10 February 2014

Time to write up something that’s been sitting around on various disks for a while.

Many months ago, I saw Plotagon. It’s best explained as Xtranormal by way of The Sims: reasonable resolution, 3D-animated videos based on scripts; a desktop tool to generate them, and a site to host them.

Most interestingly, it’s scripted with what actually looks like movie scripts, and that got me thinking: what would it look like to feed it with procedurally generated scripts? Could you make the machine make videos? All I knew was two things:

  1. I know, for good or ill, how Markov chains work.
  2. All the scripts for Friends are transcribed on the internet.

After all, given Plotagon’s focus on semi-realistic forms, I decided that it was best suited to the great American artform of the 20th century: the sitcom.

The Infinite Friends Machine was born.

The machines does a few simple things. First, it scrapes Friends transcripts. For now, it works for most of Series 1. It then parses those scripts and chops them up into episodes, scenes, and lines attributed to individual characters. It also strips out some directions. Then, using all that, it offers ways to generate new scripts.

Markov Chains, as Leonard has frequently pointed out, are not always the best way of generating text alone, especially when the corpus you’re working from isn’t particularly consistent. He is, of course, right. Still, I enjoy the mental leap readers make in order to make generative prose actually make sense, and for this project, I mainly wanted to get to scripts as fast as I could.

Still, I didn’t want to hamper their relative crudeness, so I tried to skew things in their favour. To that end, the Infinite Friends Machine generates scripts by copying the structure of existing scripts. When it makes a new “episode”:

  1. it finds the scenes that are in the original episode it’s being copied from
  2. for each scene, it finds each line – who says a line at what point in the episode
  3. then, it generates a new line for the speaking character from their own corpus. That is: Joey only ever things derived from Everything Joey Has Ever Said. What this means is that the main cast have quite diverse things they might say, and the bit players pretty much only say the same thing. Gunther is quite boring.

That’s it. A few seconds later, it spits out a nonsensical episodes of friends. Here’s a scene:

Friends script
and this is a full episode.

The machine isn’t online because it’s quite crude and processor-intensive, but you can get at the sourcecode from Github.

Anyhow: machine to generate scripts. Next stage: get them into Plotagon.

This was where my troubles began. For starters, despite having a nice format for scripts, Plotagon really demands you enter them via its UI – you can’t paste a big block of text in, you have to enter it by hand. Painful.

Next: Plotagon only lets scenes have two characters in. I decided to make a single scene – the tag on the end of the episode. But this turned into many scenes in Plotagon, as four people in an apartment was a bit much for it. I had to keep track of who was where, who was talking to whom at any point.

And then I had to deal with the unfortunate truth: Plotagon is horrible. I mean, Xtranormal used its non-realistic avatars and computer-voices to comic extent. By contrast, here we had disappointing voice acting with clunky visuals. Also, I had to add some ‘acting’. This largely consisted of making Chandler say everything whilst doing the (crazy) emote, to really capture that Series 1 Matthew Perry vibe.

A quick sting later, and Infinifriends S1E1 existed:

It is not exactly high art.

Just one scene took long enough, and I think, proved my point to an extent, but probably can’t be improved on for now. I’m not sure if I’ll ever return to the Infinite Friends Machine, but it was an entertaining enough exercise, and the video rendition is probably worth it for the cringe factor alone.

Theme tune. Credits. Tune in next time.

  • "This TV is playing a built-in MPEG of static, instead of just displaying solid blue or solid black like they used to do. I think that's kind of awesome. The map has become the territory." Blimey.
  • "When I started writing this post, I didn’t have a conclusion in mind, but now that I’ve got to the end, the thing I want us to remember next time is just that: all the scales matter. Every part is important. The two days Sarah and Brian spent moving small pieces of vinyl, Ivan’s 4am printing-and-cutting, FOUND’s jumping-up-and-down to see if crowd movement broke their tech, last-minute shopping trips for slightly larger balls, all the things. Worry about it all. Fix everything." Lovely write-up from Holly of the big thing we did in Edinburgh. Also: good about the nature of the huge, and good about the nature of work. Worry about it all. Fix everything.

So: a new season of Dan Harmon’s marvellous Community has begun in the US. It’s a very, very funny sitcom. It’s also a very funny sitcom that frequently plays on the expectation that the audience is deeply versed in pop culture, with entire episodes that pastiche movies and genres. You should watch it.

In S03E01, which aired last week, Abed – the TV geek inside the show – is distraught that his favourite show (Cougar Town) has been moved to mid-season – “never a good sign“. Afraid it’ll be cancelled, his friends try to find him a new favourite show. And, eventually, they stumble upon “a British sci-fi show that’s been on the air since 1962“:

Inspector Spacetime.

This is already a fairly brilliant joke – the phone box! The reboot-pastiching title card! And, you know, I hope it’ll return to haunt the rest of series.

But: then, the internet worked its magic.

The thing that has been entertaining me beyond all measure this week is Inspector Spacetime Confessions.

This is a tumblr account of a popular format: the “Confessions” format, in which fans of TV shows, books, movies, etc, post “secret” confessions about their take on characters, episodes, or arcs (sometimes, secret crushes) as text written across images. Amateur photoshop at its best. It was huge on Livejournal, and it’s ideally suited to Tumblr.

Except: there are, currently, about fifteen seconds of Inspector Spacetime in existence.

This, of course, does not matter when you’re TV literate. What’s happened is: fans are just making it up. They’re back extrapolating an entire chronology based on fifteen seconds of “tone”, and their entire knowledge of the Doctor Who canon.

So, they’re diving into gags about former Inspectors:

They’re torn about Stephen Fry:

The Steve Carrell TV movie wasn’t well received:

And of course, they’re concerned about pocket fruit:

But there are more sophisticated jokes emerging. Like this one:

This presumes, in the form of a “fan confession”, that: the showrunner of Inspector Spacetime is also running another show – Hercule – which appears to be a modern-day Poirot reboot, and of course, because Benedict Cumberbatch is starring in Hercule, he’ll never be the Inspector.

This is sophisticated on a bunch of levels, but its elegance is in the way that entire gag is contained in one sentence and a photograph.

Or how about this:

which presumes Inspector Spacetime lives in that land of fictional TV shows, and thus a fictional actor (Alexander Dane) who starred in Galaxy Quest really ought, one day, to return to SF as the Inspector.

There’s a slowly emerging canon, thanks in part to the Inspector Spacetime forum. A lot of the canon is useful – the DARSIT feels better than the CHRONO box, everyone’s sold on Fee-Line – but it’s sometimes nice to see people buck it, or introduce new ideas (and Inspectors) in the most throwaway of Confessions. All this, from a fifteen-second joke that we don’t know will continue (or if it’ll introduce continuity we don’t know about yet).

And yes, Dan Harmon knows about it.

In the week between the two most recent episodes of Community, this has given me a vast amount of joy; I’ve been rattling the various configurations of Inspectors and Associates in my head, trying to remember my favourite episodes of a sci-fi show that never existed. And then giggling at the ingenuity and brilliance of some of the other confessions appearing – of the whole fictional history they bring to life, of Liam Neeson’s run in the 80s or the creepiness of the Laughing Buddas.

It’s really hard to explain the joy (especially as someone fascinated by the inner workings of serial drama) that this brings me. It’s a funny kind of magic – it’s unofficial, didn’t happen on TV, and just relies of fans’ understandings of not only TV shows, but how telly itself works. The results are just brilliant.

I’m off to write my own confession now. There’s always room for one more.

  • Lovely trailer from BBC America for Law & Order UK. Sadly, it illustrates roughly what the British trying to make American-style procedural drama looks like. Lots of slamming things down. And tea. (Although: they don't know what "knackers" means, clearly.)
    (tags: culture tv bbc )
  • "The iPad is an intensely personal device. In its design intent it is, truly, much more like a "big iPhone" than a "small laptop". The iPad isn't something you pass around. It's not really designed to be a "resource" that many people take advantage of. It's designed to be owned, configured to your taste, invested in and curated." On the assumptions built into devices, and what understanding them requires.
  • "Ships will subscribe to the service through a third party, and receive the latest copy of the book when they dock at port. They tear out each page, and apply the relevant changes to their paper maps with a pencil and transfer paper. They’re paper map diffs, if you like." Awesome. And, as Tom said, it's a beautiful book.
  • "Here at the Cow Clicker ranch, we've learned an important lesson about cow clicking: people don't just want one chance to click a cow every six hours. They want as many opportunities as possible to click a cow every six hours." And then Ian launches the API. And Connect. And everything else. And wins again.