A joint strike by both the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the Writers Guild (WGA) has effectively shut down Hollywood — with the unions citing in no small part fears over how the use of AI by studios may undermine their professions.
Ever out of the spotlight, background actors have now stepped up to voice similar concerns of their own, bringing attention to how some of them have been made to have their bodies digitized for indefinite use, with little to no warning or input.
One Alexandria Rubalcaba recalls how she, and dozens of other background actors, were pulled aside one-by-one and led into a trailer to be scanned by a rig of multiple cameras for fifteen minutes while working on the Marvel show "WandaVision." The result: a comprehensive digital avatar of themselves.
"Have your hands out," Rubalcaba recalled being told, in an interview with NPR. "Have your hands in. Look this way. Look that way. Let us see your scared face. Let us see your surprised face."
Alarmingly, Rubalcaba alleges that she and others were never told how or when their 3D likenesses would be used. In fact, the only thing she's sure of is that she wouldn't get paid for it, even though she says she never gave permission in the first place.
For roughly the past twenty years, Hollywood projects have made use of techniques such as crowd tiling to duplicate a few actors to create enormous group scenes. Computer simulations are often used in tandem — or on their own — to create believable, variable behavior in these generated actors, which may be based on motion capture work like in "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy.
So while this practice isn't necessarily totally novel, it is now being cast in a much more foreboding light with the pernicious rise of AI in filmmaking, and indeed at large.
To see how far the practice can go, you don't have to look much further than what companies like Disney have done with using digital de-aging, or "re-aging," technology on lead actors like Harrison Ford, or to use digital technology to resurrect dead actors.
The trend calls to mind a Jet Li anecdote that seemingly anticipated the industry's current quandary. The martial arts superstar revealed in a 2018 interview that he turned down a role in "The Matrix Reloaded" nearly twenty years ago because "they wanted to record and copy all my moves into a digital library," he said. "By the end of the recording, the right to these moves would go to them."
With the automation afforded by AI, the degree to which these background actors can now be replicated is much more thorough — and arguably invasive — than before, and studios haven't been shy about how they'd want to take advantage with the leaps in technology.
According to SAG negotiators, the studios have insisted that they can pay background actors for only one day of work — roughly $180 — and scan their likenesses to be used indefinitely without compensation.
"I fear that AI is eventually going to weed out background actors," Rubalcaba said. "They won't have any use for us anymore."
Background acting can be unglamorous work. These actors show up hoping for the gig, and if they get it, they're hurried into signing a contract without the time to read it through, typically leaving them in a more disadvantaged position than principal actors. And without a bankable visage front and center, they're also more expendable.
"I don't often hear people speaking up for background [actors], or if they're being abused, if they're not being treated properly, of if they should be paid more," Dom Lubsey, an LA-based actor, told NPR. "You just don't hear that." Lubsey said he first recalls having his likeness scanned for a movie in 2019.
For its part, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents the studios, has said it will offer "fair compensation" for using an actor's digital likeness.
But while SAG wants permission to be granted for each usage, the studios demand that they only need it the one time — a condition that unabashedly could spell the end of background acting as a feasible profession.
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