Disney’s scanning of actors proves we’re living in a dystopia: “Their image should be used for the rest of eternity”


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.

Disney’s controversial scanning…

An exposé featuring several actors and other sources has reported that on the set of WandaVision, Disney’s 2020 nine-part episodic follow-up to the Avengers story, dozens of extras and background artists were shepherded onto a trailer, then one by one asked to stand in front of a complex rig of cameras which then took “fifteen minutes” to scan them – without explaining the purpose. Perhaps this is the same rig that Weta’s Langsland spoke about, the “new photogrammetry rig of like 124 cameras that allowed us to capture actors and props and extras”.

According to Alexandria Rubalcaba, an extra who NPR spoke extensively with, they asked her and other actors to: “Have your hands out. Have your hands in. Look this way. Look that way. Let us see your scared face. Let us see your surprised face.” All of this was done without anything being said about how their digital replica, or ‘avatar’, was going to be used. Whichever way it’s used, you can bet they won’t be seeing payment for it.

“What if I don’t want to be on MarioVision, or SarahVision?” Rubalcaba said, expressing a genuine fear of the misappropriation of her likeness: “I fear that AI is eventually going to weed out background actors. They won’t have any use for us anymore”. What’s worse than being used in something you didn’t give consent for, with technology you didn’t fully understand, is having your digital replica featured in MarioVision and not seeing a single cent for it. What’s all the more troubling and outright terrifying is that this seems to be completely in accordance with the studios’ plans.

Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, the chief negotiator for SAG, said that during talks, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) “proposed that our background performers should be able to be scanned, get one day’s pay, and their companies should own that scan, their image and their likeness”.

… proving we already live in a dystopia

To further clarify their intentions, it was made clear that they “should be able to use it for the rest of eternity on any project they want, with no consent and no compensation”. It’s a hard sell, if not a dumb one, to try and make to the very people in charge of protecting the actors. But it underscores the outright villainy of the AMPTP and all their associated partners and companies even more.

Studios would only feel engendered to make such an astoundingly obscene proposal if they didn’t already feel comfortable in the system in which they sit. Black Mirror was always supposed to be speculative science fiction set in the not-so-distant future, but it looks like, for the first time, Brooker was actually playing catch-up by writing an episode based on a concept that has already been put into practice.

It’s the Man, screwing the little guy again, except this time aided by cutting-edge, AI-enabled technology. Forget I, Robot, Minority Report, or Blade Runner – sophisticated tech is already being used as an oppressive tool. Artificial Intelligence is already exploiting those that need protection. The dystopian regime is already well underway. And for those who’ve felt on the fence about the whole WGA/SAG strikes, if that doesn’t make you want to hit the bricks – God knows what will.

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