Automating Acting

I knew this day was coming. From the New Yorker:

“In 2004, in a Los Angeles paper, Eugene Pidgeon, an actor and writer turned labor activist for dwarf performers, published a manifesto entitled “Little People’s Progress.” In it, he addressed . . . the threat to their livelihoods posed by animation technology.

“My argument is that if you’re going to computer-generate us out of roles that we have traditionally taken, you have to provide others,” Pidgeon said over the phone from Hollywood. “Oompas, trolls, elves, cupids are just going to disappear en masse. . . .”

“I’d like Tim Burton to tell me to my face what is the benefit of hiring one dwarf actor and computer-generating him when he could hire seven.” He continued, “We’re standing at the gate and we’re raising our hands and saying, ‘Pick me!’ And then Tim Burton comes out and says, ‘I’m sorry, guys, go on home. We’ve got this machine that can do all your jobs.’ ”

Well, I think it’s a pretty safe bet that Mr. Burton’s answer to Mr. Pidgeon’s question is “Because it’s cheaper.”

Mr. Pidgeon may be the first actor to complain. He’ll soon have plenty of company, like everyone else in the movie acting business.

While one would be heartless not to feel for a group of actors who have rarely gotten the chance to be more than joke fodder, you know they’re going to go the way of the horse-drawn carriage.

Can anyone doubt that CGI for movies and television means no more dwarves today, no more Van Diesels or Depps tomorrow?

From a business perspective, actors are very, very annoying. They cost ridiculous amounts of money, and they have a very bad habit of not doing what you want, both onscreen and off.

Here’s a task ready to be automated!

Imagine actors who don’t take drugs, or play diva, or join Scientology, or get bulemic, or morph into whales, or fall in or out of love, and most important of all, get paid.

Yes, technology is expensive, but you can buy an awful, awful lot of technology for the billions being wasted on humans today. How many Indian programmers can you get for the price tag of one Tom Cruise?

You say that people can’t relate to imaginary images, or that they’re too generic to replace actors? Tell Mickey Mouse and the Simpsons and Shrek that.

Besides, how much acting is really required in many, if not most, movies today? How hard could it be to program a CGI-image to act like Eternally Blank-Faced Keanu Reeves?

Sure, the technology isn’t there yet, but that will inevitably come. Yes, it’s possible audiences might balk at an entirely non-human cast in a non-fantasy movie or TV show, but isn’t that resistance being worn away as CGI and other non-human actforms takes over more and more roles?

People often complain about the sameness of movies, but a good chunk of that is due to, “We have to make a ton of money to pay for the movie, so we have to appeal to everyone, and to increase our odds on making a lot, we have to pay stars a lot which means it costs us even more money . . . .” Creativity may get a fairer shot if the stakes are lowered.

Perhaps most importantly in the long run, what Hollywood can do today, you’ll be able to do five to ten years later. You’ll never be able to hire Tom Cruise for your movie, but in 2015 or 20, you might be able to craft a good-enough replica of him.

I think at least those actors shown on a screen, short or tall, are an endangered species.


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