Interactive movies could reduce the threat to the film sector from the huge computer gaming sector

A documentary on musician Brian Eno showcases the possibilities of generative technology, making each viewing unique and challenging the ability to critique the film

Netflix had to create its own bespoke software for Bandersnatch.

Thomas Edison established the world’s first commercial research laboratory in 1876, in Menlo Park in New Jersey.

Its mission was continuous technology and improvement. In addition to work on telegraphy and electric power, Edison and Menlo Park are credited for the first practical incandescent light bulb and for inventing the phonograph, able for the first time to both record and play back music.

William Kennedy Dickson, a Menlo Park researcher, created a viable motion picture camera, a device Edison envisaged could “do for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear”.

The phonograph, and the subsequent recording disc invented by Emile Berliner in 1887, changed the nature of music. Before recordings, music was transient and every performance unique. A Benedictine monk, Guido d’Arrezo, invented the first western music notation system in 1025 but nevertheless, as concert aficionados know only too well, renditions of the same music score can considerably vary. Record players opened a mass market for music, each recorded performance identically heard by all.


Berliner founded the Berliner Gramophone Company, and soon it and many other recording companies aggregated together on to records, musical pieces that were judged complementary and appealing to consumers. Digital technology reversed this bundling strategy and so today we can each customise a progression of tracks that match our musical tastes and moods.

Brian Eno, one of the cofounders of glam rock band Roxy Music in 1971, has pioneered an evolution back to transient music, in which every performance is unique.

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While experimenting in 1995, he introduced the term “generative music” as a genre in which performances are modulated by random variations and flexible composition rules. Simple wind chimes and bird song are examples of non-deterministic natural music.

Eno has typically composed by prescribing patterns and relationships among a collection of instrumental sounds, and then allowing the “system” – a computer – to synthesise myriad results within the guiding boundaries and rules.

As the phonograph and records spawned the new industry in recorded music, so the motion picture camera resulted in the new movie industry. However, like recorded music, the cinema presents repeatable and identical performances.

Indeed, film critics and movie award ceremonies depend on each showing of a film being identical. What might happen to the film industry if this stricture were to be broken and so a film would never be the same no matter how many times you watched it?

Netflix has experimented with interactive films. One of its most well-known is Bandersnatch from 2018, a part of its Black Mirror series of science fiction and dystopian instalments.

The episode follows a young gaming software developer, Stefan Butler. It explores the boundaries between free will and reality, blurring the divisions between the game and Butler’s life. Every viewer is given numerous options as the film unfolds, leading to different story progressions.

There are reputedly more than 250 different segments within the film portfolio, which lead to many millions of potential progressions. Netflix has followed with films such as You vs. Wild, which allows the viewer to interactively guide the adventurer Bear Grylls through a number of challenges, and the romantic comedy Choose Love, whose main character Cami can be influenced by the viewer as she struggles with the loves and potential partners of her life.

Interactive films transform passive consumption into active exploration. They may reduce the threat to the film industry from the constant engagement and interaction of the now huge computer gaming sector.

Generative technology is commonplace in the development of computer gaming. Scenery and objects are derived with subtle variations built from core defining principles. Non-player characters populate a scene and adapt to the human player’s behaviour and decisions. Storylines evolve out of a set of rules authored by the game creator, are frequently “open-ended” and consequently can be explored without limit.

Authorship, composition and artistic creativity are evolving to imagine and then describe elastic rules under which a new piece of art can be born, leaving the “system” to fill in the details in accordance with those rules. Eno’s generative music and computer gaming development are examples, but the traditional visual arts are also impacted.

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For example, last year David Lester Mooney’s AI-directed Throwback Selfies #Magdalene caused controversy at the RHA Annual Exhibition.

Film director Gary Hustwit and generative art specialist Brendan Dawes have recently released a documentary, Eno, about Brian Eno’s life.

Echoing Eno’s music, the documentary is different each time it is seen. Each viewing is unique, challenging the ability to evaluate and critique the film. The film is constructed from a set of generative rules, and a large portfolio of film clips.

Hustwit suggests that other artists with a large archive of film segments, such as Taylor Swift, might be intrigued by a new documentary form that is ever-shifting and constantly changing. He asserts: “If Christopher Nolan said my next film will never be the same twice, the industry would change. Everybody would flip out and it would break all kinds of boundaries. Eno is just an opening statement for what we’re trying to do.”