By Eduardo Rodriguez

Sherlock the AI robot is back. The bot ‘intextigator’ designed by the Toronto Police Service to help solve selected cases is working on a ‘crime’ that has not yet happened in The InTEXTigator 2: A Study in Samples.

The movie poster for The InTEXTigator 2: A Study in Samples designed by Haojun Gong.

A sequel to The InTEXTigator, writer-director John Babu’s short film is available on YouTube and has brought back its unique, experimental narrative style told mainly through texts on a phone screen. Following the footsteps of its predecessor, many features from the first film are on full display including: an expository story; usage of the limited canvases available; instrumental music; and a subtext of the pros and cons of utilizing such technology, thus raising some interesting questions.

With some lockdown protocols still in place, the film was made largely from within the cast and crews’ houses, collaborating through modern technology. “Although we followed a similar template as the first film, it was harder to make than the previous one as people had higher expectations. I luckily had a great producer, Kasra Rad, on my side who encouraged me and gave me the courage to continue with my vision,” Babu explains.

Within a short period, the first film had gone on to be featured on The Feed, a live SiriusXM radio show, with Amber Mac and Michael B. Babu talked about future potential for AI technology, the focus of his film, while the podcast later went on to discuss whether the latest smartphone—both the medium and main character in Babu’s film—is worth it, with Michael Josh from GadgetMatch. 

“We did show that it can now recognize more words and is constantly improving with each iteration.”

Since Artificial Intelligence is a growing field with myriads of applications and possibilities, The InTEXTigator 2 explores one such avenue: identifying potential victims from a wealth of previously collected data. The Murder Accountability Project in the United States is doing precisely this, and was thanked for in the film as a source of its inspiration.

The film was also recently screened at the FOCUS Media Arts Centre, where Babu also spoke with media students over Zoom about producing online media journalism projects in hopes of inspiring them. 

However, as with all films, The InTEXTigator had its critics as well. In a review by the UK Film Review, Alice McGowan writes that although the film “uses its chosen stage well, revealing how emotional frictions are changed by the media they’re enacted through,” the film’s interesting details do not quite “make up for its lack of a flesh and blood performance.” 

Regarding the second film, Babu states that a growth in Sherlock’s “character” didn’t happen in a conventional sense. “However, we did show that it can now recognize more words and is constantly improving with each iteration.” 

“With something like Sherlock, you expect it to grow quicker than a human too, as machine learning can happen rapidly in many ways without any additional programming” adds Nithin Polpakkara, a system analyst who worked as the technology consultant for the film .

Along with the AI robot, the movie featured actress Shanna Lea who played Olivia Scanie. “During the pandemic, it was awesome to get back to an acting project. I enjoyed how it all came together. Technology is great when it works and this was brilliantly done,” says Lea.

Since Lea was at the other end of the globe, she had to film herself and share it with the director virtually. One such shot had her cat, Tabari, accidentally walk into the frame — a scene Babu decided to keep in the film as well as incorporate a cat’s shriek to the audio in post-production to intensify the panic and chaos of the scene. 

Alongside Sherlock and Lea was actor Michael Marshall (playing Edward Wayne) who had worked with Babu in a previous film, A Candle in the Dark, but the experience was still new to him. “The way we shot was very different from when we last collaborated. One thing that hasn’t changed though is Babu’s passion for his films. As an actor, I feed off the director’s energy to inspire my roles,” Marshall says.

Filmed with no budget, the team also had to find creative solutions to the challenges that arose. Kristian Mitsku and Alana McLeod contributed to the film as cinematographers and makeup artists; thus, they used leftover items from their kitchen to design and film scenes.

“We had loads of fun filming a bloody scene but when you see where it fits into the whole film, there is a mood shift,” Mitsku comments.

Alana McLeod is all set to film the scene. Photo credits: Kristian Mitsku.

Kevin Juarez uses Shepard tones in the sound design “to create an illusion of rising tension that never recedes, to match the story because it’s all about pursuit, one that is frightening because the AI can see almost everything.”

Jordan Koziej’s musical score improved on a lot of cues from the first film to “show continuity, with some growth, while making some tracks for the new characters as well.”

Mario David’s editing controlled what piece of information to reveal and when. The intention was to “heighten the impact of the narrative since there were two text conversations happening simultaneously in the film.”

Due to this experimental formatting, however, some viewers may find it difficult to engage with the film emotionally. At times, the narrative may also seem to be obsessed with its method of presentation, rather than focusing on the whole—factors that could take you out of the film, as echoed by McGowan.

The team of The InTEXTigator 2: Writer/Director John Babu, Producer Kasra Rad, Actors Shanna Lea & Michael Marshall, Editor Mario David, Composer Jordan Koziej and Cinematographers Kristian Mitsku & Alana McLeod. The crew did not meet during the making of the film.

Although the film talks about a futuristic possibility, it contains current dimensions as well. The film begins with showing its support to Missing and Murdered Indigenous women (MMIW), a social cause to increase awareness about the violence experienced by indigenous women.

Babu says: “Although I did not plan on making a film about it, when I was doing my research on victims of serial killings, I noticed that indigenous women were overrepresented even though they are a minority. I decided that it would be fitting if I can use this platform to do a small part in raising awareness about the cause. Even if a single person learns about the issue through this film, I would be all the more delighted”.

Babu was candid about the series’ future detailing three more films are to be produced. What would Sherlock do next? Will it raise eyebrows or excite people about where we are heading with technology in The InTEXTigator 3?

Copyright© 2020 by Eduardo Rodriguez

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