It’s easy to have little or no sympathy for the SAG actors’ strike. After all, we are relentlessly bombarded with stories and images of actors living The Big Life, paid so much they can live like kings. But those stories are of the 1% (5%? 10%? – hell, I don’t know, but the point remains the same). Most actors are not multi-millionaires. According to salary.com, the average actor’s salary is $49-73K. And given that most of these unknown actors must live in the high cost of living LA and NYC areas, that’s a near-poverty income. So yeah, the SAG union is a real thing for 90+% of actors. The Tom Cruises and Kate Winslets of the bunch…not so much.
And this news yesterday explains why SAG has chosen to take a hard line. Turns out the studios want to use actors’ image and likeness without compensation, forever. A bit player actor would get scanned while in a movie, but the studio would then forever own that scanned image and be able to reuse it for future productions – with no compensation to the original human. They’re calling it AI, but it’s not (that’s a whole other story) – AI is simply a label to put on the enemy, shorthand for a software process too complicated for laymen to understand.
So for most people this technology looks like magic, and right now the media is calling that kind of magic “AI”. Whatever. Image processing and digital simulation tools have simply gotten to the point that any image of any person can be inserted into any bitstream (a movie, a cartoon, a picture), made to move around and talk, and that simulated human looks completely like the original. These are called deepfakes, and it’s how anyone can make their own fantasy film of someone doing things that never happened in real life. It’s a troubling technology – at this point in time, you really cannot believe anything you see in digital media – any person doing any thing can be faked.
Deepfakes (portmanteau of “deep learning” and “fake”) are synthetic media that have been digitally manipulated to replace one person’s likeness convincingly with that of another. While the act of creating fake content is not new, deepfakes leverage powerful techniques from machine learning and artificial intelligence to manipulate or generate visual and audio content that can more easily deceive. The main machine learning methods used to create deepfakes are based on deep learning and involve training generative neural network architectures, such as autoencoders, or generative adversarial networks (GANs). Deepfakes have garnered widespread attention for their potential use in creating child sexual abuse material, celebrity pornographic videos, revenge porn, fake news, hoaxes, bullying, and financial fraud. This has elicited responses from both industry and government to detect and limit their use. From traditional entertainment to gaming, deepfake technology has evolved to be increasingly convincing and available to the public, allowing the disruption of the entertainment and media industries.
So yeah, if I’m a minor actor scratching out $50K per year as a background person in films, deepfakes of me are an existential threat to my crummy job. And if I’m a big star, then hell yeah, I don’t want the studio making Shooting Big Guns 16 using my image, my avatar, and not paying me anything.
So this is a *really* interesting moment, with lots of interesting questions. If it turned out that Timothy Chalamet (not a fan, BTW) was a synthetic person (totally digital, no human original), would he still be a “star”? Would anyone care that the next George Clooney movie didn’t involve the person himself, but a very convincing digital version of George? What should an actor be paid, if anything, for use of their image and likeness in future productions? What should the penalty be, if any, for producing a video using deepfake tech for the sole purpose of misleading the public (e.g., a political ad showing a candidate doing something awful that never happened in real life)? Is video of a crime being committed really legal evidence, or is it a fake? And on and on – so many interesting questions.
SAG-AFTRA is doing the right thing taking a stand here. The moment has come to sort out who gets paid for synthetic copies of real humans providing a platform for profitable entertainment businesses.
I predict that many studios will skip this issue entirely and begin manufacturing storylines around completely synthetic “stars”. And I predict that most people won’t care. They just want to be entertained.