Fake People, Pure Product

Kristin Devine

Kristin has humbly retired as Ordinary Times' friendly neighborhood political whipping girl to focus on culture and gender issues. She lives in a wildlife refuge in rural Washington state with too many children and way too many animals. There's also a blog which most people would very much disapprove of https://atomicfeminist.com/

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30 Responses

  1. Dark Matter says:

    Every movie about Lincoln has had an actor to play his part. If we had a look-alike actress play Emily no one would be talking about this. “Consent” seems to be a non-issue in those cases.

    Taking a computerized likeness of Emily is simply replacing the actress with a computer. If we pass a law saying “no likenesses” then they’ll just change her eyes to green or something.

    Or Hollywood will add a clause to every unknown actor’s contract “gives us consent to use likenesses forever”. In ten years some of them will have become A-listers.

    This technology is coming. The issue is less about dealing with A-List-Actor-X’s drug addiction and more about not needing to pay him.Report

  2. Murali says:

    If we had a look-alike actress play Emily no one would be talking about this.

    Hailee Steinfeld plays Emily Dickinson. It is James Dean who is being resurrected from the dead.

    James Franco looks enough like James Dean for it to be creepy. That said, images of dead people should only be used with the permission of the estate. If people can’t use my image now without my permission, me dying should not change that.

    However, once such permission is secured, I think the whole idea is rather cool. Hollywood seems too full of itself. The possibility of their job being automated away provides a useful corrective.Report

    • Oscar Gordon in reply to Murali says:

      Yes and no. It corrects the problem of performers with inflated egos, but the rest of the machinery continues apace.Report

    • fillyjonk in reply to Murali says:

      “That said, images of dead people should only be used with the permission of the estate. If people can’t use my image now without my permission, me dying should not change that.”

      What a weird world we live in. If I were an actress I’d explicitly have it written in my will that my image was not to be used after my death.

      which is probably just another reason why I’m not an actress; I’m sure as this advances there will be tons of pressure to have people sign that waiver. It will be like the old studio system all over again, only all the actors will actually be dead. Hollywood would probably benefit muchly from that, no need to feed them or make sure they were safe or give them breaks…Report

    • Brent F in reply to Murali says:

      I think the absolute opposite. One of the great legal innovations in the common law is getting rid of dead people having interests in anything. The dead have no claim on the resources of the living.

      Maybe the living immediate heirs have a say, but that should expire with them. A 19th century person’s heirs shouldn’t have control of a person’s image, it belongs to the cultural commons to be done with as anyone pleases. If the results are in bad taste, we’re free not to support them.Report

      • Murali in reply to Brent F says:

        There is a difference between pictures I take to attach to my profile on my department website and pictures some rando takes of me as I’m walking along the street. While I am alive, he has no right to use those pictures without my permission. While I’m dead, I’m not sure why he suddenly acquired such a right. My interests are not just a matter of the hedonic payoff. If it were, then I would not be harmed if people secretly thought ill of me behind my back but that had no effect on their behaviour towards me.

        I can’t say much about the content of the common law (but weren’t wills more formalised and strictly enforced under the common law, thus giving dead people a greater say?) but to the extent that benthamite utilitarianism drove this weakening of the interests of dead people, the common law is mistaken. If I were to be a great philosopher one day, I wouldn’t want some random picture of me picking my nose to make its roundsReport

  3. Chip Daniels says:

    This is a very thoughtful, and thought-provoking piece.

    It is funny how we take ownership of characters and how insulting it feels when someone tampers with that image.

    As you point out, the contemporizing of Dickenson is that the woman herself barely exists in the retelling; All the pertinent facts about her character have been erased and her name alone remains just as a marketing tool because a story of 19th century poet named Jane Smith wouldn’t have sold.

    But that is the story of Hollywood itself, the story about itself that Hollywood tells. That the dream factory is actually a grotesque sausage factory that is willing to shove any sacred totem into the grinder if someone somewhere can make a buck off it.Report

  4. Oscar Gordon says:

    I thought the use of eActors in Rogue One was appropriate, but aside from that, it just seems like a way to avoid paying people, while not actually dealing with core Hollywood issues (like the scammy ways movies do their accounting).Report

  5. LeeEsq says:

    I think the use of dead actors is disturbing and wrong but not for any reasons relating to ownership of one self. The real danger from this technology seems to be that nothing new is going to happen because the past is increasingly it’s stronghold on the future. There is no real reason to use a James Dean resurrected by computers. There are plenty of living actors that will be just as fine or even better. Yet, because we can and because it might be cheaper, we get this resurrection routine.Report

    • Chip Daniels in reply to LeeEsq says:

      What’s interesting is that James Dean exemplifies the contemporizing mythology that Kristin notes in her comments about Dickenson.

      The brooding sensitive rebel, the rock n roll icon James Dean was itself a self-created fiction. He was a gifted actor who created that persona for his films and died before rock n roll started.

      The “real” James Dean is largely unknown to anyone today and would be entirely unmarketable. What is being marketed is the artificial stage persona.Report

      • fillyjonk in reply to Chip Daniels says:

        And I dare say if he didn’t die prematurely? He’d probably just have been seen as some “over the hill” actor once he hit 40 or 50 or so.

        A little better known is the contrast between the “real” Marilyn Monroe (who in some ways had a very sad life) and the bombshell image she largely created. (She was a lot smarter/cannier than people gave her credit for). But then again: if she had not died young, would her cult-of-personality continued? I don’t know.Report

    • Dark Matter in reply to LeeEsq says:

      There are plenty of living actors that will be just as fine or even better. Yet, because we can and because it might be cheaper, we get this resurrection routine.

      There will be other reasons. The living can be bad actors. The dead will all have the same level of skill, and it can only go up. The living also can lack a “name” (if we need an unknown dead actor that’s also an option).

      The dead don’t get drunk and not show up. They (ironically) don’t die. They don’t bad mouth the company. They’re reliable in terms of their work and work habits. They don’t have ego problems. They don’t hit on the female staff. Their girlfriends don’t need to be given jobs.

      The question is whether or not they’ve lost the “creapy as all get out” factor and whether or not the audiance will care.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Dark Matter says:

        There goes the future. There goes change. I feel depressed. The entire world or even universe seems to be on this terrible holding pattern in everything. Nothing ever changes or only changes for the worse.Report

        • North in reply to LeeEsq says:

          It’s ok Lee. It’s not like the Hollywood business model isn’t rocking and shuddering on its foundations already. It’s an open question as to whether theaters and movies will even still continue, let alone whether some calcified cast of computer animated personae will dominate those theaters and movies.Report

        • Dark Matter in reply to LeeEsq says:

          This probably isn’t “for the worse”. Food, shelter, clean water and medical care used to be seriously rare and expensive things, now they’re so cheap anyone can have them assuming the gov doesn’t step in to prevent it and we need to constantly move the goalposts on what “good” is. Ditto lots of other things like the ability to wash clothes, or access to information.

          This technology is getting cheaper and will go mainstream. In the future, everyone will have access to things that are almost uniquely rare and expensive now. People currently making a living by camping on that uniqueness will lose, but everyone else benefits. Wiki killed the encyclopedia business, everyone who wasn’t in the business of selling those very large books is better off.

          The fan made lightsaber duels are already quite a bit better than the first movie. My kid, or maybe even I, will have the ability to make realistic “home” movies with Marilyn Monroe. The people who make movies professionally have to constantly up their game because the definition of “good” increases. A lot of people who are famous for being famous and have no talent otherwise will have problems. Large hidebound companies will probably also suffer.

          Something to ponder is the average person today probably gets more “public” exposure via facebook and so forth than the average celebrity did a century ago. So we are all celebs now. Soon we’ll all be movie producers as well.Report

  6. Aaron David says:

    We don’t live in a time and place of shared morality but of contested morality. Thus, to increase or decrease the moral superiority of various contested concepts, the greatest method to overcome that is through a combination of popular media (films and such) and respected figures and the representations thereof. And so we get everything that you are worried about.

    I used to devour much of contemporary fiction, working in a bookstore to help feed my addiction and access. But lately, I have been confining myself to the works, both major and minor, of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And while I do have to wade through a lot of racism, sexism, and homophobia, I know that these are the actual thoughts and feelings of the people who’s stories I am consuming. There is none of the white-washing of history that is the main product of the current MFA crisis that has overtaken fiction, both literary and dramatic. But, again, this is my choice. And other people might have a different but completely rational choice.

    That and no crap like Sense and Sensibility and Seamonsters.Report

    • George Turner in reply to Aaron David says:

      Hey, I really enjoyed Pride, Prejudice, and Zombies. The original always begged for a zombie apocalypse element to liven up the story.

      I think the digital actor topic will get more attention when Jon Voight produces a Dinesh D’Souza script that uses deep fakes of Jeffrey Epstein, Hillary Clinton, and all their enablers engaging acts that make The Exorcist seem like a PBS children’s show, and then they start adding House and Senate members to clips from it in campaign ads. Lawsuits will fly and judges will rule.

      Perhaps one of the fundamental questions is that we’ve always accepted using fake actors as stand ins, calling them stunt men or body doubles. At what point should you get upset that it’s not really Tom Cruise being flung out of the burning car, or that it’s not really Margot Robbie doing the triple axel? If you replace the actor with the stunt man, and then replace the stunt man with a CGI figure, has anything really changed?

      It all comes down to how much reality the public expects to have in the fakeness that is filmmaking. That question has always been asked in production and answered at the box office. If a filmmaker fails to maintain the audience’s expectations of fidelity to reality, in either direction, people complain. We wouldn’t like JFK presented as a Disney fantasy and we wouldn’t want Snow White shot as a documentary. Somewhere in between is our comfort zone, but artists love to shift our expectations.Report

      • Pinky in reply to George Turner says:

        The funny thing is that I’m bothered by putting James Dean digitally into a movie, but I’d be fine with putting him digitally into a video game. I can sort of justify the distinction, sort of. But the truth is, within my lifetime, that distinction is going to become moot.Report

        • George Turner in reply to Pinky says:

          What amusing is the people who got upset when a real actor played Lara Croft, who in reality was a blocky video game character. Maybe this is all payback for letting flesh and blood actors play beloved animated and CGI characters.Report

    • InMD in reply to Aaron David says:

      What’s the MFA crisis?Report

      • Aaron David in reply to InMD says:

        MFA means Master of Fine Arts. In general, much of what is being accepted for publication is presented by, and read by, people who have been issued MFA’s by a small subset of universities. And as the circle gets smaller, the number of different voices and viewpoints becomes less and less.

        TL/DR; groupthink in the arts.Report

  7. InMD says:

    I sympathize with the idea that using digital imaging this way is usually wrong, and I definitely think it’s something that with rare exception should be frowned upon.

    The legalities around the issue though I find to be a bit more hairy. Not quite the same but consider that under modern copyright law you can’t be certain a work is in the public domain unless it’s pre-1923. All signs point to big owners of IP using their influence to protect their valuable assets in perpetuity, often well after the original creators are dead. There’s definitely a public policy question but I don’t think it can be as simple as you own your likeness for eternity and the law rightly frowns upon restricting the living to protect the property interests of the dead. I also don’t see any compelling reason remote descendants should be entitled to continue to profit and restrict that in which they have at best nebulous interest.

    The presentism is a whole different matter. I find the modern iterations annoying mainly because they clothe themselves in a false authenticity, but it’s also an age old phenomenon (Shakespeare for example is rife with it). The best solution I think is to reward that which is well done and avoid that which isn’t.Report

    • George Turner in reply to InMD says:

      Fortunately the advance of technology provides better alternatives to making CGI representations of famous actors, avoiding all the legal issues over copyright, and fixing the imbalance in supply and demand regarding top talent.

      Yes, I’m talking human cloning. I’d opine on the topic, but Hollywood already made a movie about an island full of clones of A-list actors that I’m trying pretty successfully to forget. LA Confidential sort of went there, but used plastic surgery instead of clones. Perhaps we need a new movie where one animation studio is clandestinely sabotaging the performances of CGI constructs at another studio, or farming the CGI stars out to online communities where they’re continually murdered in first person shooter games, or even worse.

      Sadly, someone could successfully pitch that movie idea to a studio and then some of us would feel compelled to watch it.Report

  8. Brandon Berg says:

    On a related note, back in September, a new Hibari Misora single was released in Japan. The twist in this story—although not much of a twist given the context—is that Hibari Misora died in 1989. I’m having trouble thinking of an Anglosphere analogue would be, but she was a really big deal. Maybe Judy Garland, or Vera Lynn in the UK. Anyway, they did some fancy machine learning tricks to synthesize her singing a new song, “After That”. The CG video they used in the TV broadcast didn’t quite find its way out of the uncanny valley, but the audio is plausible. Knowing what it is, I feel like I can tell, but I don’t think I would have second-guessed it if I hadn’t known:


    Based on the like/dislike ratio, it doesn’t seem like many Japanese people had a problem with it.Report

  9. Chip Daniels says:

    I remember when Elvis died and there was a rumor running around about how when one Hollywood agent heard the news he said “Good career move!”
    And there was a short satirical film made that posited the various handlers and profit takers exhuming Elvis’ body and literally auctioning off chunks of the corpse to screaming fans.

    Now in 2019 when I am running at the gym, I watch Youtube mashup videos where Elvis songs are remixed with a overlaid synthesizer dance beat and video montages.

    I’m not sure what to make of this, since it really doesn’t feel any different than the endless remixes and variations on Pachelbel or Mozart.
    Elvis may not technically be in the public domain, but for all intent and purposes, he is.Report

  10. DensityDuck says:

    What will be useful–albeit a rotten, cynical, cyberpunk feeling of useful–will be the ability to maintain classic performances without having to deal with the baggage of how horrible a person the performer was.

    Like, it was genuinely concerning to a lot of black comics that Bill Cosby being a serial predator went public, because they’d looked at Cosby’s career and performance as tremendously inspiring–like, white people paid money to see this guy! LOTS of money! And even beyond that his performances really meant something to comedy in general, as craft, and we’re…just supposed to throw all that away? Pretend that nobody ever did “Noah”, that “chocolate cake for breakfast” didn’t exist?

    But if you can replace the face with some neutral made-up dude, well. Very useful, because we can still have that legacy, that performance, and say “Cosby? Cosby who? This is Comedytron 2.38!”Report

  11. JoeSal says:

    I’m not so much concerned about fake people being a issue. I will say that fake reality is becoming a major issue. After watching the last episode of this seasons Jack Ryan I thought I may have been the only one who picked up on the numerous outright propaganda in the video. Then I started reading the reviews by ACTUAL people from Venezuela, and started thinking, yeah I wasn’t critical enough.Report