I thought escaping San Francisco as a tech reporter would be good for me. Now I spend my days surrounded by folks in The Industry who can’t stop talking about AI.
Platforms like ChatGPT and Midjourney have turned conversations with screenwriters, concept artists and film producers into existential parleys about the future of Hollywood, a labor-driven industry fueled by strong unions that was quickly injected with a fast-moving tech bomb.
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All this came to a head in May, when the television, film and digital writers that make up the Writers Guild of America announced they would go on strike. This is perhaps one of the first times we’re seeing AI — a revolutionary technology concept, completely unrestrained, whipping through every industry imaginable — face the labor world.
What are the consequences? We don’t know yet. That’s the problem.
But generative AI is already seeping into Academy Award-winning movies and television shows to de-age actors, lip-sync in different languages, and build worlds straight out of a storybook.
The AI revolution in Hollywood
When I was a teenage dirtbag in 2015, I spent my days watching an animated series called Bojack Horseman.
In one episode, the titular movie star is asked to sit in front of a machine that will take a 3D scan of his face and body. In case he died, the production house would be able to make the movie without him.
The ridiculousness of that concept seemed on par with a show about an alcoholic anthropomorphic horse.
Turns out it was pretty real — the show used technology from Artec Group, which makes 3D scanning devices that have been used for production in Narnia, Jurassic World, Terminator Genisys and even the Big Bang Theory (though the latter was actually doing a product placement ad for Microsoft’s Kinect while using Artec’s technology).
Even former President Barack Obama became the first president to be 3D scanned via Artec.
Artec’s technology made it possible for movie studios to create a “digital twin” of their actors and manipulate them on-screen — they could morph, disintegrate and disappear. In Narnia, the producers scanned a man and a taxidermied beast, stitching them together and making the magical character walk. Artec CEO Artem Yukhin used to hang out on Lucasfilm’s set watching Star Wars shoots.
“It was very funny because all my friends and colleagues were envious and said, ‘Why, you idiot who doesn’t appreciate all this, go and see all these things there.’ And I really didn’t care,” Yukhin said. “But it became immediately clear we were very needed there.”
Fast-forward to today: I’m no longer a teenager (still a dirtbag), and AI companies are cropping up, signing deals with film studios and turning studio executives into tech company ones.
Flawless, an AI solution that can sync actors’ mouths to different languages, is doing both. The company was co-founded by film director Scott Mann, who saw one of his films clunkily dubbed in German. Using the same technology that creates deepfakes, Flawless is able to morph the actors’ mouth to match whatever language it’s being dubbed with. The same technology is also used for digital reshoots.
That kind of technology helps companies save money on creating reshoots. It also allows them to better tap into international markets for revenue.
“You can get in to unlock other markets because it’s simply a better immersive experience when it looks like your actors are telling their story in the native language of that market, which then allows you to do all these interesting things to take more risks on content,” said Peter Busch, chief strategic officer at Flawless.
The labor fight with AI
Among the WGA’s demands is that studios cannot use written material to train AI (which the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers did not agree with). That’s important — if you’re a writer who worked on two seasons of a television show, you don’t want AI using that material to spit out the next few episodes of plot and character development.
As this technology further embeds itself into Hollywood, the various guilds protecting actors, directors, producers and animators are asking more questions about the potential damages of those platforms.
“We’re going to go through, I’ll call it our Taylor Swift moment — when Spotify was scrutinized by her as damaging to the recording industry,” Busch said.
Bryant Griffin, a visual-effects artist who worked on films including Pacific Rim and Avengers, said the WGA’s demands are likely to have wide-reaching implications in the film industry, including for visual-effects artists, who are not unionized.
“Everybody feels like this fight is really important. I think that’s why the writer’s guild is experiencing a lot of support right now from other unions within the industry,” Griffin said. “The WGA [strike] is the tip of the spear.”
Flawless, which employs Hollywood veterans including studio executives and animation heads, said it’s working closely with the various guilds of Hollywood as it develops its platform.
“The guilds basically control Hollywood, right?” Busch said. “And so in order for us to bring a product to market, we need to work within the existing framework.”
Illustration: Dom Guzman
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