December 8, 2023

Brighton Journal

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How SAG-AFTRA Fought AI Zombies

How SAG-AFTRA Fought AI Zombies

SAG-AFTRA has settled dozens of cases, ranging from pension and health contributions, to page limits for self-recorded auditions, to paying for background actors.

But there is still the small matter of zombies.

The union was concerned that studios could use artificial intelligence to resurrect dead actors, or create a digital Frankenstein from the body parts of real actors.

Those were among the last points of agreement implemented before the union could end its 118-day strike on Wednesday.

In the end, SAG-AFTRA didn’t get all the AI ​​limitations it was looking for. But it got most of it, including a stipulation that if a Frankenstein actor contains recognizable features of real actors, studios must get permission from those actors.

“If you use Brad Pitt’s smile and Jennifer Aniston’s eyes, they both have the right to agree,” said Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, the union’s chief negotiator.

Artificial intelligence has become the dominant topic of the strike over the past 10 days. For actors, it threatens their control over their performances, and perhaps their livelihoods. Many fear that studios, if they could, would not hesitate to replace them with digital versions of themselves.

Caitlin Dulaney, a member of the SAG-AFTRA negotiating committee, said the AI ​​provisions are the “icing on the cake” of the new contract.

“This was the thing we needed to get on the right track,” she said. “And we definitely feel like we did that.” I truly believe our members will feel safe and protected with what we’ve got.

AI was also a key element in the Writers Guild of America negotiations. But the matter was more urgent – ​​and more complex – for the actors.

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Both unions feared the ways in which their work could be turned against them. Their scripts or performances can be entered into the AI ​​training database, and used to create “new” work. For actors, the result may be an artificial actor that does not resemble a living person, but is nonetheless based on parts of real performances.

Neither federation got the comprehensive restrictions against the kind of training they were looking for. The WGA obtained a no-deal agreement, and the right to discuss the issue in the courts or in future contract negotiations.

But in the case of SAG-AFTRA, the union was protected against the use of recognizable physical features in artificial performances.

The guild also obtained a condition of approval to use images of deceased actors.

Under California law, the estates of deceased actors can control the use of actors’ names and likenesses for 70 years after death. But while that covers commercial endorsements, it does not cover “expressive works” such as films or TV shows.

So when a studio makes a biopic, with an actor portraying a famous person, it doesn’t need to get permission from the famous person’s estate. But with the advent of artificial intelligence, the studio could – in theory – make a new Western starring a digital version of John Wayne, also without the approval of his estate.

SAG-AFTRA negotiators resisted this. And according to Crabtree-Ireland, they won.

“That’s gone,” he said. “They have to go to seminary.”

SAG-AFTRA also sought to limit AI endorsements to a single project. So Harrison Ford could approve the use of artificial intelligence in a certain Indiana Jones film. But his contract wouldn’t allow the studio to continue repeating him indefinitely in future “Indiana Jones” films.

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Under the final agreement, an AI approval can cover more than one project, but those projects must be spelled out in the contract, Crabtree-Ireland said.

The union and the studios spent a lot of time working out the details of recurring background actors. On the studio side, some have warned that SAG-AFTRA’s demands would ban some post-production visual effects work that is already standard procedure.

Full details of the agreement are expected to be published on Friday.