Spartans Adapt “Hills Like White Elephants” Using AI

by | May 20, 2024 | Featured, Research and Innovation

Raha Shojaei’s Film 135 class hard at work on a film adaptation of “Hills Like White Elephants” at SJSU’s University Theatre. Photo by Julia Halprin Jackson.

It’s a Friday in early May and the University Theatre in San José State’s Hugh Gillis Hall is bustling. Raha Shojaei, assistant professor of sound design in the Department of Film and Theatre, consults with two actors who sit on a bench center stage. Students from her Radio, Television, Film (RTVF) 135 film production class are divided into teams, with some assisting the camera crew, others serving as “G&E” (gaffer or chief lighting technician and electrical), a few working with costume design and a number of production assistants at the ready to organize sandwich orders or find the right tool for the right person. 

Shojaei, who adapted Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants” for the class, shares that there’s one important fact that makes this short film unique, if not a little groundbreaking: Shot entirely on a green screen, Shojaei and her class will be experimenting with artificial intelligence (AI) to create the visual background in post-production.

“We’re shooting on this,” she says, pointing to the stage, where green paint on the floor is still drying, with huge green screen-style curtains hanging behind the actors. “Usually in this class, students learn different aspects of filmmaking. We work together from the beginning, from creating the script to talking through how many characters we have and where it is located. What is the best way of telling the story using different cinematic elements? 

“This is my first time teaching the course, so I decided we’re going to use AI to create the location. I had some assignments related to using AI as a tool for filmmaking. The students are excited because this is new and they want to see how it goes.”

Learn by doing

Shojaei has encouraged her students to experiment with various AI platforms, including the art generators Midjourney and Adobe Firefly. Aspiring filmmaker and screenwriter Diandra Chagoya, ’24 RTVF, says that working with AI has introduced some new and unusual challenges — and a fun form of experimentation. 

“Everything is a learning process for us,” she says. When she wanted the platform to generate images of luggage, she had to describe her intended vision very carefully. “We kept trying to be specific, but the more specific we were, the less the image looked like the one we wanted. But we take it in stride because this — filmmaking and telling stories — is what we all want to do.”

Hemingway’s story, which centers on a couple waiting for a train and speaking in metaphor about whether or not to proceed with a pregnancy, offered the right amount of ambiguity for Shojaei and her students to experiment with form and approach.

“I wanted to find a profound story,” Shojaei says. “I try in my adaptation to make the story timeless. Because neither character is ‘bad’ or ‘good,’ the story is applicable with so many experiences — it could be told in any era, any time, any culture.”

Students assist director of photography Jim Orr (in hat) as they prepare to shoot. Video by Jonathan Meyer.

Shojaei’s professional collaborators on the production include Director of Film and Production Barnaby Dallas, ’00 MA Theatre Arts, former Director of Film and Television Production Babak Sarrafan, ’91 RTVF, and visiting Director of Photography Jim Orr.

“This is the first time we’re working with AI — we’re building the plane as we’re flying it,” says Orr. “We’re trying to capture everything we can so Raha can put it together.”

Orr, who has collaborated with Serrafan and Dallas on many film projects at SJSU over the past 20 years, says he loves the opportunity to collaborate with the next generation of filmmakers.

“I love this university,” he says. “I met Babak at San Diego State, and he brought me here as a filmmaker of residence. Since then, I’ve recommended SJSU to a few of my friends’ kids. I think it’s a great school.”

Second camera assistant Ethan Coats, ’25 RTVF, says that in addition to learning to incorporate AI into filmmaking, he’s thrilled for the chance to work with established industry partners like Orr.

“I’ve worked on a number of student projects, but this is my first time working with such nice equipment,” Coats says. “Usually students don’t get to work with such nice cameras. Jim is by far the most experienced person I’ve worked with, so I feel very lucky to be here.”

Next steps

Though Shojaei and her students wrapped filming “Hills Like White Elephants” in three days, much still must be done before the project is complete. While many of the students assisting in production will graduate or move on to other courses, Shojaei hopes that the project inspired them to take creative risks and experiment with new ways of telling stories.

“This is exciting for me because it’s my first time producing a short film at San José State with AI,” she says. “I love working with students and giving them this opportunity — the chance to explore and use new tools. It’s new to all of us. I hope we can be successful so we can share what we’ve learned with others.”

Learn more about the Department of Film and Theatre at SJSU.