AI is hard at work in Hollywood
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The 95th Academy Awards on Sunday is sure to feature plenty of glitz, glam, awkwardly cut-off speeches and artificial intelligence. The technology is becoming a bigger and bigger part of filmmaking, in ways that not everyone is thrilled about.
It’s something Joshua Glick, a visiting associate professor of film and electronic arts at Bard College, wrote about recently for Wired. Marketplace’s Meghan McCarty Carino spoke to Glick about the many ways Hollywood employs artificial intelligence.
Below is an edited transcript of their conversation
Joshua Glick: Artificial intelligence is part of the toolbox of animators, visual effects supervisors, computational artists, as well as people who create digital faces and imagery of crowds for large battle scenes. Even in the realm of documentary, there are some documentarians who are using these tools in particular ways. The film “Welcome to Chechnya” uses deepfake technology to essentially provide protection for the vulnerable onscreen subjects in the film. There was also a recent Andy Warhol documentary that used these tools to create a synthetic voice of Andy Warhol himself, to great effect.
Meghan McCarty Carino: For those who have concerns about where this technology could be going, what is the basis of those concerns?
Glick: There is certainly the idea that this technology will get so good that it will replace all kinds of creative labor. One could imagine a world where you put a prompt into one of these apps and out would come a polished script, or even a film whole cloth. It’s the idea that the roles of a script writer, director, artists, designers will essentially be replaced by some of these technologies. New tools and new technologies have always sustained a productive tension or creative tension with the status quo of the industry. But I’d say that the idea of complete replacement is not something I foresee happening, at least in the near future. Some of the most promising or interesting areas is how these tools have become part of the toolbox.
McCarty Carino: AI has been used to render characters in movies played by deceased actors. It has also been used for something called age regression in film. Can you explain that?
Glick: For de-aging, a lot of the discussion goes into the idea that it’s really an expansion of stardom or of the star body. It’s taking the star character and bringing them back to an early moment in their life, maybe through time travel or a flashback or even into the future. It opens up possibilities for what that character can do and where they can go. We’ve seen this happen in various “Star Wars” films, and we’ll see it in the new “Indiana Jones” film, “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny,” that’s coming out soon. There are some proponents of these applications as an interesting way of bending and pulling the star character into new terrain. But there’s also the claim that it looks just plain creepy and weird, right? It’s part of that kind of uncanny valley effect — it doesn’t look exactly quite right, for reasons that are sometimes easy but also sometimes difficult to articulate. There’s also a debate surrounding who gets to be de-aged and who is claiming these new technologies. It’s often aging white male bodies that are brought back into past moments of their self rather than women and people of color. So, I think it’s also an occasion for really discussing it and critiquing the uses of some of these technologies and maybe the need to have it expand across a much more full and inclusive spectrum of character, actor and actress.
McCarty Carino: How could AI be used on the business side of Hollywood?
Glick: What we’re seeing is a continuation of the commercial film and television industry looking to the newest technologies to give them the most accurate information they can find about what is going to make them the most money. It’s perhaps a niche area of consulting these days to use some of these AI tools to analyze lots of scripts from the past, films from the past, as well as data about genre to get information for studios and for filmmakers about what films might make the most money depending on what happens in the plot and depending on who is cast. It leads to this attempt to slow down and challenge risk, which I think is a problem. It damages the possibility of getting more films out there made by women and by people of color when studios are just trying to make a film with the least amount of risk.
Related links: More insight from Meghan McCarty Carino
In Glick’s piece for Wired, he goes into a lot more detail about the many ways Hollywood is using AI, like those two documentaries he mentioned in our conversation. The first, “Welcome to Chechnya,” is a 2020 film about the anti-gay purges in that region, and the second is the six-part Netflix docuseries “The Andy Warhol Diaries,” which is partially narrated by an AI-generated version of Warhol’s voice.
You might remember something similar was done in the documentary about Anthony Bourdain, “Roadrunner.” It used AI trained on all the hundreds of hours of Bourdain’s television shows to generate a few lines of posthumous voice-overs, narrating private correspondence he’d written.
Naturally, it raised a lot of ethical questions. The ownership of a person’s voice or likeness is definitely going to be a big issue as this tech becomes more common and more sophisticated.
The Los Angeles Times reported in December on a 2022 movie called “Fall” that used generative AI to seamlessly remove swear words from scenes in post-production. The filmmakers synthetically altered the actors’ faces to match new dialogue recorded after the original shoot.
This could, of course, save a lot of money on reshoots. It could also help movies perform better overseas by avoiding cheesy overdubs.
But the general counsel for SAG-AFTRA — the union that represents actors — told the LA Times this is likely going to be a big topic for contract negotiations going forward.
As for how AI could have been used in this year’s Oscar-nominated films, it seems like that age-regression tech had to have been used on Tom Cruise and Jennifer Connolly in “Top Gun: Maverick,” right? They look amazing … whatever it is.
Clarification (March 13, 2023): A previous version of this episode didn’t specify clearly how much AI-generated voiceover was used in the Anthony Bourdain film, “Roadrunner.”
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