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Photo: Deepfake Body Double Trouble
“Deepfakes,” as all of us have to come to know and – some – love, were first birthed from the same, primordial breeding ground as all great things: the internet. Reddit, to be more specific. That’s right, we all – in part – have Reddit to thank for the return of Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker to our screens, whether in 2020’s ‘The Mandalorian,’ or 2022’s sixth episode of ‘The Book of Boba Fett.’ Deepfakes have gone from viral videos shared on the internet, to an increasingly versatile tool, now used by the film and television industry. And to think, all of this from a method that isn’t even yet a decade old. That being said, it is important to note that not only are we actively playing with this technology, we are still learning. There may be things much more unsettling about deepfakes than their controversial conception and their simulated faces.
Deepfake – From Whence Did They Come?
As mentioned earlier, deepfakes originally hail from the internet, but the form and term we all know, came from Reddit. The technology used for this process has been around since the ‘90s, but it did not grow widespread nor become mass-produced until the aforementioned aggregation site. However, the nature of this origin is much more sinister. In 2017, a user who operated their profile under the now-popular term, gained notoriety by doctoring and posting pornographic videos.
This involved taking footage of people engaged in sexually explicit acts, and using open-source technology to swap the faces of those people with those of major female celebrities. Some of the celebrities whose images were exploited were Gal Gadot and Scarlett Johansson. This was done, in brief, through the combination of facial recognition algorithms and computer networks known as, VAE’s (variational auto-encoders). These videos, with their taboo material and celebrity lookalikes, obviously and unfortunately garnered much attention, and the term “deepfakes” took off.
Where Are They Now?
From those humble beginnings, the method circulated all throughout the internet, with some people adopting it for much more digestible purposes. Some YouTube profiles, such as EZRyderX47, have had some good old-fashioned fun, swapping the faces of characters like Doc Brown from ‘Back to the Future’ with actor Robert Downey Jr.. Some of these online videos can be a little cheesy, with lighting on the faces not matching, or the face itself just demonically convulsing, but some are really quite ingenious, almost scarily so – especially if you consider much of these videos are made by amateurs.
Yet, experts and captains of industry have gotten in on this technological trend in recent years, as well. Many readers may remember back to Marvel Studios’ 2015 film, ‘Ant-Man.’ The film opens with a fantastic display of a variation of deepfake tech, as actor Michael Douglas appears, magically de-aged on the screen before us. Then, in 2016’s ‘Captain America: Civil War,’ Robert Downey Jr. was the next to undergo this digital de-aging. Now, the process is much more readily applicable, and as technology evolves, it becomes harder and harder to tell that these deepfakes are, in fact, fake. One YouTuber, Shamook, was even able to independently create a deepfake so convincing, he was hired by Lucasfilm to help them work on furthering the effects for young Luke Skywalker.
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Even more recently, we can look to Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Irishman,’ which, in 2019, saw members of its main cast, such as Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro portray the lives of their characters in their entireties, including their younger versions. Also in 2019, an incredibly convincing deepfake of UFC commentator, stand-up comic, and podcaster, Joe Rogan, was circulated online. Fans and followers of the Kardashians may even remember back to 2020, when Ye (formerly Kanye West), arranged to have a holographic deepfake of Kim’s deceased father wish her a happy birthday message. And just last week, ‘Star Wars’ fans and Disney+ subscribers were delighted to see a young Mark Hamill, as Jedi Knight Luke Skywalker, grace their screens once again. For something that had not even entered common vernacular until 2017, it has certainly become comfortably positioned as a crowned jewel in the filmmaker’s toolbelt, as well as a pop-culture phenomenon.
Where Could This Be Going?
This is all new. That is important to note. Because while it seems like this could be the new big thing, the next great way to posthumously wish family members happy birthday, we are still adapting to this strange new tool as a society. Lawyers are getting involved, that’s never a good sign. Specifically, with the film and entertainment industry, performers are growing increasingly concerned and aware of the fact that, if a studio owns your image, and that image can now be used to create a moving, talking replica of oneself, why does the studio then need you for ensuing projects?
If a computer can simulate your movements, and now even your voice (as was the case with Luke Skywalker’s in ‘The Book of Boba Fett’), the expensive, needy, meaty version of that image/character/person poses much more of a potential obstacle – financially and otherwise. Mark Hamill never even needed to set foot on the set of ‘The Book of Boba Fett’ in order for Luke Skywalker to do so. The two now, thanks to deepfake technology, can exist completely independently of each other. That’s actually kind of concerning. Sure, we all figured jobs like cashier and toll booth operator would go by the automated wayside, but actors? What’s next?
Deepfakes are also already being employed to commit crimes. For example, electronically mimicking a CEO’s voice to initiate wire transfers. This could have larger implications, as people are already making doctored videos of world leaders saying and doing things they otherwise have not.
It is even being said that government bodies are utilizing deepfakes to approach targets and persons of interest. However, actions and responses are already being taken. In 2020, Facebook banned deepfakes that were complex enough to appear convincing, in an effort to stunt election misinformation. Companies like Facebook, Microsoft, and Amazon are also backing efforts such as the Deepfake Detection Challenge, which researches techniques to detect and expose deepfakes. Actors and other performers are also beginning to include clauses in negotiations and contracts that cover this subject, either barring studios from using their image afterward or compensating them for it, if possible. There is even now an entire company dedicated to detecting and combating deepfakes, known as Deeptrace.
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Again, this is a new technology, and a new method. People are scared of things they don’t recognize or understand, so maybe that’s my reason for feeling uneasy towards the major inclusion of deepfakes into society. I suppose we should have seen it coming, though, with the obsession over facially-augmenting filters. But, I think it’s important to note the very origins of the term deepfakes, and the form in which we know them today. Exploitation. If it weren’t for r/deepfakes posting those profane videos and objectifying major female celebrities, perhaps casting younger actors to play younger characters would still be the norm. Now, however, we can just deepfake it ‘til we make it. The company, Deeptrace, has also discovered that the apple apparently does not fall far from the tree. In September 2019, they found 15,000 deepfake videos, 96% of which were pornographic.
And, it should also probably be noted, of that 96%, 99% were of female celebrities’ faces swapped onto naked bodies. The origins of deepfakes were of an objectifying, exploitative nature, and apparently, the majority of the practice to this day, is still as such. It is as it has always been. It is, perhaps, the most insidious form of automation. It exploits the images, nuances, and cadences of real people in order to automate them. A machine wearing a human mask. When it comes to this debate of deepfakes and their implications, I have no problem aligning myself with the great and powerful Prince, who, in a 1998 interview with Guitar World, about holograms, said:
“That’s the most demonic thing imaginable. Everything is as it is, and it should be. If I was meant to jam with Duke Ellington, we would have lived in the same age. That whole virtual reality thing… it really is demonic. And I am not a demon. Also, what they did with that Beatles song [“Free As a Bird”], manipulating John Lennon’s voice to have him singing from across the grave… that’ll never happen to me. To prevent that kind of thing from happening is another reason why I want artistic control.”
By Connor Garvin
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Connor Garvin has been a writer for as long as he can remember. Writing has enabled him to distill the thoughts within his own head, as well as allowed him to have those same thoughts heard. Connor is a screenwriter, and filmmaker more generally, with a focus on television. He also believes that real change only occurs if everyone is heard, and is therefore a proud champion of the arts, and a kindred spirit to The Hollywood Insider and its values.