as a moment in which the relationship between production and post-production shifted as a function of more agile recording technology, allowing the participant observer to enter the frame. This shift becomes a lens to look at changes that AI might bring. Chapter Two treats the work of Pierre Huyghe as a 'liminal phase' in which a new relationship between production and post-production is explored. Finally, Chapter Three looks at a film in which actors perform with awareness that footage will be processed by an algorithmic edit. The conclusion looks at the implications this way of relating to AI-especially commercial AI-through embodied performance could foster a more critical relationship to the proliferating black-boxed modes of production.
Supervisor: Grawert, Bernd ; Gardner, Anthony ; Martin, Daria Sponsor: University of Oxford
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available
Keywords: Science and Technology Studies ; Cybernetics ; Digital video--Editing ; Visual anthropology ; Ritual Studies ; Algorithmic Culture ; Predictive Analytics ; Generative Art ; Ritual ; Film Editing ; Neural Networks ; New Media ; Artificial Intelligence ; Montage Theory