TIME analyzed 242 best-picture nominees to create an algorithm that generates story lines for Oscar-caliber movies.
In honor of the 2014 Academy Award nominations, which were announced Thursday, TIME took the 242 movies that have been nominated for Best Picture since 1970 and melted them down to their constituent parts. Each time you click “Keep playing,” our algorithm recombines a few of these scraps into a synopsis for a new movie that could reasonably complete for the film industry’s top prize.
To see which movie inspired each term, hover your mouse or tap on a word.
How it works
We started with the keywords from the Internet Movie Database for each of the 242 nominees going back to 1970, a total of 12,020 unique tags like “cancer,” “California” or “Catholic.” Here’s one tip gleaned from that chaos of data: Want to win an Oscar? Hire a doctor. There are 48 of them peppered across the 242 movies we studied, more than any other profession. You’d do well to place him in 1940s New York City as well, since that is the most popular decade and location (though not always in combination).
Since the goal was to create plots that were plausible, we couldn’t just string together randomly selected keywords into Mad Libs-style plot summaries. (This sort of strategy would be high in anachronisms and completely non-sensical phrases.) To choose how to combine the keywords, this tool looks at which ones are most likely to appear alongside one another in a picture. After randomly choosing a tag to begin with, the algorithm performs an association game by looking at which other tags belong with that one. If the first tag is “mafia,” for example, the related tags will include “organized crime,” “New York City,” “violence,” and so forth. After choosing one of these related tags, the algorithm then looks at that tag’s relatives, and so forth and so on, spidering out through the network of themes, characters and locations until a coherent ensemble emerges.
It doesn’t always work. There will occasionally be a character in 17th-century Washington, D.C. or a World War II veteran in the year 1920. But by and large, the combinations make sense. There may also be some offensive plot combinations in there. Since there are truly billions of possible outcomes, it’s impossible for us to check them all.
This feature was updated on Jan. 16 to include the 2014 Oscar nominations. Additional research provided by: Charlotte Alter, Sarah Begley, Samantha Grossman, Laura Stampler and Olivia Waxman. Designed by Alexander Ho.