While we can appreciate the irony in a multi-millionaire Hollywood actor on the picket line complaining about being “unable to eat” or lamenting the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) rates of over $1,000 a day, there are still hundreds of thousands of people being exploited. Besides, any strikes favouring better employee protection and fairer pay get our support. And, if ever there was a reason to voice solidarity, it’s this: Disney allegedly tricked dozens of background actors into giving up their likeness for ‘digital replicas’ that can be used at any time, for any project, for free.
One of the main concerns regarding the SAG strikes, which join the ongoing Writers Guild of America (WGA) strikes in both action and grievances, relates to Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the way it will rapidly and dramatically alter the way film and TV are made. Whether it’s computer-generated stories, procedurally produced screenplays or lifeless, entirely CGI ‘actors’ in the place of real human beings, the threat of AI is very real. But, perhaps more insidious than the outright replacement of living, breathing human actors by a computer is the prospect of actors having their on-screen presence and identity appropriated, used, and not being compensated for it.
The first episode of Netflix and Charlie Brooker’s new Black Mirror series shone a hilarious spotlight on this, in which an AI-generated TV series used the digital likeness of high-profile actors like Salma Hayek and Schitt’s Creek’s Annie Murphy, much to the A-lister’s dismay. It was particularly easy to laugh at this due to the seemingly ludicrous notion of such big Hollywood names being swindled – but it’s not nearly so funny when it involves already under-paid background actors and extras and when it’s actually happening.
However, it’s important to note that huge crowd scenes have been bulked out by CGI for a while, dating back even to the expansive armies of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings. More recently, when Covid restrictions were still in place, using VFX to populate scenes with more background actors was a lifeline that allowed productions to continue. For the live-action remake of Mulan, Weta (the leading digital special effects company) VFX supervisor Anders Langsland told Variety how he and his team “came up with a system whereby we could very quickly and inexpensively go straight from that 3D scan from the photogrammetry rig into a moving character in our crowd system.”
Once normality resumed and the wheels of production started lurching back into action, Hollywood’s interest in this technology’s potential remained exceptionally high, gleefully rubbing their hands and imagining the dollars saved. Sean Faden, the overall VFX supervisor for the film, excitedly explained: “You might not have to have as many [extras on Mulan], but it’s really helpful for companies like Weta to have 10 or 20 extras that could be sampled and scanned and utilized to create those crowds”.
What remained murky, however, was what exactly the conversations involving the scanning of extras looked and sounded like. According to a recent NPR report: non-existent.