Artists Debate the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence in Emotionally-Charged Annecy Roundtable: ‘Don’t You Think Humans Want Human Art?’

While AI has been one of the most discussed topics in Annecy this year, from pre-festival controversy to crowds literally booing shorts built with generative AI tools during screenings, “puzzled and uncomfortable” seems to be the best way to define both audience and panelists in today’s AI discussion held at MIFA, Annecy’s industry component.

In an event that was “artist-driven, unlike most of other AI conferences in the industry,” according to moderator Flavio Perez, CTO of animation studio Les Fées Spéciales, the crowd went from skeptical to dumbfounded as the panelists unrolled their own lack of answers to what has been described many times now as the most significant contemporary threat to the creative industries.

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But, while they lacked straight answers, directors such as Boris Labbé, director of the AI-generated short film “Glass House,” featured in Anneyc’s Off-limits competition; Verena Repar, director of AI-enhanced student film “Echoes of Grief,” in the Graduation Films competition; and Jean-Jacques Lonni, producer and director at Sacrebleu Productions, were all on the same page regarding the risks and difficulties inherent with the use of AI tools.

“If you’re only using AI to work faster and cut costs, then you’re not using it right,” stated Lonni.

For Repar, it took even more time to master AI than other traditional tools, as she used it to “filter the stylization of my own work, going from Unreal Engine 6 to the final film through Stable Diffusion sequence by sequence. “For me, the software’s signature oscillation was a way to bring the dream-like atmosphere of my film to life, something I couldn’t achieve otherwise. But I don’t think it’s possible to generate a full 20-minute coherent narrative,” she explained.

Working with AI was a confounding experiment for Labbé, whose short is only the first part of a 40-minute nine-part homage to Eisenstein’s uncompleted project Glass House.

“As an artist, we have to try to think with the tools we are handed and the times we live in,” he explained. “Some parts of my project were made with AI, some weren’t. What’s puzzling is that, in the end, I wasn’t sure if the pictures I was making were my own. There’s a difference between knowing the process and the work itself. It’s almost like going to the forest to pick up leaves. You have to choose which parts you take and which parts you don’t.”

According to Creative Seeds’ co-founder Camille Campion, the main issue with AI-generated material is, “You have little to no way of knowing if the art is genuinely new or just a copy of someone else’s work, which is why legal solutions, such as the recent EU Act on AI, are so relevant today for the industry. In our school, our job is to give our students the best skill set in order to find jobs. Two years ago, we were laughing at weird AI-generated, twelve-fingered characters. Today, it’s a whole different story.”

He says that AI is becoming a daily discussion on campus. “That’s one of the reasons we launched the Creative Machines Jam earlier this April in our school. The main objective is to see if we really can do something with these tools beyond what the marketing tells us. To know what we are talking about and to defend ourselves against it, we have to test it and discuss it.”

Will AI eventually become friend or foe to animators? Campion says he’s “personally not against or for AI. I think that there will be some people who will use it in a good way and people who won’t.”

Temple Caché, the studio behind the music video for “Étoile Filante,” which received a poor reception during Annecy’s opening, is doubtful about using AI daily in its creations. During their R&D process with Stable Diffusion, they encountered many obstacles, such as cultural bias, gender inequality, and shady-inspired visuals in the rendered images that they had to sort through before achieving a coherent and unique creation.

“It adds up to which data sets are used by those companies”, a team representative told Variety. “And right now, most AI software is trained partially on copyrighted material. During this production, we strove every single day to use AI conscientiously and work around those biases with our own creative skills, and we built our own process during this six-month journey. At Temple Caché, we believe in using conventional tools that have proven useful to us in the past while continuing to explore new software. We think that creating links between craftsmanship and emerging technologies allows us to enrich creativity for a better understanding of the world around us.”

In a Women in Animation discussion earlier this week dedicated to the creative impact of AI, Julie Ann Crommett, founder and CEO of U.S.-based Collective Moxie, stated that she “always likes to compare AI to the internet; it brings us the good, it brings us the bad of humanity. And we have an active decision to make in what we’re going to do with it.”

But where some key media and entertainment decision-makers seem to have made up their minds, such as Passion Games Executive Producer Karen Troop, who believes “in human-assist and human-augment AI, allowing more people – and on that topic, women – to enter the industry,” many French and European artists seem to struggle with whether they should trust those tools or not.

While the Annecy Festival chose to “react with discernment,” as Artistic Director Marcel Jean wrote in his official statement about featuring AI-assisted titles at this year’s festival, many individuals in Annecy don’t feel the same way.

“We live in a capitalist society,” said Repar, “a society that strives to produce more, faster. The biggest threat is that in the future, you may not need artists to produce something that is inherently human.”

“But don’t you think humans want human art?” asked a hesitant Boris Labbé.

“Will humans be able to tell the difference?” felt like the most significant looming, unspoken question during the Annecy panel and at the festival at large. And to that question, none in the room seemed to have an answer.

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