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‘Dali Lives’: Welcome to the surreal world

Bill DeYoung

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Hank Hine, Virtual Dali and their self-portrait. "I’m not sure, when they’re standing there to take the selfie, that people understand that Dali is not alive," the museum director laughs. Photo by Bill DeYoung.

Everyone knows that Cecil B. DeMille directed The Ten Commandments, Hitchcock helmed Psycho, and Steven Spielberg was the man behind the camera for E.T. Now we can add Dr. Hank Hine to the list of prestigious film directors.

His masterpiece? Well, you could call it Hello, Dali.

Hine, the executive director St. Petersburg’s Salvador Dali Museum, flew to San Francisco a year ago to supervise 45 minutes of video segments, featuring an actor “impersonating” the great Spanish painter. The project, which is actually titled Dali Lives, made its public debut this week.

Production was a lot more complicated than pointing a camera and shouting “action.” Although it’s the actor’s body visitors see on the three life-sized, interactive museum kiosk screens, it’s not his face. Nor was existing video of Dali, who died in 1989, clumsily superimposed over said face (what’s colloquially known as a deepfake).

Nathan Shipley, an engineer with the California ad agency Goodby, Silverstein and Partners, had been experimenting with artificial intelligence software. According to Hine, Shipley – whose firm developed the Dreams of Dali virtual reality exhibit in 2015 – suggested creating a re-imagined “living Dali” using the technology.

“It sampled the existing film and video of Dali and created an algorithm that was like Dali,” Hine explains. “So the eyebrows moved in relation to the nose the same way – it constructed a face that was in no frame actually Dali’s.”

More than 6,000 frames were used, and 1,000 hours of machine learning, to create the AI “simulacrum.”

“It replaces the actor’s face and follows his facial movements. The algorithm knows what happens with the eyebrows when Dali widens his eyes, which is different from what happens with the actor’s eyebrows, because they have a different facial structure.”

In the San Francisco studio, the actor – the same height (5’7”) and build as Dali (and his first name happened to be Salvador) – was guided by Hine through 11 separate segments, each lasting one to three minutes, which had been pre-recorded by a voice actor in Barcelona (and yes, the voice does sound uncannily like Dali himself). “I’d say ‘Let’s try that again – don’t raise your hands when you turn,’” Hine recalls. Or ‘Listen closely to the way Dali says this.’”

Just about all of the AI artist’s “words” were at some point spoken by Dali himself.

At the first screen, located just outside the museum entrance, Dali welcomes visitors, talks about the day’s weather (accomplished via a clever AI computer card trick) and, of course, about himself. There is no shortage of archival material in which Dali – not shy when it came to self-promotion – discusses Dali.

On the third floor, outside the main gallery, Dali goes into some detail about his art, how and why he painted what he painted, and what the visitor should expect to see inside.

On each screen, the video segments play in rotation, when a button is pressed, so they don’t repeat ad nauseum.

In the lobby, as visitors are passing through the gift shop toward the exit, video-Dali offers further words of surrealist wisdom, and “takes a selfie” with whomever has pressed the button.

And … Hine and Dali! Photo by Dali Lives.

This is the “money shot,” the cool part, of the new exhibit. He texts the selfie to the visitor’s phone. So far, customers have been lining up for it.

Dali Lives, as well as Dreams of Dali and the museum’s hoped-for expansion (to add an entire wing of digital exhibits), are Hine’s way of “future-proofing” the Dali. The next generation of visitors expects to be both challenged and thrilled by art museums.

“I think (digital enhancements) give people a base of curiosity, which you really need to enjoy a work of art,” Hine says. “And to care about it. I think it adds your curiosity because you’ve got that living enigma in front of you. A person who’s rather interesting.

“It also adds a dimension of reflection on life: To what extent are we mortal? To what extent is art timeless? And the idea that Dali can be resurrected does prompt you to think about his art as eternal. I think it brings your focus back to the longevity of what he made.”

Twenty years ago, the museum might have utilized the best-available technology by placing a stiff, animatronic Dali outside the building.

And in another 20 years, the seamless AI version could be replaced by a hologram.

Whatever it takes; Hine believes the focus will always be on the art itself. All the bells and whistles available won’t turn the Dali Museum into Disney World.

Not that the comparison would trouble him, you understand. “I hope so,” he says, when asked if his museum one day might turn into a Magic Kingdom-type attraction.

He’s quick to qualify. “The best aspects of that – engagement, excitement, inspiration, happiness. All those things that people associate with Disney.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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