Jennifer Aniston’s Eyes and Brad Pitt’s Smile: How SAG-AFTRA Fought AI Zombies

SAG-AFTRA had settled dozens of issues, ranging from pension and health contributions, to page limits for self-taped auditions, to pay for background actors.

But there was still the small matter of zombies.

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

Those were among the last deal points to fall into place before the union could end its 118-day strike on Wednesday.

In the end, SAG-AFTRA did not get every AI restriction it was looking for. But it did get most of it, including a requirement that if a Frankenstein actor contains recognizable features of real-life actors, studios must get permission from those actors.

“If you’re using Brad Pitt’s smile and Jennifer Aniston’s eyes, both would have a right of consent,” said Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, the union’s chief negotiator.

AI became the dominant topic in the strike over the last 10 days. For actors, it threatens their control over their own performances, and potentially their livelihoods. Many fear that if they could, studios would not hesitate to replace them with digital versions of themselves.

Caitlin Dulany, a member of the SAG-AFTRA negotiating committee, said the AI provisions are the “crowning achievement” of the new contract.

“That was the thing we needed to get right,” she said. “And we definitely feel like we did. I really believe our members will feel safe and protected with what we got.”

AI was also key to the Writers Guild of America negotiations. But it was even more urgent — and more complicated — for the actors.

Both unions feared the ways in which their work could be turned against them. Their scripts or performances could be fed into an AI training database, and used to create “new” work. For actors, the result might be a synthetic performer who bears no resemblance to a living person, but was nevertheless built out of pieces of real performances.

Neither union got the blanket restrictions against that kind of training that they were looking for. The WGA got an agreement to disagree, and the right to fight out the issue in the courts or in future contract negotiations.

But in the case of SAG-AFTRA, the union did get protection against the use of recognizable physical features in synthetic performances.

The union also won a consent requirement for the use of dead actors’ images.

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

So when a studio makes a biopic, with an actor portraying a famous person, it does not have to get permission from the famous person’s estate. But with the advent of AI, a studio could — in theory — make a brand-new Western starring a digital version of John Wayne, also without his estate’s approval.

SAG-AFTRA’s negotiators fought back against that. And according to Crabtree-Ireland, they won.

“That is gone,” he said. “They have to go to the estate.”

SAG-AFTRA also sought to limit AI consents to a single project. So Harrison Ford could agree to use of AI on a particular “Indiana Jones” film. But his contract would not be permitted to allow the studio to keep replicating him infinitely in future “Indiana Jones” films.

Under the final agreement, an AI consent 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 details of the replication of background actors. On the studio side, some warned that SAG-AFTRA’s demands would outlaw some post-production VFX work that is already standard procedure.

The full details of the agreement are expected to be released on Friday.

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