Call For Comments: Digital Performances and Deep Fakery

From Mav: There’s been a weird thought running through my head on and off for the last few years. How much of an actor has to be present in order for a performance to count as the actor acting? As CGI enhanced performances get more and more common what “counts”? Do we have to rethink the idea of acting? I would argue that we do, but in doing so, we might have to rethink the very idea of identity. What is “you”? Let me explain.

First of all, I am completely ok with the idea of computer assisted performances… or anything else for that matter. If we use CGI to de-age Carrie Fisher, Robert Downey Jr., Samuel L. Jackson, or whoever, I think that’s still them putting on a performance. Back when I was still drawing my comic strip, I’d sometimes be at a comic convention and a “fan” would come up and see me drawing and watch. I tend to draw on a Wacom Cintiq tablet… a digital screen. I like it. Sometimes the fan would actually get mad at me… “That’s not real drawing! If I used a computer I could draw just as good as you!.” My response was generally to say “well, then maybe you should. Fuck off!” The thing here is, the computer is a tool. Yes, it’s not a “natural” part of me… but neither is the pencil. I don’t draw with my finger. I use a tool to help me. There’s also all kinds of assisting technology in my camera when I take a picture. So it should be ok for computers to assist other kinds of artists as well. I’m ok with singers using autotune… I’m ok with actors using CGI.

Everytime Andy Serkis has a starring role in a film, internet geekdom goes wild demanding that he be recognized by the Oscars. I’m not on that page yet. Not because I don’t think that a CGI performance shouldn’t be able to win an Oscar. I just don’t think Serkis is quite good enough… YET! I think he is probably the finest actor at doing CGI enhanced performances. He’s just not yet turned in one where I said “that is the best acting I’ve seen this year.” He was great as Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. But Clooney, Pitt, Oldman, Bichir and yes, even eventual winner Jean Dujardin were all just better in 2011 (The Artist may not have deserved Best Picture over the Descendants, but Dujardin was really good!). BUT, sooner or later, Serkis or someone like him WILL put in a performance that good. And when it happens, I think it should be recognized. Yes, Beyonce uses autotune… but yes, she deserves every single Grammy she has. And if you have a problem with that, then you should also think that every performance that uses an electric guitar or a synthesizer should also be disqualified.

Movies (and music recordings) are cooperative efforts. Yes, there is certainly a large amount of personal skill that goes into Daniel Day Lewis’s portrayal of Lincoln. Same with Gary Oldman as Churchill. But those performance were also greatly enhanced by the makeup department and wardrobe department transforming them. It wouldn’t have been the same if they’d been on screen in blue jeans and hair from Supercuts. Movie actors also use editing tricks, stunt performers, and all kinds of other trickery to create their reality. So what happens when we get to the point that rather than using prosthetics and fatsuits, we just start digitally superimposing Churchill and Lincoln’s faces on top of Oldman and Lewis’s? We’ve not seen a performance yet where this is 100% convincing. But again, we’re getting there.

I first became heavily aware of deep fakes with porn… I’d heard of the tech but not really thought much about it until I began looking into it when I saw some ultra conservative weenie posting an anti Game of Thrones rant and slut-shaming Maisie Williams for her leaked sex tape… and I was like “wait, I don’t remember that” but the “article” totally had a very explicit picture of her having sex… so I thought “oh, she must have been phone hacked at some point.” So I googled around for the story and couldn’t find one, but there was a link to a video… THE WHOLE VIDEO! And it is… WAY better lit than a leaked sex tape should be… with multiple angles… great production value… and that’s how I learned that deep fakes were a thing… People use computers to digitally replace the face of some porn actress with a famous mainstream actress. The results are often quite convincing if you aren’t really looking. (Williams is apparently a huge target of them). So anyway… obviously coopting her image for porn without her permission is gross… sure. But it doesn’t appear to be 100% “illegal” per se… it’s complicated… and it’s also… weird… because of where it ends up going… when you deep fake Williams having sex with Kit Harrington and Emilia Clarke… or you put Daniel Radcliffe having sex with Tom Felton, at what point does it stop just being “really good at fanfic/fan art?” Fair use/parody laws APPEAR to protect these cases… but obviously it starts feeling different in these porn cases…

Anyway, the point is, are you violating Williams (or whoever) when you do this? No one has actually hacked her phone, they’ve just taken her face from publicly available media. No one has stolen naked intimate pictures or video of her. That’s not her body. But is it “her”? If we take the sex part out of the equation and deep fake her onto the body of a woman playing basketball in full clothing, it feels less problematic. I don’t think anyone would really be upset if there was a video on the internet of Maisie Williams dunking on Michael Jordan. But what do we call that? Because what I’m thinking here is that Peter Cushing appears as Grand Moff Tarkin in the movie Rogue One: A Star Wars Story… except it’s just his face. The voice and body belong to Guy Henry… an actor who is like… alive and stuff. And the results are not exactly Oscar worthy… but what if they were? Who deserves credit for that performance, Henry or Cushing? I’m inclined to say Henry… Cushing was long dead before the idea of the film ever came up. He had no more input into the performance or his inclusion in the film than Williams does in her many deep faked porn videos or than file footage of any other actor included in a later project(or non actor… think of all the times you’ve seen JFK say “Ich bin ein Berliner” or MLK say “I had a dream” in a movie). But then who deserves credit for playing Rocket Raccoon in Marvel movies: Bradley Cooper (the voice) or Sean Gunn (the motion capture performer)? Or does the performance belong to Framestore VFX? There’s a whole Ship of Theseus argument going on here. What is the core of the identity of the performer? How much of the original needs to be present for it to be the thing?

Anyway, that’s what I’m wondering. What do you count as a performance? How much intention needs to be there? How much technological assistance is ok? When does the end result stop be attributable to the performer? And how does that scale to non-artistic performances by celebrities. Yeah, it sucks that people are making beat-off material of Arya Stark… but obviously, they were going to do that anyway. What happens when we start using deep fakes to make porn of just random regular people? What happens when you make a video of Obama endorsing Trump… or Ivanka endorsing Bernie? What happens when you have video of Elizabeth Warren calling for death to Israel? This is apparently actually already happening a little bit. How far is too far?

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