Home » Background actors say fears of being replaced by AI come from their experiences

Background actors say fears of being replaced by AI come from their experiences

Extras say they have already been scanned without explanation.

By  Jessica Goodheart  for Capital & Main

About five years ago, Nicole Kreuzer had a brief stint on “The Mandalorian,” a space Western that is part of the “Star Wars” franchise. She remembers dressing as a desert dweller and a set that was “very space punk, very industrial.” During her time there, the actors’ phones were locked away to safeguard production details. Then, without notice, she was told to undergo scanning. In a trailer, she stood on a platform while more than 100 cameras captured her digital likeness, all under the direction of a disembodied male voice. She asked what would be done with the images. “We can make you leap over buildings. We can make you fight,” she recalled the voice saying. 

The use of artificial intelligence in the entertainment industry has become one of the central issues for striking actors and writers, with both groups demanding more guardrails around the evolving technology. Actors say their scanned images could later be used without compensation or consent. The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers says they support compensation and consent for use of actors’ images, but the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists wants more explicit requirements for actor consent.

Kreuzer works periodically as an extra, or “background actor.” Background actors have nonspeaking roles and typically appear in the background of scenes. They are seen as most vulnerable to being replaced by AI simulations. (Stars could demand large sums for use of their famous images.) Background actors also have little leverage to push back because many are dependent on background work for survival, and they can be more easily replaced.

Kreuzer said she felt pressured to agree to be scanned that day. She had been asked if she would be available for weeks of shooting, but she was never called again after she was scanned. “I wanted to refuse to do it. I felt uncomfortable,” said Kreuzer, whose bread and butter work is as a stand-in for 5’ 9” blondes.

AI represents “an existential threat” to the livelihoods of actors, said Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, the national executive director of SAG-AFTRA, at the July press conference announcing the strike. “Some actors fear a possible future in which studios will pressure them to sign away their likeness and their digital double will take work away from them,” a recent Scientific American article on the topic noted.

If background actors’ jobs disappear, they won’t be the only ones to suffer. Makeup artists, prop masters, and costume designers who equip them for shoots will also lose work.

That future may have already arrived. Kreuzer said that she had been led to believe that she would receive a “whole lot of work” from the science fiction series. “That was what they were kind of dangling in front of us,” she said. That promise influenced her decision to get scanned. “If I had said no to the scan and they sent me home that day, I would have never been called back. But they never called me back anyway,” she said. Her pay for the day was $170. Because her phone was locked up, she was unable to call her union to seek advice. Knowing what she knows now, she would not have submitted to having herself scanned. She has no idea what was done with her digital replica. The experience left her unsettled and deeply worried about the future of work in her industry.

Neither Lucasfilm, which produced “The Mandalorian,” nor Disney, its parent company, responded to requests for comment about their policy on scanning background actors.

Kreuzer is not the only one to say she was promised more work only to see it vanish after body scans, nor is she the only actor made to feel powerless on set. One actor told the Los Angeles Times last month that she hid in the bathroom during a production to avoid being subjected to a scan.

Background workers occupy the lowest rung of a ladder that reaches all the way up to stars like Tom Hanks and Viola Davis. They populate the streets and restaurants in films and TV shows to make those scenes vibrant and atmospheric. Their work is low-paid and can be sporadic, with about 32,000 people working at least once as a background actor last year. For some it is a side gig and for others it represents their main source of income, said Kreuzer. They typically earn $187 for an eight-hour day and more with overtime.

If their jobs disappear, they won’t be the only ones to suffer. Makeup artists, prop masters, and costume designers who equip them for shoots will also lose work.

That’s one reason makeup artist Ellen Vieira is supporting the strike. She was one of about 50 makeup artists attending to background actors on the set of “Oppenheimer,” a job that kept her on set all day for a week. Additionally, the actors in “Oppenheimer” were dressed in period costumes, keeping costume houses busy.

“Could they make me be in a sexual situation with another scanned person? Could they make me protest for something that I would never believe in in real life?”

~ Nicole Kreuzer, background actor

The ripple effects of cutting background actors would cause “a complete overhaul of the entire industry,” Vieira said. Ultimately, the quality of the production will suffer, said Vieira, because the scenes will lack the texture that comes from live actors performing. “I don’t see in the long run how the producers think they’re going to make all this money. Isn’t this going to shoot them in the foot?”

Nevertheless, the AI train has already left the station, and there is reportedly a hiring boom in Hollywood, with entertainment companies looking to beef up their technological capabilities by bringing on more tech executives and coders. SAG-AFTRA appears to be accepting the arrival of digital scanning of actors for TV shows, films, and video games at a time when it is becoming increasingly standard practice for productions with visual effects.

The union is, however, demanding protections, including “informed consent” and “fair compensation” for actors when their digital replica is used or their performance is altered using AI. However, the two sides have yet to agree on the specifics of what counts as informed or fair. Talks stalled in mid-July. (The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers maintains it seeks a “balanced approach” to AI that also involves gaining actors’ consent and providing them with fair compensation.) The union says the two sides remain far apart not only on AI but also on compensation, health care, and pension costs.

“The role of extras is exceptionally vulnerable,” according to Michael Fink, a visual effects specialist and professor emeritus at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. Background actors “will have to agree to have their likeness scanned, learned and made available” just to get work in film “unless they can begin to claim ownership and compensation for when and how they will be seen,” he said in an email.

John Piccarreto was picketing in front of Warner Bros. Entertainment in Burbank one day last month when he shared a recent body scanning experience, which he described as “shady.” After filming a scene in April, he was approached by a production assistant. “I was told I had to be scanned or leave the set,” he said. The process was quick and painless, but he said he felt “violated.”

While AI threatens jobs in a wide range of categories, from call center workers to radiologists to pilots, SAG-AFTRA members Piccarreto and Kreuzer both have concerns unique to their profession about their digital likenesses being misused. Piccarreto worries about hackers. Kreuzer wondered, “Could they make me be in a sexual situation with another scanned person? Could they make me protest for something that I would never believe in in real life?” Because of the potential for such a dystopian future, Piccarreto said he now feels “like I sold my soul to the devil” by allowing himself to be scanned.

An overriding concern is jobs. After he was scanned, Piccarreto said, days of background work he had expected disappeared. “We got a notice after we were scanned that our days were cut.” A 26-day job turned into a six-day job.

Piccarreto believes the studio lured him, along with 200 or so actors, into the scanning truck with the promise of more work. He said he was told that the reduction in days was just a coincidence and that production schedules change constantly. “Pretty convenient,” he said.

“The big worry,” said Kreuzer, is that “this is basically going to take away all jobs, because we’re all being virtually created.”

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August 2023