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‘This is literally the plot of a Black Mirror episode’: ‘Joan Is Awful’ comparisons emerge after SAG-AFTRA reveals AI proposal from studios to scan actors

'Would they act better than the originals?'


Jack Alban

Internet Culture

Posted on Jul 14, 2023

This article contains spoilers for Black Mirror “Joan Is Awful.”

SAG/AFTRA and WGA are now both on strike. The last time both of these unions went on strike at the same time was back in 1960 when Ronald Regan was the head of the Actor’s Union. Residuals were the main point of contention then as they are now. However, some were raising eyebrows a different point of contention: The use of AI as it relates to recreating actors’ images and likeness in TV and film.    

Twitter user Cris Parker (@3CFilmss) posted a video, which has already racked up 1.6 million views, of SAG/AFTRA spokesperson and strike negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland revealing Disney’s “ground breaking” proposal on using AI to recreate the likeness of actors in the media. “They proposed that our background performers should be able to be scanned, get paid for 1 days’ pay, and their company should own that scan, their image, their likeness, and should be able to use it for the rest of eternity in any project they want with no consent and no compensation. If you think that’s a groundbreaking proposal, think again.” This proposal, Crabtree claimed, was put on the table without warning Wednesday during negotiations.

However, the AMPTP said in an email to the Daily Dot that SAG-AFTRA’s claims that these digital likenesses being used for “eternity” without “consent or compensation” of the artist is untrue: “The claim made by SAG-AFTRA leadership that the digital replicas of background actors may be used in perpetuity with no consent or compensation is false. In fact, the current AMPTP proposal only permits a company to use the digital replica of a background actor in the motion picture for which the background actor is employed. Any other use requires the background actor’s consent and bargaining for the use, subject to a minimum payment.”

All the same, many are likening this announcement to an eerily foretelling episode of Netflix’s Black Mirror television show which covered this very topic. In the season premiere, titled “Joan is Awful,” a streaming service called “Steamberry” gathers the conversations, phone calls, texts, and all interactions of its titular character Joan (played by Annie Murphy), an ordinary woman and manager at a media company, to use all of the very private data of her life to create a show about her without consent. 

In the show on Streamberry, Joan is played by Salma Hayek. What is soon revealed is that it’s not actually Salma Hayek playing Joan. It’s an AI-generated performance of Salma Hayek that Streamberry has the rights to. Basically, the service has a deepfake of Hayek that it’s using to torment Joan by broadcasting her life to the world. When Joan and Salma’s lives and reputation start to get totally dismantled by the use of their images and likenesses, both try to sue Streamberry. Sadly Joan agreed to Streamberry’s “Terms of Service” which contained this clause, and Salma licensed her image in perpetuity.

This is wholly unprecedented as far as actors professional livelihoods are concerned. Not to mention this development, little by little, would start to take away the humanity from an art form that is all about, well, humanity. 

Imagine a future where you could see James Dean, Marlon Brando, or Elizabeth Taylor AIs, with the help of Hollywood, try to digitally muster a performance that is a robotic attempt to capture the iconic nuance, emotion, and beautiful imperfections of these stars. Whether the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, or the AMPTP, admits it or not: Many fear that this is where this is headed.

The response to this from Twitter users is unanimous that this idea is unequivocally dystopian and unethical. “This is morally wrong and strips the actors of their identity, their value, and their labor. Awful,” one user wrote. Another virtually shouted: “This is grotesque. I wish SAG-AFTRA every success!” 

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of other users, some actors, who support ‘dying on the hill’ of never letting studios cheapen a business that is all about, at its core, people.

Another user on the platform responded to Parker’s tweet, writing: “Going to be some crazy times..all the big time major movie stars have so much on film that they can literally make a whole movie using only AI videos..stars wouldn’t need to be on set at even one movie location for filming. Go check out all of these crazy ‘AI-Deep Fakes’ videos.”

Someone else penned: “This raises some interesting ethical questions about the use of AI in media and the potential impact on actors.”

One other Twitter user wrote: “They better have done some market research, because- besides those of us who may rubberneck at the AI monstrosity once or twice, will understand that any type of drama will be ruined. Not only that, but what about the yank-fest award shows they put on? Greed is out of control.”

However, like many technological advancements, the implementation of AI to keep stars “alive forever” feels inevitable. Televisions, phones, even trains were all deeply feared in society before becoming accepted and eventually staples, if not necessities that have had profound effects on the way our species operates. One user provided what they felt was the sobering reality of the situation. 

Another Twitter user claimed: “AI will write the script. AI will be the actors. AI design the sets. AI will direct. AI will do the camera. There will be nothing practical, nothing physical, an entire movie created inside a mainframe. And the ticket price will still be insane.”

The Daily Dot has reached out to Cris Parker via Twitter DM and SAG/AFTRA via email for comment.

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*First Published: Jul 14, 2023, 6:51 pm CDT