From 2001: A Space Odyssey to The Matrix, from Ghost in the Shell to Paprika (and its American counterpart, Inception), all the way to the German miniseries World on a Wire, the interaction between humans and artificial intelligences has been an inspiration for artists and filmmakers for decades. Artist Ian Cheng, whose work is rooted in live simulations, has been pondering this relationship in his practice since 2012.
His latest endeavor is a series of animated films called Life After BOB, whose first episode, “The Chalice Study,” is on view at The Shed in NYC through December. The 48-minute piece is set in a near-future world where the internet extends into our bodies, with AI entities cohabiting human minds and psychotropic foods unifying physical and psychic realities. A neural engineer named Dr. Wong has installed an experimental AI named BOB (Bag of Beliefs)—something Cheng actually created in 2018—in the nervous system of his daughter, Chalice. BOB was intended to act as a guide to young Chalice, but as she grows, the entity takes over more and more of her life. Intersecting with BOB’s modus operandi is a demo called “1000 Lives,” designed by someone aptly named Z (for Zoroaster), which is meant to show different life paths. “The Chalice Study” focuses on Chalice’s and her father’s actions and the consequences of his conflation of his work and his love for his daughter.
Unlike Cheng’s previous work, which had a markedly choral dimension, Life After BOB features characters with a strong sense of individuality. “I did a little bit of that with the Emissaries trilogy, but that was more like a backstory just for me to understand what I was making,” he says. “It was maybe a little bit illegible to the viewer, and certainly the stories weren’t foregrounded; they were more like scaffolding for the building. This is the first time we’re just full-on trying to tell a story with characters.”
To create the Life After BOB universe, Cheng relied on a video-game engine called Unity, which is used mainly by indie developers and video artists. “I’ve used Unity to make simulations for almost 10 years, and more and more, I started seeing the potential of real-time cinema happening in it,” he says. He also found a thriving community of artists creating indie anime-like productions in Unity; #indie_anime and #realtimevfx on Twitter are two of the ways to find them.
“There’s something that can be quite beautiful in the process of making something in Unity because once we make a simulation, I can make changes up until the very last minute, all the time, and those changes don’t have to go through a whole chain of people. I can make them,” he continues. “Days before the Shed opening I was changing sets, I was changing details on the characters, I was changing shots, changing lighting. In traditional animation, man, you can’t do that unless you’re willing to pay millions to reshoot, and you just can’t do it quickly.” Life After Bob plays live in the game engine, which means that what you’re seeing is the program running right there in front of you. And thanks to a Wiki, users can make little changes over time that will affect some of the details in the background and some of the artifacts that the characters encounter.
Style-wise, the closest comparison that comes to mind is the 2017 Nintendo game Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, whose sprawling 3D environments are offset by cel-shading—that is, the use of flat shades as opposed to gradients, which provides more of a comic-book feel. “One thing I was fighting just from the get-go was a very reactive thing,” says Cheng, the idea that “everything that comes out of the Unity video game engine looks like Unity. I said, ‘No, we have to seduce the viewer to not think of a video game engine. I want this to be more cinematic,’” To give his 3D environments a more two-dimensional feel, Cheng and his team took some lessons from the 2018 animated movie Spiderverse, in which characters were animated on twos and threes, rather than on one (these numbers refer to how long a single image holds on camera in relation to frames per second). “Things were less smooth but simulated the choppier style of hand-drawn animations,” Cheng explains. “When animations were done by hand, you had to draw fewer frames because it was so labor intensive, but it had this beautiful, crunchy quality.”
One might notice that Life After BOB’s backdrops are more detailed than the stylized characters. That’s because Cheng took to heart some lessons found in the book Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. “He talks about how especially in manga and anime, they have this very beautiful principle for what is you and what is the world, and when something is the world, it’s inherently more detailed. The trees and the shrubbery are much more detailed, and the characters are almost like printed on top and it feels much more simple and cartoony,” notes Cheng. “But you identify with the character because it feels more iconic . . . and then you observe the world as the world because it feels more fractal and detailed. We really played with this principle to make the background more detailed and the characters a little more simple, and then when the objects transfer from the world into your subjective domain, they simplify themselves a little bit.”
George Lucas is a long-standing source of inspiration. “You can see in every frame that he really loves the world,” Cheng says, referring to the world-building that undergirds the director’s Star Wars saga. “He loves the culture, the ecology, the creatures.” When it comes to characters, Cheng looks up to Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki. “Miyazaki is thinking much more in terms of how people are themselves an extension of an evolving ecology,” he adds, “so if you back a person into a corner, put a lot of social and environmental pressure on them, they might turn a little evil, and then if you release or give them a little opportunity, they might become more optimistic and good.”
Yet the biggest pop-cultural influence on Life After BOB is Showtime’s Couples Therapy. “It’s just so interesting to see how, with very different kinds of couples, the host [Dr. Orna Guralnik] brings out essentially their life script, which is something I’ve been very interested in,” Cheng says. “Right in front of your eyes, as couples come in with very different problems, she immediately figures out what their life script is,” he continues. “Carl Jung says a very beautiful thing: Everyone plays out a myth. But more often than not, the person doesn’t know what their myth is and you’d better figure out what that myth is because it could be a tragedy, and you might want to change it,” he said. “Maybe the lesson of psychotherapy is to really get your story straight and really know your story”
The story of the Life After BOB universe is still being written. “I want to make more episodes that take place in the same world with those characters, but perhaps each episode centers on a different character,” says Cheng. “Maybe the next episode will be, like, on Z or Dr. Wong or any of the other characters, as a way to maybe explore other near-future issues that I’m interested in: What’s the future of aging? What’s the future of stupidity? What’s the future of hive minds? What’s the future of psychedelics?”