Alum helps filmmakers unleash their creativity with the power of AI


Russell Palmer, BESc’08, BS’08, had a strong conviction that he would establish an AI company. In 2021, together with his brother Andrew, he co-founded CyberFilm AI in San Francisco, USA. Their innovative app assists users in generating exceptional movie plots, developing captivating characters, crafting scene dialogue, creating storyboard drawings and more, all while igniting their own creative story ideas. 

We caught up with the CyberFilm CEO to delve deeper into his passion for AI and film and to hear his career guidance for the next generation of Western Engineers. 

Tell us about your career path so far and what inspired you to become an entrepreneur starting CyberFilm? 

My career started at Western when I attended a seminar recruiting event put on by Microsoft in the Spencer Engineering Building. A conversation led to a flight to Seattle for a full, exhausting day of eight back-to-back hour-long interviews and my first job offer in 2008. I was a Product Manager on the Microsoft Office team in Redmond, Washington for many years and was lucky enough to learn Product Management at the place it was invented. I even read the original memo to Bill Gates proposing a new type of job between Software Engineer and Business called "Program Manager", as apps were known as programs then.

I knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur, and once I had my Green Card, I moved to Silicon Valley in 2017 to work as a Product Manager at Viv Labs, an AI start-up pioneered by the founders of Siri, where I learnt how to build a company – particularly an AI one – from zero to one as they were acquired by Samsung. I learned from the best in the business – the inspirational Adam Cheyer. Not long after, I was lucky to be recruited in 2020 to JPMorgan's West Coast AI Lab at Stanford Research Park in Palo Alto, with a team of AI experts from Google, Facebook, and other top companies to dive deeper into Machine Learning and Big Data. I had the experience I felt I needed from the biggest software company in the world, the biggest hardware company and the oldest and biggest Wall Street bank. I sensed the time was right to finally go for it and I co-founded CyberFilm with my brother, a filmmaker. 

How has your Western Engineering experience and education influenced and benefited your career success?

During my time at Western, I discovered that packing more into my schedule allowed me to achieve greater productivity and accomplish more than I ever thought possible. While I gained valuable knowledge in the classroom, my true growth came from my involvement with the UES. Starting as a Gear Coordinator, I eventually took on the role of Sports Coordinator and later became the VP External, representing Western Engineering at conferences nationwide. Balancing a full course load, UES events, my position as Director of Discovery Western (Engineering camp), and even serving as the President of Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity, I honed my organizational skills and learned to effectively manage my time.  You only get four years, so you need to make it count and try everything. It was five years in my case due to concurrent degrees in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, another great Western option. This is great for those who want to work in technology, with the most job postings for Computer Science and the additional value of an Engineering education. 

In my career as a Product Manager, Western Engineering provided me with valuable skills that greatly aided me in my role. My responsibilities include team organization, ensuring high-quality output, meeting deadlines and effectively engaging with customers and stakeholders. Western equipped me with not only algorithms and mathematics knowledge but also essential people skills that have been instrumental in my success. I'm thankful for that learning experience.

Any school can teach you to code, but Western Engineering provides the best student experience and so much more.

With the demand for Software Engineers, Machine Learning is disrupting the entertainment industry. How does your new CyberFilm App work and benefit artists to act as a catalyst to merge creativity and technology together as an “artist friendly AI company”? 

The app works almost like "film school in a box." It outlines the fundamental structure and common archetypes that one would typically learn in a film school setting. By utilizing Generative AI, powered by OpenAI and StabilityAI, we assist users in overcoming creative obstacles. If you lack certain skills as a writer, such as cinematography or hand-drawing storyboards, our app offers intuitive menus with options for shot types and camera angles. The app then generates the remaining visual elements for your scene shots, ensuring that you can bring your dream story ideas to life, even without expertise in those areas. 

In a few days, our users can accomplish what it would normally take a year to finish. Coming soon, we'll even be able to generate synthetic videos based on your script and storyboard and create trailers for your movie or pilot episode for a TV series. Users could then self-publish on YouTube and TikTok. If the work is great, it could go viral and Netflix might come calling with an offer to make a big-budget movie. Our users retain full rights to everything they make and don't have to tell anyone they got help from our app. "Artist Friendly" AI is the dream – technology used by creatives to help them make their own amazing movies and break into Hollywood through self-publishing short films and multimedia content online. 

With Generative AI, your company CyberFilm is expanding your own team of Software Engineers. What advice do you have for other Software Engineers and new engineering graduates? 

I recommend that new Software Engineers take as many AI and Machine Learning courses as possible. I still remember learning Matrix Multiplication and Statistics at Western Engineering and wondering when I'd use them in future jobs, but that's how Machine Learning works and is key to building great AI models. In your Computer Science classes today you can learn Open-Source tools like PyTorch and TensorFlow to build your own AI applications. There are tons of open datasets out there like Kaggle where you can practice your skills.

Some people think that because AI can now write code, there's no point in learning yourself but I'd advise against that. Learn computer programming. I believe that in our lifetime there will always be a "human-in-the-loop" where AI is concerned and for all the code it can write there are going to be a few mistakes and bugs called "hallucinations."

For new graduates, don't be afraid to make big changes and pursue big dreams. You don't need to leave Canada after London. Try Vancouver which has a great gaming industry, or Montreal which is a powerhouse in AI rivaling Toronto. Gain experience first and you can always move back to Ontario after a couple of years since it can become harder to live abroad later in life, so take that risk now if you can. It's also a good time to try working at a start-up to learn by experience if you think entrepreneurship is in your future. The current landscape offers tremendous potential, reminiscent of the time when the iPhone App Store first launched—an unforgettable memory from my campus days. It is inspiring to see the explosion of businesses built on mobile apps in the 10 years to follow like Uber and Instagram. I think the next 10 years from today will see start-ups using APIs from OpenAI, open source models like Stable Diffusion and more to create valuable apps. Get together with a few classmates, start a company and try the co-founder experience even once. 

What do you foresee as the next big jump in AI technology and how will the use of AI Deepfakes and people together benefit Hollywood?

It's an interesting time to work in AI. It feels like new ground-breaking technology is being announced every month, Midjourney and ChatGPT being two famous examples most have tried recently. We've seen generative text (Large Language Models), then images (Diffusion Generators), and I believe the next big step must be video. 

OpenAI's DALL-E can draw a new image in about two seconds. Imagine if it could draw continuous consecutive images in real-time, we could literally watch a movie in virtual reality unfold before us like a choose-your-own-adventure story but without the author having to create all the endings in advance. I think Generative AI is going to open up a whole new world of entertainment in film and gaming, and we hope to be a part of that.

To your question, deep fakes will have a role to play, and we're already seeing it with actors like Harrison Ford exclaiming how incredible it was that he got to play an authentic younger and older Indiana Jones in this year's reboot. There are even more possibilities for special effects and AI-generated translations of acting performances. Studios can win selling films around the world. For example a film’s special effects department could use AI to more easily synthesize their actors’ performances and vocals to make it look and sound like he can speak Mandarin, to release in a huge film market like China. This would remove the need for subtitles and provide a more authentic performance than dubbing. Yes, there are scary examples of deep fakes like imitating politicians, but the best way to detect deep fakes is with AI. AI today is a tool for us (including Hollywood) to use and benefit. We always need smart regulation for tools that can benefit humanity. What does the future of Artificial General Intelligence and Artificial Superintelligence hold? Well, that's a story for another time.