SAG WGA hits artificial intelligence

SAG-AFTRA Strike: AI fears escalate for background actors

Prince Royal, an actor from Los Angeles, was working as an extra on The Flash when he was directed to a trailer to take pictures.

There were hundreds of cameras inside. He stood with his arms raised as the operators ran a 3D scan, which he was told would be used for continuity and special effects.

We were told if we didn’t, we’d be sent home without pay, he said.

Now he feels like he’s been tricked.

We don’t know what all of our scans are used for, he said. They may use our scans in other movies and other shows.

That fear is one of the sticking points of the SAG-AFTRA attack. Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, the union’s chief negotiator, has warned that studios want to scan actors in the background and then use AI to cast those actors into other projects for the rest of eternity without consent. The Alliance of Film and Television Producers says that’s not true.

Privately, the studio’s sources are livid at Crabtree-Ireland, who they believe is misrepresenting their position. On the union side, many fear studios are taking notes from Black Mirror and trying to replace actors with AI replicants without the actors’ approval.

As AI technology improves, background actors may be the first to be kicked out of the canary in the coal mine for the entire profession.

If they have my image and can manipulate it however they want, why would they hire me again? asked Rick Markman, a background actor who said he always declined scan requests.

Some 32,000 people worked at least once as extras last year, a sizable share of the 160,000 SAG-AFTRA members now on strike. Within the union, they are the lowest paid workers ($187 a day) and have the least control over their image and likeness.

Extras had their own union, the Screen Extras Guild, but its membership was absorbed into the Screen Actors Guild in 1992. Gene Poe, the last president of SEG, said in an interview that supporting actors’ interests have traditionally been subordinated within SAG and SAG-AFTRA.

When it comes to trades and business, you’re at the lower end of the totem pole, he said. Now, with this whole AI thing, it’s even worse.

He said he fully supports the strike and urges the union to take a hard line on the AI ​​issue.

If not, there will be no extra work in 10 years, he said. It won’t exist.

Extras typically get work through large casting agencies. At Central Casting, supporting actors receive a voucher along with their paycheck. On the back is a thick page of legalese in small print, including an extremely large version.

I hereby irrevocably grant to the Production Company all rights of every kind and nature to the results and proceeds of all my services hereunder, the document states, including all acts to be used or not to be used in any manner whatsoever.

Most actors don’t pay too much attention to the language, and for practical purposes, background performances are typically not merged with other projects to be reused indefinitely.

It has always been the union’s position that that plaque was meaningless, said Ron Ostrow, a background actor who sits on the SAG-AFTRA negotiating committee. But in light of the advances in AI, it takes on a whole new meaning.

The language is adapted from the SAG-AFTRA agreement, which includes a standard form stating that background actors are waiving all rights worldwide and in perpetuity. In a statement, Central Casting said the union had reviewed the language of the vouchers numerous times and raised no concerns.

The main actors have some protection on the reuse of their performances. The contract stipulates that the producers must contract separately with the artists for any reuse of the footage in a separate production. But supporting actors are not considered performers and are not covered by this provision.

As AI has become a hot topic in recent months, extras are suddenly discovering how little protection they have.

You’re signing your life away, Markman said.

SAG-AFTRA is not trying to outlaw AI. Some artists, the Harrison Fords and the James Earl Jones, make large profits by licensing their images for artificial intelligence reuse. But the union is trying to establish a principle that any use of AI must be done with consent and compensation.

The AMPTP accepted this as a general rule, which is why the studios were angry at SAG-AFTRA’s characterization of their proposal.

Conflict ignites over what counts as consensus. The AMPTP has proposed that for pre-existing actors, consent can be obtained at the time of hire.

The union says it’s similar to the current standard version of Central Casting, where an actor has no leverage to say no.

A standard sentence on page seven of 12 of a contract document is not a meaningful consensus, Crabtree-Ireland said in a conference call with members on July 18. This is a fictitious consensus.

SAG-AFTRA wants informed consent that would be negotiated separately at the point of use, when artists would actually know what they are consenting to. The AMPTP said it verbally agreed to this on July 12.

For now, SAG-AFTRA appears to have the upper hand on this matter, at least in the public arena.

The idea that you can take supporting actors or new actors and in their first contract get the right to their image in perpetuity is a crime, said Jeff Cohen, an entertainment lawyer who represents actors like Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan. He is insane.

Simon Pulman, a partner at Pryor Cashman, said that to resolve the issue, the parties will need to have a more nuanced conversation.

What rights do AMPTP companies actually need? churches. They will actually have to talk about the use cases.

Studios have been using tiling to create crowd scenes for many years. For such scenes, a group of extras will be filmed sitting in a section of a stadium and then moved around, with the images copied and stitched together in post-production.

Technology is constantly improving and moving towards new applications. VFX shops can now create digital humans by taking 3D scans of actors, and have begun incorporating machine learning into the process. AI is the next step in evolution.

Digital humans are typically used when it would be dangerous or impractical to use a human actor, said Hanno Basse, chief technology officer at Digital Domain, a top VFX house. And even then, he said, humans are still an integral part of the creative process.

We see gen AI as a tool like any other in our toolbox, one that allows us to efficiently create artistically pleasing results that support the story, Basse said. We have found that it is the combination of powerful tools like Machine Learning and AI with the creative talents of our artists, that produces the photorealistic, relatable, believable and lifelike performances we are striving for.

Royal, who has been scouted for The Flash, sees background work as a stepping stone to an acting career. But he now fears that by agreeing to be scanned, he has hurt his future prospects.

It’s scary for someone who could become an A-lister down the line, she said. Now for that A-lister, all of their images are already owned, because they’ve been scanned as a background actor.

He wrote to SAG-AFTRA leaders, urging them to demand that in any deal the studios must agree that all previous scans be deleted.

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