The film industry is currently abuzz with the implications of artificial intelligence, with filmmakers predicting the advent of AI-generated movies while actors and writers voice fears that the technology threatens their jobs.

Into the midst of this tumult comes “synth-assisted production” studio Pigeon Shrine, which uses AI tools and other technologies to streamline workflows. This, the company says, allows it “to channel all of our energy towards the creative aspects of production that demand unique expertise.”

“I like to think we're presenting a genuine alternative to major studios,” Pigeon Shrine CEO Tom Paton said in a panel discussion at British horror film festival FrightFest. “I don't like how the major studios run; I don't like how they treat independent filmmakers and actors—and especially I don't like how they treat the effects artists. And I decided to do something about it.”

The company’s novel approach is to effectively turn the film production schedule on its head. Conventional effects-heavy feature films start with pre-visualisation of VFX sequences, then shoot live-action footage, and then finish off the visual effects in post production—leading to VFX artists complaining of being overworked during the “crunch” period as they rush to finish the film in time for its release date.

Pigeon Shrine CEO Tom Paton and creative director Nicole Bartlett on stage at FrightFest. Image: Decrypt

Pigeon Shrine has pioneered a novel workflow using AI tools—the aforementioned process it refers to as "synth-assisted production."

"We use AI to create a different workflow for a visualization period that is then coupled with AI powered virtual production," Paton told Decrypt via email. That, he said, allows the company to create a "post-first" approach to production, with actors coming in towards the end of the process.

Speaking at FrightFest, Paton explained that the process enables the company to “stack” productions, with multiple films being worked on simultaneously. "The VFX work is being done upfront," he said, "which in turn reduces the 'crunch' and means your VFX guys aren't overworked and underpaid."

The process creates a “healthier, fairer and more productive environment for everyone from the creatives, the actors, right the way to the foot assistants,” he claimed.

Pigeon Shrine's novel production pipeline in action. Image: Pigeon Shrine

With screenwriters and actors at loggerheads with studios over the use of AI in productions, and artists up in arms over AI models trained on their work, it’s fair to say that artificial intelligence remains a contentious issue for the film industry.

In what’s likely to prove a controversial move, Pigeon Shrine has embraced generative AI for voice acting, with a "Virtual Tableread" podcast featuring AI-synthesized voices reading scripts.

“It sets the bar for what generative content should sound like,” said Paton, “so if you’re someone who wants to try and take people’s jobs away, now you’re going to get compared to stuff that has a higher standard and you’ll be forced into creating jobs.” Left unsaid is the implication that those newly created jobs will be on the post-production side, rather than acting roles.

Paton went to pains to stress that Pigeon Shrine’s AI film production tools are trained on “stuff that we've got the rights to, on our own content.” He added that, “Just to be clear, they are not generative. I think that’s the big concern that people have got, that we’ve got some sort of magic button that you press. There’s a dedicated team of people that’s 14 strong, working around the clock, and when we do our shoots that expands outwards.”

Pigeon Shrine's podcasts use AI-generated voice performances. Image: Pigeon Shrine

Building on that theme, Paton claimed that Pigeon Shrine is creating jobs in the film industry, rather than threatening them. “Every time we do something that uses AI, we have to sit down and ask ourselves, ‘If somebody loses a job for this, how many jobs are created for them?’” Paton said.

If the headcount of workers on a film has fallen from 100 to 20 because of AI tools, he said, “rather than going, 'Let's just make that one film and get rid of everybody else,' instead, we built a workflow that let us basically vertical farm films.” With multiple films being worked on simultaneously, he claimed, “everybody's got a job still, because they're all working on their own thing.”

Behind the scenes. Image: Pigeon Shrine

“By doing this method, you’ve now got five budgets to play with,” he said. “So a smaller crew, but the same budget that you’d have on one film. Everybody’s being wildly overpaid on purpose, because now you’ve all got jobs, and now you’re all getting a fair share of that budgetary pie.” That, he hopes, will force the industry to shift away from a culture where “we all just accept that we’re going to work 128 hours this week.”

“For 100 years of our industry, we’ve had new technology come along and we try to graft it onto an existing workflow,” said Paton—a process that, he explained, drives production costs up. “I saw a path to go, ‘Well, we could actually change the workflow here,’” he said. “Make films that have that sense of scale, and do it for indie budgets—and basically be able to do those dream projects that I've always wanted to do.”


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