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DeepCasting Could Be The Future of Netflix

The future of acting is to never be seen nor heard.

Photo by Alexander Shatov on Unsplash

“This year’s Oscar for Best Actor goes to…… Marlon Brando’s estate for his digitized role in Godfather 7: The Prequel.”

In 2016 moviegoers saw Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher in “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” playing the characters Tarkin and Leia. This is despite the fact that Cushing had been dead for over 20 years and Fisher was 40-years older than she appeared in the film. Living actors Guy Henry and Ingvild Deila acted out the scenes, then the team at ILM used special cameras and CGI techniques to transform them into Cushing and Fisher as they were circa 1977.

The significance of these techniques are monumental for the entertainment industry:

— Old age and death are no longer impediments to casting—

Of course there is a bit of an uncanny valley feeling with the characters’ faces, as a hint of CGI unreality remains. But we’re fooling ourselves if we don’t think that upcoming generations of CGI won’t deliver flawless representations of any desired actor.

So, now that we have arrived at a point where producers can cast any actor, living or dead, to deliver any performance … possibilities arise:

  • Prequels, sequels, and spinoffs of the Sopranos, Game of Thrones, The Wire, Breaking Bad… all with original casts?
  • More Harry Potter movies starring the actors as they were at any age?
  • Any Star Wars, Star Trek, Star Gate, Battlestar Galactica, or any Star-related program, rebooted with original casts
  • [Insert Movie Name] starring [Insert Actor’s Name] as they were at age [Insert Desired Age]
Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

With advancements in CGI technology, it will become easier and cheaper for directors to superimpose any actor’s likeness on to any performance. Increased ease-of-use could result in a digital marketplace of actors’ likenesses. Directors could scroll through an ever-expanding array of likenesses to select which face, body, and voice they want to superimpose on to a real life performance.

Such a marketplace of likenesses wouldn’t have to be exclusively available to movie directors, it could extend to movie-watchers alike. When I stream the latest James Bond movie on Netflix, or any other streaming service, could I scroll through a list of actors whose likeness can be superimposed to play Bond? Maybe I’m in the mood for Sean Connery to play Bond, or maybe Pierce Brosnan this time, in either case I’ll choose Sean Bean to play the villain so he can deliver his signature death performance.

If it is possible to cast any actor, could it also be possible to cast any non-actor?

A new biopic of Albert Einstein could star Albert Einstein, with his face, voice, and mannerisms, taken from real life footage. JFK could play JFK. Mandela could play Mandela. Gandhi could play Gandhi. In fact, Gandhi could play Bond.

With advancements in deep learning algorithms and Deepfakes, even single images of people can be brought to life. A painting of Mona Lisa, a sculpture of Julius Caesar or a drawing of Leonardo DaVinci could be all that’s needed to make your lead actor look like the desired person. No need for hair and makeup.

I do not envy the aspiring actor who auditions for the lead in the Picasso biopic, when he’s potentially competing against every Oscar winner in history, in their prime, as well as Pablo Picasso himself. Producers may soon find that it is more profitable to cast beloved legacy actors or famous people of bygone eras rather than take a chance on a new face.

This highlights one of the potential downsides. Upcoming actors face competition like never before. Guy Henry is credited for his role as Tarkin in Rogue One, despite the audience never seeing his face or hearing his voice. Had he won an Oscar, he would have collected the award, but undeniably, part of the performance was not his.

As technology shoulders larger portions or the entirety of acting and voiceover roles, who gets credited with the performance?

  • The motion-captured ping-pong-ball-clad actor?
  • The deceased actor’s likeness and estate?
  • The deep learning neural network algorithm that does the superimposition?
  • The CGI team who delivers the final product?
  • Everyone? No one?

If body movements are played by one actor, dialogue and facial expressions are delivered by another, and a CGI team alters the entire performance to match the likeness of a third actor, who wins the Oscar? Can teams win awards for Best Actor?

Does it matter? So long as everyone gets paid and the final performance works.

Photo by Avel Chuklanov on Unsplash

This is a big opportunity for established actors and influential people (or their estates if they are dead), to star in roles across centuries. A digitized Robert Downey Jr. could play Iron Man well into the 22nd Century, ensuring millions in revenue for himself and estate. Knowing this, actors are getting themselves scanned, as a way to provide for their family in perpetuity as well as provide security for current projects.

The ethics of “resurrecting” people to play roles, to which they are incapable of agreeing, is also fraught. Fred Astaire’s widow approved of his likeness to be used to star in a vacuum cleaner commercial, while his daughter did not. Perhaps all our wills need to be amended to outline how our future likenesses may or may not be used.….. (No nudity, unless it makes me look good).

If you think you don’t need to be concerned about licensing rights for your likeness, consider this Chinese company’s Deepfake app that lets users superimpose their own face onto actors’ roles of a desired movie clip. This has led to issues with copyrights, privacy, and the digital rights to peoples’ faces. With apps like this, I can play James Bond, the villain, and the leading lady, simultaneously. Or I could swipe your profile picture and have you play the villain. Anyone can play anyone.

CGI and Deepfake technology are disrupting the entertainment world, which may or may not be good. Perhaps we’ll enjoy a richer movie-going experience with greater realism, more control, and the return of beloved actors reprising iconic roles. Or maybe we’ll be doomed to watch the same actors playing the same roles over and over again, never experiencing something new.

In any case, I’m excited to see the new Indiana Jones movie, starring ’81 Harrison Ford, ’62 Marilyn Monroe, ’37 Adolf Hitler, and myself playing Jones’ sidekick.

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Matthew Pettigrew

Matthew Pettigrew

Writing about tech & society. Bitcoin writings posted at thebitcoinletter.substack.com

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