writings by Ray Kurzweil | My reflections on the avant garde film: S1m0ne

January 1, 2000

Andrew Niccol’s “Simone” tells the tale of a desperate director, Viktor Taransky (Al Pacino), who saves his career by creating (and transforming himself into) his virtual female alter ego, “Simone,” who has “the voice of the young Jane Fonda, the body of Sophia Loren, the face of Audrey Hepburn combined with an angel, and the grace of Grace Kelly,” as his ex-wife Elaine Christian (Catherine Keener) describes her.

As someone who has actually had Viktor Taransky’s experience of transforming himself into his virtual female alter ego (a virtual personality named Ramona whom I describe more below), I will say that Simone would not be my choice for a female alter ego. I can’t comment on Simone’s body, since we don’t get to see much of it, but Elaine’s generous description is provided simply to establish the movie’s conceit. Although the audience (in the movie) has little difficulty accepting it, she has none of these purported qualities.

Simone is played by model Rachel Roberts, who, interestingly, is not credited. There is a bit of a missed connection here, as models are trained to provide attractive mannequins rather than conveying emotional ideas, so relatively few models successfully cross over into acting. The idea here is that Simone is intended to be perfection itself, but her only perfection is her complete lack of any real personality and emotional content.

To digress for a moment on my own experience in this vein, my idea of a female alter ego needed to have more edge and color. So when my team at KurzweilAI.net and I set out two years ago to create Ramona, we wanted to create a virtual yet photorealistic person with some specificity. I wrote a detailed biography that although quite different on a superficial level from my own life story resonated with themes in my own life. For Ramona’s face and body, we started with a real woman (Amy Bluestein, now a medical student) and changed her appearance to be closer to that of Holly McNarland, a little known Canadian rock singer who conveyed some of the attitude I was striving for. Ramona, however, ended up as her own woman.

We went on to create an elaborate technology that demonstrated the concept that Viktor illustrates in the movie Simone. As I moved the parts of my body, using a motion-capture system, Ramona moved in exactly the same way in real time. My voice was transformed into her voice, and her lips moved with my lips. I had a singing coach to llearn to sing like a woman, a dancing coach to dance like a woman, and picked up tips from my teenage daughter on the attitude and style appropriate for a 25 year old female rock singer from New Orleans. My daughter also contributed to the choreography and was herself transformed into a photorealistic male back-up dancer.

We presented this live real-time virtual reality transformation performance on February 22, 2001 at the famed TED (Technology Entertainment and Design) conference, which attracts over a thousand attendees from the Hollywood and technology communities each year in Monterey. You can see a video of this presentation, read Ramona’s biography, and other background information at http://www.thekurzweillibrary.com/meme/frame.html?m=9.

The experience was enlightening for me and my colleagues in many ways. Given the state of today’s technology, it was a daunting and exhaustive effort to set up the technologies to accomplish this transformation. Once set up, however, the results were quite transforming. To change oneself into someone else, which I’ve always maintained, is one of the more compelling features of virtual reality, provides an expanded perspective on the image of who we are. We tend to become very identified with our current physical image, so the idea that it is actually possible to convincingly become someone else is rather liberating.

This was not a matter of gender confusion on my part, but rather an expression of the idea that we really do have other personalities within us that we can and should express if given the opportunity. There will be, of course, many practical applications of this idea once perfected, including game playing, education (e.g., become a virtual Ben Franklin in a virtual Congressional Congress), personal emotional development, and exploring new ways to relate to one another.

The state of the art in synthespians

To return to Simone, the movie was more enjoyable than I had expected. From the publicity, I was dismayed at the apparent decision to use the glamorous but vapid image of a model to portray a man’s ideal female alter ego. But in the context of this comedy, the audience is told to just accept the fact that the world has gone crazy for this new star. Indeed we are told to accept a lot of things that strain credulity, but the film nonetheless achieves some gentle humor.

Mostly this is due to Al Pacino’s vintage performance. Although playing his usual intense, angst-ridden, passionate, and obsessive persona, the performance is sufficiently nuanced to carry us along. Mercifully, Viktor is less abrasive than, say, Pacino’s Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade in the 1992 film Scent of a Woman. The movie Simone never takes itself too seriously, so we are willing to overlook the many levels at which the movie fails to track.

The most important of these for me is an unrealistic notion of how technology is introduced to the world. Simone becomes a world star, yet has the obvious and bizarre requirement of never appearing in public or with another person.

Despite this, no one ever suspects that Simone is a synthespian (this term, meaning “virtual actor or actress” was coined by Jeff Kleiser and Diana Walczak of Kleiser Walczak, who created the computer models for our Ramona project), despite the fact that the world portrayed in Simone is well aware of synthespians. (Taransky discusses the notion with the crazed inventor Hank Aleno, portrayed by Elias Koteas, who has created Simone’s software.) Presumably the reason that no one questions whether Simone might be a synthespian is because Simone is so utterly convincing as a human.

But this is never how such technology evolves. You can see the state of the art for real-time virtual personality transformation as of two years ago by looking at the Ramona videos I referenced above. Ramona is reasonably photorealistic but she would never get away with what Simone gets away with. For the state of the art in non-real-time synthespian technology, take a look at Sony’s Final Fantasy. These virtual actors are impressive but again not completely convincing.

Over time, these and other forms of virtual reality will become more and more realistic, but only ever so gradually. By the time the “perfection” presumably represented by Simone is feasible, the public will be very familiar with the idea of a virtual actress. Technologies such as these never burst on the scene fully formed with no imperfections as is displayed in this film.

We see this problem in lots of science-futurism movies. In “A.I.,” for example, one enterprising head of a corporate research and development department just comes up with the novel idea of adding “emotion” to their line of androids, and their generation 1.0 product is essentially perfect. The reality is that we’re already experimenting in a primitive way with emotional intelligence in our machines, and the mastery of machine “EQ” will evolve only very gradually.

Virtual VR

Simone is in fact only a virtual virtual personality (or “fake fake,” as director Andrew Niccol puts it). The movie credits fail to credit Rachel Roberts, saying that Simone is played by “herself.” New Line Cinema (a division of Warner Brothers) may think this is all in good fun, but I do know that many people are honestly confused by the supposed technology behind Simone. The truth is that there is no technology behind Simone. This is a movie about a synthespian but no synthespian technology was used to make the movie. In the movie, Elaine chides Viktor that he has not budgeted anything for Simone’s wardrobe, hairdressing, or makeup (“she does her own” is Viktor’s response).

In the same spirit, I would chide Simone’s producers for apparently providing little budget for computer graphics. Anyone expecting a state-of-the-art demonstration will be disappointed. All we have is the very real Rachel Roberts with a bit of pixelation during a TV remote, some defocusing of her mouth, a few alterations to her eyes to give them an ethereal look, alterations to her voice, including splicing together the voices of multiple actresses, and a few other simple techniques.

We see a few tricks with Viktor applying such accoutrements as hair and tears, but these represent fairly elementary graphics manipulations. With regard to the ensuing controversy about leaving out Rachel Roberts’ credit, one suspects that New Line Cinema welcomes the controversy, as any publicity is good publicity.

There are many other issues with the technical premise here. From my own experience, it took a team of 20 people to pull off our live presentation of Ramona, yet Viktor manages to pull off a live holographic presentation of Simone before 100,000 fans and a worldwide audience with absolutely no staff at all. However, in the comedic spirit of the film, we’re willing to abandon all disbelief.

Andrew Niccol’s screenplay does present some provocative questions for us to ponder. In the course of Viktor’s dialogues with his female alter ego, he provides Simone with such pithy insights as “you’re more authentic than the people who worship you,” “the scales have tipped in favor of the fake,” and “our ability to manufacture fraud exceeds our ability to detect it.” He has Simone say “I am the death of the real.” The movie does not dwell on these concerns, however, and I agree with Ty Burr, whose review in the Boston Globe describes these thoughts as mere “bullets on a PowerPoint presentation.”

Viktor struggles with his guilt over his supposed fraud, but consoles himself that the only true art is the work itself. There is some subtle allusion here to other famous personalities in the entertainment world that may seem manufactured and unreal, even if there is little technology involved.

Overall, the movie seems to understand its own limitations and thus does not overplay its hand. I found it enjoyable to watch, and appreciated the inevitably imperfect manner that it introduces some of the important concepts of emerging virtual reality technology to a broad movie audience.