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What You Need to Know About the New SAG-AFTRA Agreement: Artificial Intelligence

With the 118-day strike finally resolved and a new collective bargaining agreement obtained, there’s a lot to digest and understand about how things will be moving forward.

With that in mind, Casting Networks is producing a series of articles in which we will break down particular parts of the new agreement and discuss how it affects you, starting with artificial intelligence.

The Threat of AI

The concern among actors in the lead-up to the strike and during negotiations was that members of the AMPTP would be able to utilize AI to replace actors entirely.

One proposal offered background actors a day’s pay in return for scanning them and then being able to use their likenesses in perpetuity and there has long been talk of using AI to reincarnate long-dead performers or to carry on the work of current performers after they have retired or passed on.

It was commonly understood, however, that to allow this would essentially end acting as we know it. If there were no limits to what studios could do with an actor’s image, or worse, creating an “actor” out of nothing more than pixels using artificial intelligence, then what need would there be any more for real actors?

The resulting deal, which limits the use of AI, has mostly been hailed. At first glance, it seems to do a solid job of protecting SAG-AFTRA members from the encroaching computer hoards.

Payment for the Use of AI in Your Likeness

What does this mean for you? For one thing, no producer, studio or streaming service can use your likeness without paying you.

That has always been the case, but now you are protected from replacement by an AI construct. If an AI version of you is being used, you will get paid for every day you would have worked on the project. You’ll get the residuals for your replica’s screen time, too.

However, if a replica replaces you, you will not get paid for the days you have already worked.

The agreement also covers background actors, who must be paid similarly for their work, including residuals.

What Permissions Are Required for the Use of AI?

If a producer wishes to use a digital replica of a performer on a different production, a new permission must be obtained. A complete description as to how the replica is going to be used must be offered as well. The actor will also be compensated for that use.

Additional consent is required before digitally altering a performance, with exceptions being standard postproduction tweaks and matching a performer’s lips to a dubbed performance.

However, no consent is needed to digitally alter a performer’s body movement “when the photography or soundtrack of the performer remains substantially as scripted, performed and/or recorded.”

Can Studios Use “Synthetic Performers”?

For the use of what is known as “synthetic performers,” aka digital people not based on actual living humans, a company must get special approval from the union to replace a SAG-AFTRA member with a computer-generated person.

While some feel that the new deal does not go far enough, it appears that the SAG-AFTRA negotiating committee was able to obtain enough solid protections to ensure that AI would never fully replace actors. Although it does not prohibit the use of AI entirely — a sticking point for some SAG-AFTRA members — these protections are sufficient enough for most.

Some complaints noted that if the replica does not have a clear likeness to an actor, then the protections are meaningless. Lead negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland disagreed, saying, “The reality is, there has never been a time when we have been able to successfully just block technology from advancing. And so strategically, our best option is to channel that technology in the best possible direction.”

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