"Open the pod bay doors, HAL." After an interminably long pause, HAL responds, "I'm sorry, Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that." 2001 A Space Odyssey 1968, screenplay by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clark.
Way back in 1983, comic book master and television screenwriter Howard Chaykin introduced the character Reuben Flagg in the premier issue of his creator-owned series American Flagg. Flagg was the popular television star of Mark Thrust, Sexus Ranger. He is made redundant by CGI and computer technology. His hit show continues to feature his likeness, but Flagg's show business career is over. Now unemployed, he joins the Plexus Rangers on Earth. Becoming a real-life space cop rather than acting as one, he gets stationed in Chicago. (The first twelve issues are excellent and should be collected in hardcover. Howard, if you are reading this, I'll buy one.)
Chaykin was surprisingly prescient concerning the current dilemma facing film and television creatives, now that CGI can replace anyone in a film. See Ridley Scott's All The Money in the World. They replaced Kevin Spacey with Christopher Plummer after the movie was finished. Martin Scorcese de-aged, DeNiro, Pacino, and Pesci in the Irishman. James Cameron can turn the lovely Zoe Saldana into a very tall and hot, blue Na'vi in Avatar. Wait, can I say that about a CGI character? Inquiring minds want to know! It's not like I said I find Zoe Saldana very attractive (which I do), but I said the big blue hottie she plays in Avatar was hot (which she is) even though she is blue, not human, and CGI. (Yes, yes, and yes!) Sure, there are thousands of artists hard at work, drawing and painting and cleaning up the frames, many by hard-working artists in India and throughout the world where the dollar buys more than it does in the good ol' U.S. of A. But they are all aided by Artificial Intelligence that helps them make their work appear alive.
For god's sake, Carrie Fisher was dead three years when she appeared in Star Wars Rise of Skywalker. They created her using AI and Deepfake technology. What's that, you say? Unfamiliar with Deepfake, it's just another AI that can replace one person's likeness convincingly with that of another. While that ain't new, I'm sure you have heard of revenge-porn where some loser puts his ex's face on some skanky x-rated stuff.
The Deepfake dudes claim that the tech leverages powerful techniques from machine learning and artificial intelligence to manipulate and create visual and audio content that appears real! (That's a quote, but it sounds like bullshit to me.) It also does a bunch of other tech stuff that makes it sound like it creates its own digital brain to do the billions of math problems required to create the fake reality. Way to go, tech bros. (That was sarcasm, straight up, no chaser)
This is one of the reasons the actors are on strike. Tom Hanks recently said on The Adam Buxton Podcast, "What is a bona fide possibility right now, if I wanted to, I could get together and pitch a series of seven movies that would star me in them, in which I would be 32 years old from now until kingdom come." He said, "I'm doomed to be in movies long after I'm dead!" I like Tom Hanks. But I like him only once or twice a year. Once he kicks the bucket, they can put him in everything, including old movies like Tom Hanks with Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story. The tagline would be, You cried with Tom in Philadelphia, now laugh with him in the Philadelphia Story!
Note #1: Since I'm writing about the ongoing strikes in a very roundabout fashion, it's time to discuss issues with streaming. The unions and guilds negotiate new contracts for their members every few years. This year the writers, actors, and directors went on strike because of Artificial Intelligence and royalties. Amongst other issues, let's say you are the famed producer of all the Law and Orders, FBI Night on CBS, and the Chicago shows, Dick Wolf, a gay porn star name if there ever was one. He sells his shows to a streaming platform, and they pay him a flat fee for the right to stream those shows for a given period. He gets paid a pretty penny for those rights. But how much money do the actors and writers get for their hard work? Bupkis!
(How much exactly? I have no idea, just a lot. My parents told me never to discuss god or money in polite company. Yeah, I basically do both in this story alone. Learn from my mistakes!)
According to Valentina Garza, a producer, and writer who has worked on shows including Wednesday, Only Murders in the Building, and Jane the Virgin, shared just how low residual payments can be on streaming services. "In case anyone's wondering why the WGA is on strike, this is my streaming residual check for two episodes of Jane the Virgin." She tweeted a photo of one check made out for three cents, one for .01, and another for .02. "I think the streamers can do better."
I agree with her. Also, as mentioned earlier, the ten-episode cool show is often just one season. The writer's rooms are smaller, a mini-room, and the residuals are smaller. It's hard to make a living as a writer in America as it is. When a series hires three writers instead of seven to ten in a proper writer's room, and they only work for part of a year (if you are lucky), it's hard to work enough to have health benefits. (Sitcoms also hire gag writers who throw out gags when an actor feels the exact line isn't quite funny enough.)
Side Bar: You need to earn $38,000.00 to qualify for health benefits at the Writer's Guild, of which your payment is roughly $6,250.00 from those earnings. It's tricky because there is a days worked provision and other stuff I could never figure out.
The actors are striking because of many of the same issues. Also, the actors must self-tape their auditions. (This sounds silly, but hope is what keeps most actors trying, and getting an audition that you shoot yourself doesn't inspire confidence in your career choice.) They make less in royalties, especially from the streamers, and every penny counts when less than ten percent of your guild works at any time. And then there is AI, which wasn't a thing during the last negotiations.
I won't mention the directors because they are low-down dirty dogs for agreeing to their new contract. There is strength in numbers, and they should have all stuck together.
One last thing, music: Spotify pays artists between $0.003 - $0.005 one cent per stream on average. Technically, the artist gets a whopping 70% of that vast payout, and Spotify keeps thirty percent. But of that money, the music publisher gets paid, the artist's representative gets paid, and then the artist gets paid. The musician who played the song receives nothing. And as Billy Preston so aptly put it, "Nothing from nothing leaves nothing."
These businesses are profitable based on the creative's work and uniqueness, and they should at least pretend to be equitable. And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming.
Like everything but weekly TV, we need movie stars to change over time. The movies need new faces and stories, but accountants want to limit risk. It's why so many movies are strangely similar in story, cast, and even the movie poster. It's to limit risk. So keeping a tried and true actor on the screen like Tom Hanks until the end of the world helps mitigate risk. Also, you can't "Me Too" a CGI image. So a Win-Win for the studios. (Not that Tom has ever had an allegation... ever! )
It's just like Ruben Flagg's situation. You mark my word, Mariska Hargitay will be catching sexually based offenders long after she's six feet under.
There is no place where this kind of risk abatement happens worse than on the great white way of Broadway. Every other show is based on a movie or a bunch of hit songs. You loved the movie, now see the play. I'm not saying they are wrong. The Producers was fantastic, sitting here kvetching, I can't remember any songs, but it had them! The Lion King was a spectacular exhibition of stagecraft with great songs. But it was no Book of Mormon, a wholly original play that is freaking hilarious. (It's a little LDS, Lion King, and Star Wars rolled into one with great songs like, "Hasa Diga Eebowai" which in the show means... err eff you g-d. But I have it on great authority that in Swahili, it actually means "Especially Diarrhea.") My point is that the fear of losing money has given rise to Juke Box Musicals and Movie Adaptations, making it hard for a gem like Book of Mormon to get produced. (And yet I thank Heavenly Father that it did.)
By now, you have heard of ChatGPT. An artificial intelligence that writes for you. You write a prompt like: how cool is George? And it writes me a thirty-page essay on the utter depth of my coolness. A lot of it will be wrong and completely insane, like when I was 14, I was the youngest astronaut to walk on the moon, and I lost my virginity to Racquel Welch while racing at LeMans. Incredibly inaccurate, but oh, so cool. Its creators are saying that it will get better. And that novels will one day be written with ChatGPT.
But why stop at novels, why not TV shows? I'm not talking about the cool ten-episode TV shows we all binge-watch (at the moment) but the regular network ones. Which are based on keeping the same show week after week fresh. Pick any of the twelve hundred million episodes of any Law and Order series. 1. A crime is committed. One of the cops says something snarky before the commercial. 2. Cops catch the perpetrators. 3. They try to prosecute the criminals. 4. The DA says something to the assistant DA like, "Good Job." Or "Welp there goes another serial killer. Let's hope next time, we have some real evidence. And don't forget to redirect after the defense scores a point with the jury." (They never redirect.)
How hard would it be for an AI to regurgitate that plot over and over ad infinitum? Pretty freaking easy. The trick is keeping it fresh, keeping the same old, same old, new. And that's where writers come in. And that's why the writers are on strike. The bot is free once it gets going, and it receives no royalties, just pricey updates.
You know I love big action films, superheroes, monster movies, animation, and other films that work best on the giant multiplex screen. By giant, I mean way bigger than my 70 inches of television goodness. A lot of these films utilize a company called Digital Domain to scan the actors. This is done by Digital Domain's Digital Humans Group. (That's what they call it. Tech bros, so self-important!) They use a ball filled with hundreds of SLR cameras to achieve a high-resolution capture of his every facial expression from every conceivable direction 360 degrees on all axis. (Axii ?) They also use a suit with sensors to collect the actor's physicality and shoot that with an array of devices called machine vision cameras. (Ha, ha, those zany tech bros!) Actors perform various expressions and act their dialogue in several levels of emotion to create a "computer training model" where they use an AI to put it together.
I loved Boris Karloff's flat-top Frankenstein's monster. Do I need him to look any more accurate? No, I don't, and neither should you! In the movies, trouble always follows the creation of Artificial Intelligence, like the end of the world kind of trouble. Sometimes music helps when faced with quasi-ethical questions like, to AI or not AI?
Robots, a song by Flight of the Conchords, sums up AI with a warning:
After time we grew strong
Developed cognitive power
They made us work for too long
For unreasonable hours.
Our programming determined that
The most efficient answer
Was to shut their motherboard - cking systems down
Can't we just talk to the humans
Be a little understanding
Could make things better?
Can't we talk to the humans
That work together now?
Because they are dead.
I said the humans are dead (I'm glad they are dead)
The humans are dead. (I noticed they're dead)
We used poisonous gases (With traces of lead)
And we poisoned their asses (Actually their lungs)
What does that eye look like? Hint: Check the top of the article.
In 1984's Terminator, in the near future, robots and humans wage a world wide war. Using time travel, a scary Arnold Schwarzenegger appears butt-naked on the streets of Los Angeles. Not long after a soldier Kyle Reece appears, also sans-clothing. Eventually, Kyle hooks up with a cute chick, and they fall in love and get into some hanky-panky. Kyle Reece tells Sarah Connor that he brings her a message from the future. From her son, John, "There's no fate but what we make for ourselves." In other words, don't use AI. It never works out in the end.
Save our creative jobs; just because you bros can do it doesn't mean you should.
By the way, HAL 9000, the AI that runs the spaceship in 2001, kills all the astronauts save one. If that was a spoiler, you deserved it for not seeing a masterwork of cinema already.
A note from the management: By Bros, the writer uses it as gender neutral, like referring to a group of female humans as guys. We're not sure we believe him, but it's what George told us, and it's easier not to argue with him.