With the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes ongoing, there's still no resolution in sight. Both unions want fairer, re-negotiated contracts regarding residual payments for streaming content provided by services like Netflix. The antiquated business model designed for residual payments, and used by linear broadcast networks, wasn't designed for the age of streaming, and they've had enough. A major concern for both parties is the increasing use of Artificial Intelligence and the threat it poses. Writers are concerned AI could replace the human element of storytelling, while working actors, particularly those employed as background performers, could simply be digitally replaced. Those concerns are certainly valid, but they aren't exactly new. In fact, the current conversation is one members of the press have been having with filmmakers for over 25 years!
Background performers are being offered contracts that include clauses explicitly stating that their likenesses, voices and scanned images may be used in perpetuity with no residuals. That day's work could then be digitally altered and continually used infinitum for a multitude of projects -- with no additional compensation. Imagine working one day of your life on a set after agreeing to those terms?
In 1998, I sat with a group of reporters to talk with Rob Legato, the Oscar winning Special Effects Supervisor of the James Cameron-directed blockbuster Titanic. He was promoting Fox's home entertainment release of the film and had to walk reporters through some of the technological innovations used to make it one of the most successful films of all time.
As a creator, Legato was rightfully proud of Titanic's ground-breaking special effects. Before Titanic, effects of this magnitude had been relegated to other types of storytelling and not a dramatic real-life period piece. "[The effects] create real life and do it in such a way that they make it part of the fabric of the story, as opposed to a separate spectacle event that takes place," he said. "So, it changes the way it's used, or what it can be used for. Technologically speaking, it also changes, a little bit, the way you've used certain things. You can now create these big historical epics for not the same amount of money it would have cost to do live, which would be prohibitive and not be done.
"Besides the visual you get to build, [you] are able to interact with other types of things," he continued. "With people [there is] a multitude of shots you can get. If we have to create a spectacle, or you have to appear like you're in Washington D.C. when you're not, because you can't afford to send the whole shooting crew out there, you can make up what becomes a virtual backlot. Or you can shoot on your backlot and insert backgrounds. Things with that degree of fidelity make people believe it. That wasn't done [before] because no one had seen it work before."
One of Titanic's special effects innovations was utilizing existing technology to create AI "virtual extras" -- the exact issue concerning background performers today. "In the case of Titanic, I created animations of 40 separate people with very subtle actions," Legato explained. "They're walking hand in hand, with their children, having conversations, or getting directions. Very simple, ordinary actions. You take those 40 people and their actions and you alter them, you reverse them, put different clothing on them, put whoever is in the foreground [in the] background. All of a sudden, these 40 people get turned into 1000 people, and you have a very difficult time thinking what [is] the repeated action because of the way it's done. On Titanic, we created a library of people that, shot after shot, we used to create people on the dock, on the ship, or in the background."
Admittedly, most background performers on Titanic were digitally recorded in costume, making their likeness specific to a certain period. But Legato further explained how it helped filmmakers like Cameron, and later Martin Scorsese (with whom he collaborated) create the impossible while keeping budgets in check. "That's one of the good things about Titanic," he said. "[Filmmakers] can create the movie they wanted to create because otherwise, it's too expensive. Now you can, and the more we do it, the cheaper it gets." All of a sudden, instead of contacting SAG to request 500 people, "you could order 500 [by] computer," he added.
That's great for filmmakers, but not for the community of background performers. When asked in 1998 about the impact this might have on SAG, and actor payments, Legato replied, "It sounds way better than it is. You don't really have a library of a person and how they react to any given situation. You could peel them out of [a] scene they're in, and use them for an identical scene, but other than that you really can't do anything with it. You could do it, except they're doing a very specific action with the same voice performance. You don't capture the essence of their soul and then redirect it."
Using Humphrey Bogart as an example, Legato explained how the choices the actor made as a performer, his chemistry with a co-star, and how he phrased a certain line made him the actor he was. You would also need an equally talented animator to recreate an entire performance, but it would still be a rank imitation. SAG-AFTRA's concern that a digital version of an actor would end up in a library of digital performances started 25 years ago. Why would you pay someone to sit at a bar on set for a day when the same performance they did 25 years ago is already on file and can be manipulated?
It's interesting that Cameron admits to having predicted how AI could pose a threat to humanity via his 1984 blockbuster The Terminator. In a recent interview with CTV News in Canada, he said, "I warned you in 1984 and you didn't listen." Cameron was speaking about a global war, and how the weaponization of AI depicted in later installments of The Terminator series could prove catastrophic in an AI/human war. About the use of AI in film, he cited Avatar, another of his blockbuster franchises, explaining it was used, "not to create characters, but only for creating computer-generated bodies."
Indeed, what the makers of Titanic did as a cost-cutting measure may have inadvertently given rise to the machines, ultimately impacting thousands of background performers waiting for that SAG call and a day's work. If protections aren't put in place now, those livelihoods will continue to sink faster than the Titanic itself.
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