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Saturday, Jun 15, 2024

Startup Seeks CGI Wonder

A teenaged Nikola Todorovic would have made an Isaac Asimov-inspired movie about robots, while Tye Sheridan would have wanted to make a film about aliens.

At least, that’s what they would have done if their West Hollywood-based startup, Wonder Dynamics, had existed when they were kids growing up in their small towns.

The enterprise last week unveiled the beta version of project Wonder Studio, which hopes to revolutionize special effects and elevate more people into the industry through its simple cloud-based software interface.

The two — Todorovic a filmmaker and Sheridan an actor — banded together after meeting during the production of the 2015 film “Last Days in the Desert.”

Todorovic

“When we met, we just hit it off,” said Sheridan. “We kind of became buds just through our mutual love of storytelling, and that’s never changed.”

The pair initially put their minds together with the hope of finding new ways to make the movies they wanted to — in particular a way that took advantage of the fledgling artificial intelligence software that was being developed.

“We really saw it as the future of filmmaking, and we wanted to learn it,” he said. “We realized this was bigger than us, so we wanted to build something to turn into a tool for people like us.”

A ‘story’ company

Broadly, the goal of Wonder Studio is to remove what is often a large barrier to upstart or casual filmmakers: expensive and labor-intensive computer-generated imagery, or CGI.

To start, contemporary CGI software typically requires hardware integration, such as a motion-capture suit that allows visual effects artists to animate over actors. That work is also typically done frame by frame and can be made more complex depending on scene lighting and other factors.

The Wonder software, on the other hand, needs no hardware — not even a motion-capture suit. It can work with footage shot with any device, including a phone, and the program is able to analyze and automate a large chunk of the frame-by-frame work — all thanks to AI.

What’s left, Todorovic and Sheridan said, is the creative work for the artists involved, who might already be using CGI software such Unreal, Maya, Blender or Nuke. In other words, once an artist generates a 3D character model, all they need to do is use the Wonder Studios program to apply it to a scene.

Sheridan, who played the lead role as Wade Watts in “Ready Player One” and the mutant superhero Cyclops in multiple X-Men movies, hailed the technology as enabling filmmakers to concentrate more on the substance of their projects.

“We say we’re a story company before we’re a technology company,” he said. “We’re only building technology that we would use ourselves as a means to tell bigger and better stories.”

Likewise, Todorovic emphasized that their program is using AI as a tool, not a creator.

“These tools are a means to an end. It all comes down to how good of a storyteller you are,” he said. “There’s no way to replace that touch and human connection. How do you get to the actual storytelling more quickly? That’s what these tools are for.”

Repurposing AI technology

Todorovic and Sheridan formed Wonder Dynamics in 2017 and began work on Wonder Studio around three-and-a-half years ago, just before the Covid-19 pandemic.

Early on, the bulk of the work was research, namely into robotics and autonomous vehicles. There emerged the common thread of those technologies relying on image perception, which had obvious applications to filmmaking.

“We spent six or eight months, just the two of us looking at research papers, before we decided to dive off the deep end,” Sheridan said. “It (AI) has the ability to migrate across industries, and I think that’s one reason we’ve seen AI exponentially become very, very hot in the last six months.”

And unlike those AI-generated art programs that have become an internet craze, this software is not trained using existing illustrations and images — a practice that has raised ethical questions about appropriating artists’ work.

“We need to be conscious of the way we’re using AI in the industry and cognizant of how it’s affecting artists,” Sheridan said.

Democratizing media

In the immediate future, Wonder Studios will be made available in a free closed beta to select artists who apply, with a handful of already-created characters that are also free to use. Once it enters open beta, there will be a subscription model to use Wonder Studios’ more advanced features and options, though there will be a free enterprise tier for amateur users.

Todorovic and Sheridan also plan to preview the technology during their panel at the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas, on Tuesday.

The startup’s advisory board includes some significant names — Steven Spielberg, who worked with Sheridan in “Ready Player One”; Joe Russo, who directed four Marvel Cinematic Universe movies with his brother, Anthony; and Antonio Torralba, professor and head of AI at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s electrical engineering and computer science department.

It has raised $11.5 million so far, with $2.5 million in seed funding and $9 million from series A funding from investors like Horizons Ventures, Founders Fund, MaC Venture Capital and Samsung NEXT. Additionally, the company is making revenue from white glove service to studios and production houses using the program in-house, according to Sheridan.

AUSTIN, TX - MARCH 11: (EDITORS NOTE: Image has been edited using digital filters) Tye Sheridan poses for a portrait at the "Ready Player One" Premiere 2018 SXSW Conference and Festivals at Paramount Theatre on March 11, 2018 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Contour by Getty Images for SXSW)
Sheridan

The software is already slated for the big screen. The Russo Brothers are utilizing Wonder Studios for their in-production movie “Electric State” starring Millie Bobby Brown and Chris Pratt, and though Todorovic and Sheridan anticipate individual professionals will be the largest client base, they hope it will take off with aspiring filmmakers as well.

“It’s been fantastic working with the team at Wonder Dynamics on ‘Electric State.’ It’s highly engaging and incredibly efficient to use state-of-the-art AI on a movie about advanced technology,” Joe Russo said in a statement. And in a similar way to how social media has paved the way for more creators to share their work with a global audience, that next generation of filmmakers could reflect more cultural diversity and more walks of life.

“My experience growing up in a small town in East Texas was there weren’t many people like me, people who wanted to go into the film industry,” Sheridan said. “You kind of felt alone a bit with your more creative aspirations. One of the reasons we built this is so kids like us could have the tools that we didn’t have.

“Hollywood, it’s very closed off and hard to get in. It’s sometimes really hard to bridge the gap between those voices throughout the world and the industry,” he later added. “I think this helps to democratize these media and allows for these peoples’ voices to be heard all over the world. How many more voices are going to be discovered who wouldn’t otherwise? That’s really exciting to think about.”

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