Artificial Intelligence Worries Hollywood Actors Ahead of Union Labour Talks

Digital doubles and fake trailers generated by AI are a concern for actors.

Artificial Intelligence Worries Hollywood Actors Ahead of Union Labour Talks

Photo Credit: Reuters

AI has divided studios and striking film and television writers

  • Interest in generative AI exploded globally after the launch of ChatGPT
  • It is the fastest growing app of all time
  • US and European regulators have demanded guardrails for AI

A search for Wes Anderson on YouTube turns up trailers that the famed director with a distinctive style appears to have made for adaptations of Star Wars, Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings featuring Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, and other stars. Artificial intelligence allowed people with no real actors and far smaller resources than major Hollywood studios to generate the fake movie trailers, feeding debate on the issue that will be on the bargaining table when the SAG-AFTRA actors union begins labor talks with studios on June 7. AI already has divided studios and striking film and television writers, who want assurances that the emerging technology will not be used to generate scripts.

SAG-AFTRA wants to ensure its members can control use of their 'digital doubles' and ensure studios pay the actual actors appropriately, said Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, the union's chief negotiator. "The performer's name, likeness, voice, persona - those are the performer's stock and trade," Crabtree-Ireland said. "It's really not fair for companies to attempt to take advantage of that and not fairly compensate performers when they're using their persona in that way."

Tom Cruise and Keanu Reeves already have been the subject of widely viewed unauthorized deepfakes - realistic yet fabricated videos created by AI algorithms. Reeves called the technology 'scary', in part because it can be deployed without actors' input. Interest in generative AI exploded globally after the November launch of ChatGPT, the fastest-growing app of all time, by Microsoft-backed OpenAI. US and European regulators have demanded guardrails to prevent misinformation, bias, violation of copyrights and invasion of privacy.

Actors and writers envision various scenarios in which studios could try to cut costs and boost revenue using generative AI, which can be fed existing material and pump out new content. The technology already is used to erase age marks or alter mouth movements to sync with words when programming is dubbed in various languages. Actor Leland Morrill said he has worked on sets where he was surrounded by cameras taking pictures from all angles.

"With that type of content, they could use you for part of it, and then create the rest of the character, and then we're not on set anymore and nobody gets paid," Morrill said at a multi-union rally in Los Angeles. Producer, writer and former Family Ties actor Justine Bateman, holds a degree in computer science and has been sounding the alarm about AI. She said companies could allow fans to make their own Star Wars movie, and add themselves for an extra fee. Or, a studio could take footage from a popular 1980s TV show such as Family Ties and make a new season with AI.

Younger you

Some actors have signed off on specific uses of AI. The upcoming Indiana Jones movie features scenes where 80-year-old star Harrison Ford appears 40 years younger. He said Walt Disney Co's Lucasfilm used images of his face that were shot during Indiana Jones films in the 1980s. "It's fantastic," Ford raved about his youthful on-screen appearance in an interview with late-night host Stephen Colbert.

James Earl Jones, now 92, agreed to allow AI to replicate the menacing voice he gave to Darth Vader, according to Vanity Fair, so the character could live on. AI helped Disney put the late Carrie Fisher in 2019 film The Rise of Skywalker, with the blessing of her daughter.

SAG-AFTRA's Crabtree-Ireland said actors have varying comfort levels with how AI is used, which is why the union will advocate for informed consent in talks with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), the group that represents Disney, Netflix and other studios.

A representative for the AMPTP had no comment on its position on use of AI with actors. In negotiations with the Writers Guild of America (WGA), the AMPTP proposed discussing the topic once a year, which the Guild viewed as an attempt to avoid the issue. The WGA has been on strike over AI and compensation since May 2.

If SAG-AFTRA cannot reach a deal on AI and other issues, actors also could go on strike, which would pile more pressure on the studios. Ahead of negotiations, SAG-AFTRA leaders have asked members to provide authorization to call a strike if needed. Voting on a strike authorization ends Monday. Both unions want safeguards in place before AI becomes widely used.

Bateman, a former SAG board member, derides AI as "automatic imitation" that could lead to a future filled with rehashed entertainment from the past. "I don't want to live in that world," Bateman said. "What's the next genre in film? What's the next genre in music? You're never going to see anything like that if we're all using AI."
© Thomson Reuters 2023 

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