Jae Shim is an independent filmmaker whose interests and tastes gravitate towards the irreverent, profound and romantic. Jae’s creative approach mirrors that of Werner Herzog’s “ecstatic truth,” where the line between documentary and fiction is blurred, imploring the auteur to go beyond mere observation to arrive at a greater reality. He was selected as a finalist for the Warner Bros. Emerging Film Directors Workshop for his short story “Happy Death Co.,” which centered around fake funerals in South Korea. Jae eventually stumbled upon the groundbreaking work of David Cope who famously experimented with artificial intelligence and music. Nothing short of a dream project, he embarked on a five year journey with the algorithmic composer to make a film about the creative process itself. Opus Cope: An Algorithmic Opera, which now available to stream, imagines David’s world as a “documentary” and marks Jae’s feature film debut. For more, visit jaeshim.com.
“Time is the most important part for creativity, and yet we know nothing about it.” – David Cope
In the canon of Western classical music, some would say time began with J.S. Bach. And the very same people might accuse D.H. Cope of ending time.
My own timeline took an unexpected turn when I caught an alternate version of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata on a Radiolab episode called “Musical DNA.”
It told the true story of a sorcerous composer who invented a digital apprentice named EMI, Experiments in Musical Intelligence, that could compose classical music and fool seasoned musicologists around the world, and it captured my imagination.
Can time go backwards?
My first encounter with David was in 2016, the podcast originally aired in 2010, and EMI’s career started taking off in the late ’80s.
Fast forward now to 2023 and, in a bizarre role reversal, strangers are contacting me about David.
There may exist an alternate timeline where he could have declined to participate or backed out during the middle of filming, a nightmare scenario for documentary filmmakers.
Opus Cope was a dream project, in many ways, thanks in part to the fertile grounds surrounding it.
It forced me to confront and embrace my own subjective creativity, in an attempt to portray an objective definition of creativity, from someone who’s dedicated their entire life to creativity.
My time with the wizard of Santa Cruz eventually took on a sacred quality, as if I had stumbled upon a cave of primordial creativity, and it was on me to leave with a historical record.
In the end, David proved not to be some diabolical villain, hell-bent on killing God, or Bach, but an extraordinary human being who empowered others to dream the impossible.
It’s no coincidence that he was highly respected and loved during his lengthy tenure at the University of California Santa Cruz.
David proclaims that without time, creativity cannot exist.
Without David Cope, my creativity would not be the same.
“Could machines be alive? … To get to the reproductive part is going to be rather tough. We can certainly make computers metabolic.” – David Cope
For someone who has spent a great deal of time composing with algorithms, or a set of rules to follow, David is a playful and irreverent rule-breaker reminiscent of the late French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard.
Taking a cue from my chaotic role models, I decided to throw whatever rules I knew about documentaries and films out the window and pick up the pieces that I felt could depict a greater commentary on creativity.
One of the inspirations for Opus Cope came from Disney’s 1940 animated film Fantasia, which uprooted the concept of a purely visually driven film. The movie wasn’t playing the music, the music was playing the movie.
AI-composed or not, it was clear that David’s music could similarly evoke rich inner worlds, transporting us from the confines of his home office, a marvel to behold with 200 wind chimes hanging from the ceiling, to vast physical landscapes as grand as David’s ideas.
Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, about the profound discovery of prehistoric cave paintings dated 30,000 years ago, was another input in my cranial database.
Others have interestingly pointed out parallel moments from Opus Cope and Godfrey Reggio’s hybrid music documentary Koyaanisqatsi, a film I had never seen before.
How much of our cinema ancestors must we channel in order to produce our own creative offspring?
Going beyond cinema, is it necessary for an artist to be well-read or traveled?
A master of the surreal, Federico Fellini supposedly never left Italy but his films are some of the wildest and most imaginative to ever grace the screen.
It is possible that one could know everything and make absolutely nothing.
Conversely, a truly creative mind will have no problem making something great out of nothing.
Imagination is the invisible dark matter unique to the human experience, the ability to dream even when we’re awake, and anyone can have one.
“Intelligence and creativity are their own worst enemies.” – David Cope
As much as I’d like to, I can’t in good faith call cinema a pure art, given the amount of “intelligent” decisions and processes needed to even arrive at something, well, intelligible.
Creativity is not something you can think your way through.
Dancing, painting, singing, playing an instrument – these are closer to spontaneous expressions of the imagination.
The films we find emotionally and intellectually stimulating are a result of Herculean efforts in planning, collaboration and execution with other people.
And at its best, a film can seem as though none of it was thought out at all.
Ironically, for an industry that has been around longer than sliced bread, it is unable to 100% predict “successful” films.
There is some comfort in knowing that cinema as a form is still creative enough on the spectrum, that it is not pure business, to resist the crystal ball.
For those few that find commercial success outside of established IPs, there is an argument to be made that it is precisely creativity – rather than excellence in craft and technical innovation – that translates to ticket sales or digital streams. Everything Everywhere All at Once is a perfect example of this.
When AI goes to Hollywood and learns how to make formulaic and predictable movies, what would be left for human creativity?
Like Cope and Godard, it may take some throwing of the rules out the window on our part to push cinema past its current boundaries, moving the needle closer towards pure creativity than something that is pure business.
In a way, the generation that grew up with smartphones and social media have already been doing this on their own, unapologetic about their creative authenticity and unimpressed with rigid traditions.
An AI can be trained to imitate other humans better and faster than we ever can, so it might just pay to be yourself going forward.
This is promising for human creativity but not so much for human employment, especially technical work that is highly repetitive and predictable.
Not only are we forced to re-examine the nature and value of art but the nature and value of work as we know it, and humanity itself, with AI exposing us for who we really are.
What will human work look like going forward?
I don’t pretend to have the answers, but it could mean cooperating with your own AI apprentice, exercising more creativity at work, or phasing out mindless and repetitive tasks.
If any of the past technological revolutions threatening societal collapse are any indicator, we will be forced to level up and come out stronger and better than the previous version of ourselves.
Featured image shows David Cope in Opus Cope; all images courtesy Jae Shim.