Jan Bot

Will even the video essay maker one day be replaced by a robot or by a piece of software? The EYE Filmmuseum (in Amsterdam, the Netherlands) seems to entertain that possibility. They “hired” a filmmaking bot to mine their archives and generate experimental videos. It is called Jan Bot and was programmed by filmmakers Bram Loogman and Pablo Núñez Palma. The bot takes its cues from trending Google topics and then searches through EYE’s found footage collection for related film clips, which it then turns into a short montage. You can follow it and its creations on Facebook, on Twitter, and on Instagram.


The actual process is of course more intricate. Better have the makers themselves explain it:


To generate a film, Jan Bot makes use of Computer Vision technology to annotate each shot of the collection with a set of tags. Then, it uses Natural Language Processing tools to select relevant footage for the trending news of the day. Finally it generates various intertitles from news snippets related to the topic, using its own custom algorithms.


Jan Bot’s stated aim is to “bring film heritage to the algorithmic age”. Because the word algorithm is so often encountered in reports about cyber (in-)security and digital encrypting, the mere mention of the term may conjure dystopian images. But on Jan Bot’s META.LOG (a series of short reflections about the project and the research behind it) the programmers make an impassioned plea for the term and for its practical uses throughout human history.


Jan Bot churns out a dozen or more videos each day. It produced more than 9000 bite-sized videos in its first 15 months on the job. All of those miniature movies share the same aesthetic: they are free-associational compositions with quick-fire cutting and short intertitles (that betray minimal grammatical skills). The link between the selected footage and the topic at hand is not always very clear. Take this video triggered by the World Cup match between Belgium and Japan: it is an example of how bewildering the results of Jan Bot’s dark and digital arts can get. (How footage of the backside of a naked woman wound up in a montage referencing an all-male soccer match is hard to explain, even with the most advanced of algorithms). A video in response to a news item about Tesla’s electrical cars is visually more on topic, throwing together footage of vintage cars and of rubber tires.


But its often flimsy affiliation of footage and topic does not spoil the fun. In fact, it adds to it and it makes the whole project more, well, human. Because Jan Bot, although a piece of software, seems to share many of the proclivities of modern (online) viewers: a short attention span, a disregard for correct grammar, a mind that leapfrogs from topic to topic as if it were following hyperlinks. Jan Bot’s ADHD editing is often exhilarating, as if a film historian was set loose in a wonderland of recently rediscovered archival footage and cannot contain her or his enthusiasm. Its automatically generated flash frames are the equivalent of subliminal editing: they offer fascinating glimpses into the digital mind behind this mayhem.


Jan Bot will not replace the human video essay maker anytime soon, but that isn’t the point. What it can do is generate excitement: for archival footage, for algorithm-based filmmaking, for the poetry of oddity. Its enthusiasm is infectious. The weird connections it makes are stimulating and engaging. Its method and madness are something to be jealous of, not to fear.