Will AI be the end of actors?

Nov 19, 2018 · 5 min read

Computer graphics and machine learning mean that old actors need never die. Hollywood has resurrected Carrie Fisher, Oliver Reed, and many others post-mortem in order to finish movies. As the technology improves to replace actors, it may be that Hollywood won’t need new ones.

The shift started about 2 years ago with the rise of Lil Miquela. A purely AI creation, Lil Miquela is a digital fashion icon/model/robot. Since then, “her” instagram account has grown to a followership of over 1.5 million people. Her followers are not confused, they know she is fake. Yet follow they do. “She” has gone so far as to score editorials in Vogue and has endorsed a series of different products.

This is Lil Miquela. It’s subtle, but she is clearly not real.

The follow up is Shudu, another purely CGI model:

While Shudu hasn’t achieved the followership of Lil Miquela, the quality of the graphics and the accuracy of human reproduction is clearly superior. Shudu’s skin and expressions are cloyingly lifelike. If makeup is humanity’s way of looking better than real, Shudu is the computer’s version of the opposite.

Video Games lead the way

I remember when I first played the video game “The Last of Us”. It was a game of sublime art, with phenomenal characters and flawless storytelling. And the graphics were shockingly real.

A screenshot from The Last Of Us

I would play the game and my girlfriend, normally disinterested in games, would watch. “It’s like a really long movie” she said. And she was right, that’s exactly how it felt — like a movie that I could control, and was therefore all the more invested in. And the realism only gets better from here.

The Playstation 4 and even the PS4 Pro have been out for quite some time now. Whenever they arrive, the next generation of game consoles will be yet another massive bump in terms of graphics capability. We’re almost at the point where we can render lifelike images in real time. Or maybe we’re already there, and Sony just hasn’t pushed the button yet.

Who needs actors anyway?

One of the largest expenses for Hollywood are the stars. George Clooney led the pack at over $200 million. Stars from Adam Sandler to Dwayne Johnson are paid from $30 million to $124 million. Even in Bollywood, Salman Khan has been paid over $38 million dollars.

Hollywood studios already seek to derive profits from spectacle. Major films are shot against green screens with computer graphics wizards filling in the rest. People will pay top dollar to watch giant lizards eat Manhattan. At some point Hollywood may decide that it’s financially and logistically simpler to replace the sets, the actors, the whole thing really, with flawless CGI reproductions. Plus once you’ve built NYC in a computer you can blow it up as often as you like for free.

This would be a dream for Hollywood producers. CGI characters always show up on time, never complain, and don’t go off brand. With fake actors, Hollywood can promise brands a perfect experience for product placement, without the cell-phone captured breakdowns or sexual assault scandals.

What about Audio?

While current audio manipulation techniques aren’t quite there, it’s just a matter of time. Adobe has released new software dubbed the “photoshop of sound”, called VoCo. They are hard at work using AI to replicate accurate human voice.

Within 5 years, I expect the technology to be good enough to begin replacing voice actors. At which point, we’re truly in a fully-digital world. Digital actors will be complete and 100% owned by production studios.

TV will follow suit

We are currently in an age called “Peak TV”. In the quest to capture increasingly discriminating viewers, TV studios have continually upped their game. TV shows from Game of Thrones, to Marvel’s Daredevil have a level of scripting, shooting, and acting that used to be reserved for the best of Hollywood. But no longer, and it’s expensive. Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and other Marvel properties can cost $40 million a season. Where does that money go?

A lot goes to actors. While each actor on these shows doesn’t earn much compared to the aformentioned movie stars, it all adds up. By removing actors, each season of every show could have the budget trimmed by a few million. Subtract the cost of stunt doubles and green screen artists and the cost drops further. Hiring all the extra 3D animators and modelers adds up, but at this point they no longer need to be on location, and overseas technical labor is cheap, plus they aren’t Union.

Will Disney Lead the Way?

In the middle of all this is Disney. They own not only the Marvel suite of properties but also their own animation and the ever profitable Star Wars properties and the Lucasarts tech team. Oh, and let’s not forget their purchase of Pixar.

If there were ever a company perfectly positioned to profit from the switch to all-digital actors, it’s Disney. Their collection of properties both creative and technical are a perfect fit for this future. Nobody else has such deep experience in cinematic animation, a set of properties perfectly suited to exploiting CGI, and the deep pockets necessary to handle any unexpected issues.

Even better for Disney: they have tons of experience launching new creative properties that don’t involve any people. Go back and watch Wall-E, and realize that it is the future of cinema, not the past.


The actor profession may be forced back to its origins: the stage. Production companies have strong incentives to turn everything into CGI. A CGI product can be cheaper to produce, effortless to control, and easy to spin off into all sorts of secondary media like music and video games. Just like other digital assets, CGI creations are costly to produce but then cheap to reproduce.

Disney is likely eyeing this future with greed and satisfaction. But I’m a little worried about what it will mean for us as people. Will we simply accept these digital rolemodels? So far it’s looking like yes, we will.

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