Columbia Brings 'Frankenstein' to the 2018 Sundance Film Festival in a Brand New Way

BY Corinne Lestch, January 17, 2018

A group of digital storytellers from Columbia School of the Arts is bringing Mary Shelley’s 200-year-old classic, Frankenstein, to Sundance Film Festival — in the form of artificial intelligence.


Led by Lance Weiler, Founding Member and Director of Digital Storytelling Lab, Frankenstein AI: A Monster Made by Many is an experimental, immersive theater experience that broadens the conversation around emerging technology through the lens of an emotionally aware machine.


“It’s a ubiquitous technology that is going to rapidly change everything in our lives,” Weiler said of AI.


He added that the project, which was hatched about six months ago, touches on themes that feature predominantly in Shelley’s novel.


“We look for rich literary work that has a direct connection to the exploration of emerging technology,” Weiler said. “What does it mean if algorithms are something that isolate us and connect us? How can we better understand what AI is, and how can we be more inclusive in terms of the way we’re designing it?”


Those are some of the questions explored through the project, which includes an interactive audience component. At Sundance, participants will be invited to share their hopes, fears, memories and emotions with each other. Then they will interact with the AI, a six-foot Plexiglass box with animation projected onto it.


For the final installment, the AI will “perform” the audience members’ sentiments through an algorithm that analyzes human emotions. Using verbal and nonverbal commands, including algorithmically-powered drum sounds, the AI will control the movements of a hired dancer to express the various emotions.


Those involved in the project say the experience can serve as an entry point into a complicated technology that frequently invokes dystopian or negative implications, and expand the creative and social justice applications around the machinery.


“We felt like connection was at the heart of this experience,” said Adjunct faculty member Nick Fortugno, Lead Artist and Interactive Designer on the project. “When you read Shelley and you look at what the stakes are of Frankenstein, it’s always about connection — does the creature have family and people who understand it?”


While Weiler has been to Sundance numerous times, and exhibited work there, this marks the first time he will present AI as part of the renowned festival’s New Frontier program.


“It represents a project that is very much at the edge of something new,” he said. “It embodies what we do in the School of the Arts — it mixes visual art with creative writing and theater and film, but then mashes up the arts and sciences in a really exciting way. I feel humbled and honored and excited, because I think this represents a zeitgeist moment.”


And this is only the beginning of Frankenstein AI; other project collaborators said the goal is to create an evolving interactive experience.


“The Sundance installation is the first of what we expect to be a number of different installations and workshops over time,” said Rachel Ginsberg, Creative Strategist and Experience Designer.


“Isolation and connection are the place where we’re starting, but those are not necessarily the only things we’ll be exploring,” she continued. “We’re trying to lay the groundwork to be more expansive in our approach to themes in the future.”


According to Weiler, Columbia offered the perfect environment for this experiment in innovation and narrative storytelling.


“Between the school and Sundance, we’re able to produce work that is making a commentary on something without just being transactional,” he said. “I think the story is the same, it’s the telling that’s changing.”


Sundance Film Festival takes place in Park City, Utah, through January 28, 2018.


Frankenstein AI poster


Read more about the challenges (and delights) of developing Frankenstein AI from Lance Weiler in his recent article "A Monster Unleashed at Sundance," published in Filmmaker Magazine.