Alexandria Rubalcaba was told to report to a tractor trailer after four weeks of acting as a background actor on the Disney+ series WandaVision during the pandemic.

Dozens of other background actors were herded to the same location, where they were told one by one to step in front of a series of cameras mounted on metal rigs behind glass.

“Put your hands up. Put your hands up. Take a look this way. Take a look in that direction. Let us see your terrified expression. “Let us see your surprised expression,” Rubalcaba, 47, recalls the orders she received.

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Rubalcaba stated that the actors’ faces and bodies were scanned for around 15 minutes apiece. Then digital duplicates of them were produced.

But here’s the catch: She was never told how or whether her digital avatar would be utilized on screen. She may never know if it is used. She will never be paid for it, no matter what happens to it.

Rubalcaba, who earns the SAG-AFTRA union rate of $187 per day as a background performer, stated that she never consented to her digital clone being utilized in the background of any sequences.

“What if I don’t want to be on MarioVision or SarahVision?” she wondered, naming a few fictitious future ventures. “I am concerned that AI will eventually weed out background actors.” They’ll have no need for us any longer.”

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The potential for artificial intelligence to replace background performers is one of the primary issues in the ongoing SAG-AFTRA-studio strike, Hollywood’s largest labor conflict since the 1960s.

Body scans catch background performers off surprise
Background actors are not part of the “principal cast,” which means they do not speak and largely assist to create a realistic mood by filling out a scene.

According to a union negotiator, studios have offered to pay background performers one day’s pay after being scanned, and the actor’s digital likeness can then be used “for the rest of eternity.”

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The studios have strenuously disputed this portrayal, arguing that a background actor’s digital facsimile would only be utilized on projects for which the performer was employed, not endless future productions.

In any case, body-scanning background actors looks to be growing more popular. Five background actors interviewed by NPR said they were caught off guard in recent months by having to endure body scans by studios, and that they didn’t have much of a choice because they worried reprisal if they fought back. The majority of the performers were asked to sign nondisclosure agreements.

“You never know what will happen when it comes back to casting.” “You never know if they’re going to call up casting and say, ‘Oh, this person is being difficult,’ and not hire them again because that’s how the system works,” Rebecca Safier, a background actor in Los Angeles who recently had her body scanned on set, said. “It’s getting into this gray area of, ‘What are they going to use it for in the future?'”

Background actors face a ‘existential threat’
Hollywood has always relied on high-tech tinkering to improve films throughout the post-production process. The creators of Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings built massive battle armies using computer software that generates swarms of synthetic troops.

And now that the tech titans are in the movie business, they are doing it as well. Apple, for example, used digital doubles of only 20 background actors to fill a stadium with what appeared to be 26,000 people.

This “crowd tiling” technique is not new. Studios have used it for years to shoot enormous group scenarios.

But, with the advent of generative AI — which can create new conversations, images, and videos by synthesizing an enormous corpus of data with beefed up hardware capable of harnessing an incredible amount of computing power — not only crowd scenes are being digitally created.

AI-powered film editing technologies allow directors to shift an actor’s performance from one scene to another or alter words. Other AI tools can make an actor’s lips move as if they are speaking in a language that has been overdubbed. In seconds, an AI technology at Disney can effectively make a performer look younger or older.

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Digital cloning is one of the most contentious use of AI in Hollywood. Voices, faces, and entire bodies can now be digitally recreated in startlingly lifelike ways.

Background actors in Hollywood are concerned that they will be the first to be rendered obsolete by AI.

According to Andrew Susskind, an associate professor in Drexel University’s film and television department who spent 30 years as a producer and director, the widespread usage of digital extras could have a substantial impact on expenses.

“Imagine ballroom scenes, party scenes, or any scenes that require a large number of extras,” Susskind explained. “Imagine how much money they would save.” Not having to pay $180 each day. In addition to meals. “In addition to costuming.”

Because there are currently no guidelines governing how studios employ AI, Susskind believes it is understandable that actors and writers have made AI a primary sticking point in the Hollywood strikes.

“The actors, extras, and writers are correct in seeing this as their best opportunity to establish what the rules should be in the use of AI,” he stated. “And the people in the background, who usually have no real power and are mistreated, should be speaking up here.”

Katrina Sherwood, a stand-in, body-double, and background actress in Los Angeles, expressed concern that AI will one day drive her into another business entirely.

“Our likeness is really the only thing we actually own, so that would be an existential threat,” she explained.

Background work has been undertaken by approximately 84,200 of SAG-AFTRA’s 160,000 current members at some point in their careers. Over 30,000 SAG members worked as background actors at least once last year.

According to union authorities, a computerized clone of an actor may allow an actor to be at two shoots at once or take on a project they would not have taken on otherwise. However, union officials have stated that they will only approve a deal that provides adequate compensation to performers for the use of their likeness.

The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, a trade association comprising studios and producers, has stated that if an actor’s digital replica is utilized, “fair compensation” will be offered. They claim that they will only employ such AI creations with the actor’s permission.

However, both parties disagree on the definition of consent. Studios propose asking background actors for approval only once – once they are hired. According to union representatives, each time an actor’s digital likeness is exploited, it should be bargained separately.

Extras, unlike major performers, do not have much say over how their performances are reused, according to Dom Lubsey, a Los Angeles actor who mostly does background work.

“I don’t often hear people speaking up for background [actors], or if they’re being abused, not being treated properly, or if they should be paid more,” he says. “You just don’t hear things like that.”

He stated that it is something he considers every time his face and body are scanned on set. It happened for the first time in 2019 on the set of a popular racing film. He was most recently scanned for a basketball-related television show.

“They wanted me to cheer.” I had to make angry expressions. They requested war-cry expressions. “I did everything,” he explained.

He felt a little unsettled after that. He exited the semi-truck trailer, where a big cylinder outfitted with hundreds of little cameras had just scanned his different gestures as a game audience member. Perhaps it was the cost of doing business in Hollywood in the AI era, he mused, but was it also a step closer to his career extinction?

“My first thought leaving the trailer was, ‘Oh, this might just be the future,” Lubsey explained. “We might just lose our jobs.”


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