The Future Is Now: Sami Arp Of Largo AI On How Their Technological Innovation Will Shake Up The Tech Scene
An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis
Don’t over-trust or under-trust plans and things. Being agile with plans and people in a fast-growing company is very important for success.
As a part of our series about cutting edge technological breakthroughs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sami Arp.
Sami is the Founder and CEO of Largo.AI — a Swiss-based company that provides data-assisted intelligence to the film and television industry. Sami has a background in both computer science and the film industry. He received his PhD in Computational Aesthetics from the prestigious Swiss university EPFL and pursued a director’s program while undergoing his master’s degree. He has directed two short films — “Les bruits des pas”, 2014 and “L’evasion”, 2015. Additionally, Sami is also the founder and President of the Ouchy Film Awards, which take place annually in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
My first journey to Los Angeles for having my first meeting in Hollywood in order to present Largo.ai to a very first potential client was a difficult one, one that I wouldn’t forget. I was in a business camp at the Swiss Embassy in San Francisco. I rented a car to drive to Los Angeles from San Francisco, for my meeting the next day in Los Angeles. Not having too much experience in the area, I trusted Google Maps, showing a 6-hour drive time. This made me think to leave in the early afternoon and it would take me to LA in the late evening. Then, after a night in LA, I could go to my meeting the next morning. However, everything that could have, went wrong that day. A drive of only a mile and a half from my starting point at Pier 17 to the Bay Bridge took 7 hours because of an almost complete block of the roads. After spending the day and night in traffic, around midnight, my car broke down and it was a while till it could be repaired. Eventually, I had to drive until the morning and arrived at my meeting in an exhausted, sleepless state. What a way to start off with our very first client. The producer I met at this meeting has since become a loyal client of Largo.AI. But all the interesting and unexpected coincidences that day showed me that selling a product would be much more challenging and have many more unexpected hindrances than developing a product.
Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Professionally I have been a computer scientist having finished my Bachelor’s, Master’s, and PhD degrees. However, during my all studies, I made interdisciplinary research by combining the disciplines of art, cognitive science, and computer science. I took filmmaking classes while studying for my bachelor’s degree, and during my PhD, I started to work on my own films in my free time. This led me to direct and produce two short films and start a film festival in Lausanne, Switzerland. Towards the end of my PhD, I was sure about combining my know-how in computer science and my passion for filmmaking to create a specific market solution when I saw the opportunity. All this led me to create Largo.AI.
Can you tell us about the cutting edge technological breakthroughs that you are working on? How do you think that it will help people?
We create the audiovisual DNA of a story by using text, video or audio with our patented “neural network system.” For example, our system creates a pattern of drama, comedy, thriller or many other cinematographic elements by predicting how such patterns evolve from the start to the end of a film. We represent any content in a narrow space of elements which can help the content producers structure creative process in a more disciplined way. The patterns that we create can be considered like the role of musical notes or sheets for music. Our system does not tell the writers or directors what type of patterns they should create, but it rather shows the patterns of what they created. And, these patterns then act like magnifiers that identify strong and weak points of a story. Apart from that, by using such cinematographic patterns, our system can make casting recommendations for each character, predict the type of audience that might like a story, and forecast the amount of revenue that the movie can make at the box office or the number of streams it might achieve on a streaming platform.
How do you think this might change the world and specifically of film making?
There is already a big change in the movie industry with Netflix and the entry of tech players such as Amazon and Apple. They effectively use the data and AI for disrupting and getting a competitive advantage. However, their data and technology are not available to the industry. This is where Largo comes into the play. We bring similar technologies to the rest of industry in a very affordable way, which allows even the independent producers to make such innovation a part of their development.
Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?
We design our tools with a vision of making those as data-assisted moviemaking tools rather than data-driven moviemaking tools. A drawback for such technologies would be using them as data-driven moviemaking tools, which means giving all the control of creativity to AI. I strongly believe the most fundamental asset of filmmaking is human creativity. That is why we develop all our AI tools to be a magnifier rather than a tool giving commands. Largo.AI becomes a tool to help in the decision-making process but does not replace human creativity or decision making.
Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this breakthrough? Can you tell us that story?
In my own filmmaking process, I was always questioning how we can formulate movies with a set of rhythms like those in music. With that, I’m talking about something more low level that can be used for any type of movie, mainstream or art-house, different than some of industry’s standard patterns such as Hero’s Journey, which brings significant creative limitation. The goal of that was not to create formulas of successful films, but rather a system that could aid or ease the filmmaking process and help to understand previous films and film styles in a defined methodology. During my PhD research, in our initial study, once I saw that we can make AI learn drama, comedy, romance etc. I realized that we could create the cinematographic DNA of any given content, which has been main building blocks of our innovation.
What do you need to lead this technology to widespread adoption?
There is a very fast adoption of the usage of AI and data in the movie industry. For the people, who are still against the usage of such technologies in the industry; there are two reasons. The first one is the fear of losing authority. The second one is the high costs. We can very often see that once the producers overcome their fear and use our tools, they feel more empowered rather than threatened. For the second one, sometimes it is difficult to explain the cost for software solutions to the industry. A person inexperienced with the technology, sees that AI can bring about the results they want in 5 minutes, so they think the cost should be based on this 5-minute execution. But years of work and the investment in the creation, innovation and development of making this breakthrough happen, stays invisible.
What have you been doing to publicize this idea? Have you been using any innovative marketing strategies?
We have collaborations with the major film markets and festivals. They invite us to speak on the topic along with the case studies, which significantly help us to make the industry know about such innovations. Apart from that, we use AI to answer some popular questions in the film industry. For example, we made an AI analysis two years ago on who should be the next James Bond according to AI, which became viral around the world. Our analysis was published everywhere around world in few hundred of articles and TV news. Upcoming, we will be presenting at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival and at AFM in Santa Monica, CA in November 2022.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
The role of my PhD advisor, Prof. Sabine Süsstrunk, is really important for Largo’s success. She has always been a great supporter during my PhD and really helped me with my filmmaking journey. And, at the end of my PhD, once I mentioned my plans to her about merging my experience in filmmaking with computer science in a start-up idea, she has been fully supportive and she brought her strong experience in digital photography and digital humanities to this venture. As a result, she is a co-founder of Largo.AI and one of our board members.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
We call our tool a democratization tool for movie industry. The usage of more data and AI tools is a way to overcome our human biases. For example, our AI tools propose significantly more actors of color as casting propositions compared to the industry average in US. We developed our tools to be ethnicity blind. Apart from that, our tools bring the invisible talents to the forefront for producers. Once it reviews the script, it can match actors for a role pulling from a database of millions of people. That would be very hard to be replicated by a human. While industry is heavily driven by the popularity of talent, it is not necessarily the main metric for a project to be successful, according to our data. In that manner, we believe our tools play a role for advancement in diversity.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why.
- Divide goals into smaller targets. It is very easy to get lost within big targets. And it is very difficult to convince and motivate a team to aim for big targets without valuing the smaller steps achieved on the way.
- Don’t over-trust or under-trust plans and things. Being agile with plans and people in a fast-growing company is very important for success.
- Do not overstress. There will be always a Plan B, or C, that will work out. In our growth story, several times we faced very difficult challenges that made us think that we arrived at a dead-end. However, in all cases, we have found a solution, this made us realize that we were over-stressed.
- Realize your limits. Finding the right talents in today’s market is not easy. Sometimes this leaves a lot of extra things on my shoulders. Having a big load on yourself is not a solution either. Temporary hiring of freelancers has been a good solution that we discovered until we make our perfect hiring.
– It is not possible to make everybody happy. In a start-up/ scale-up, we have many parties to manage. This includes employees, investors and board members that you are responsible for as a CEO. At a certain point, the main responsibility of a CEO becomes “happiness optimization.” After certain scale, I have realized that it is impossible to keep everybody happy at the same level and it became an optimization problem with no solution. It was at that time that we started to define company policies and culture in a more concrete and written manner.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
If I could inspire a movement, it would be one that would be related to “empathy”. Our differences in many cases become our weapons to create many kinds of problems; from wars, racism, mobbing, etc. AI has been used dangerously to match audiovisual content for creating feelings such as anger or hatred as we have seen in some political campaigns. In a similar, but positive fashion, why not use it as a tool to empower empathy in the media? That would perhaps make the world more peaceful.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Imagination is more important than knowledge”, a quote by Einstein, has been my life motto for the past 15 years. I’ve been busy with both art and science since my childhood. The art is fully driven by imagination. And science is very often built over prior knowledge. Unless some genius shows breakthroughs that go opposite to the prior knowledge. In many cases, I find knowledge to be a barrier to thinking outside of the box. For that reason, not to be biased, many times when starting to develop a solution of a completely new thing, I first make “thinking exercises” for my team to help develop how we will arrive at our own solution. And after that, we go and check domain knowledge to complement our ideas and create benchmarks. This brings me and my team in many cases to arrive at creative solutions that could not have been practiced, and that can deliver an edge. We apply this thinking to our product development cycles, in business development and in sales & marketing.
Some very well-known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
The development of a movie takes a long process including steps such as scriptwriting, casting, fundraising, production, post-production, distribution strategy etc. There are many important decisions that are taken during this whole process, mostly by using gut feeling, while new innovative platforms such as Netflix and Amazon are using data-assisted intelligence during their decision-making process. Their approach helped them to disrupt the entertainment industry. However, the technology and data of those platforms are not available to the rest of industry such as producers, distributors, studios, and agencies. This has been the market opportunity for Largo.AI to provide these types of technologies as a third-party provider to the other players. For this goal, we developed Largo.AI as an SaaS platform that filmmakers and distributors can instantly analyze their movies with screenplays or video versions of the movies to get insights on the content, casting, the potential audience, and financial outcome at pre-production, post-production, and distribution stages.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.
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