After four weeks of working as a background actor on the Disney+ series WandaVision during the pandemic, Alexandria Rubalcaba was told by the production team to report to a tractor trailer.
Dozens of other background actors were wrangled to the same location, where one by one they were told to step in front of a series of cameras on metal rigs behind glass.
“Have your hands out. Have your hands in. Look this way. Look that way. Let’s see your scared face. Let’s see your surprised face,” Rubalcaba, 47, recalls of the instructions she was given.
Rubalcaba said the actors had their faces and bodies scanned for about 15 minutes each. Then their digital replicas were created.
But here’s the problem: She was never told how or if this digital avatar of herself would ever be used on screen. If it is used, she may never know. No matter what happens to it, she will never see any payment for it.
Disney did not return a request for comment.
Rubalcaba, who earns the SAG-AFTRA union award of $187 a day as a background actor, said she did not give permission for her digital replica to ever be used in the background of any scenes.
“What if I don’t want to be on MarioVision or SarahVision?” she said, rattling off imagined future productions. “I fear that eventually artificial intelligence is going to weed out background actors. They won’t use us anymore.”
The potential for artificial intelligence to replace background actors is one of the central tensions in the ongoing SAG-AFTRA strike with studios, the biggest labor dispute in Hollywood since the 1960s.
Background actors caught off guard by body scans
Background actors are not part of what is known as the “main cast”, meaning they do not have speaking parts and primarily serve to create realistic atmosphere by filling out a scene.
A union negotiator has claimed studios have offered to give background actors one day’s pay after being scanned, and that the actor’s digital likeness could then be reused “for the rest of eternity.”
The studios have strongly objected to this characterization, arguing that a background actor’s digital replica would only be used on projects for which the artist was hired, not on indefinite future productions.
Either way, it seems that the practice of body scanning background actors is becoming more common. Five background actors interviewed by NPR all said they had been caught off guard in recent months by having to undergo body scans by studios, and felt they had little choice because if they pushed back, they feared the risk of retribution. Most of the actors were required to sign non-disclosure agreements.
“You don’t know what’s going to come back to casting. You don’t know if they’re going to call casting and say, ‘Oh, this person is struggling’ and not hire them again because that’s how the system works,” Rebecca said Safier, a background actor in Los Angeles, who recently had his body scanned on set. “It’s getting into this gray area of, ‘what are they going to use it for in the future?’
An ‘existential threat’ to background actors
Hollywood has long relied on high-tech manipulation to enhance movies in post-production. The producers of Games of thrones and Lord of the Rings have created large battle armies by relying on computer software that creates hordes of synthetic fighters.
And now that tech giants are in the movie business, so are they. For example, Apple filled a stadium with what looked like 26,000 people using digital doubles of just 20 background actors.
This method, known as “crowd tiling” is not new. For years, studios have used it to record large group scenes.
But now with the technology taking steps forward with the advent of generative AI – which can create new conversations, images and videos by synthesizing a huge corpus of data with hogged hardware capable of harnessing an incredible amount of computing power – it’s not just crowd scenes that are created digitally.
There are AI-powered film editing tools that let filmmakers shift an actor’s performance from one scene to another or replace dialogue. Other AI tools can make an actor’s lips move as if they are speaking in an overdubbed language. Disney has an AI tool that can convincingly make an actor look younger or older in seconds.
One of the most controversial uses of artificial intelligence in Hollywood is digital cloning. Voices, faces and entire bodies can now be digitally recreated in ways that appear astonishingly realistic.
Background actors in Hollywood say they worry they will be the first in the industry to be rendered obsolete by AI.
Andrew Susskind, an associate professor in Drexel University’s film and television department who spent 30 years as a producer and director, said the widespread use of digital extras could affect budgets in significant ways.
“Imagine ballroom scenes, party scenes, any scene that needs lots of extras,” Susskind said. “Imagine how much money they would save. Not paying $180 a day. Plus meals. Plus costumes.”
Because there are currently no rules of the road for how studios use AI, Susskind said it makes sense that actors and writers has made AI a central sticking point in the Hollywood strikes.
“The actors, extras and writers are right to see this moment as their best chance to set the rules for the use of artificial intelligence,” he said. “And the people in the background, who tend to have no real power and are treated badly, should stand up for themselves here.”
Katrina Sherwood, who works as a stand-in, body double and background actress in Los Angeles, said she is saddened that AI will one day force her into another industry entirely.
“Our likeness is really the only thing we actually own, so for the background it would be an existential threat,” she said.
About 84,200 of SAG-AFTRA’s 160,000 active members have done background work at some point in their careers. Last year, more than 30,000 SAG members did at least one gig as a background actor.
Unions and studios disagree on AI consent
SAG-AFTRA does not resist AI entirely.
Union officials have said that a digital copy of an actor could allow an actor to be on two shoots at once or take on a project they wouldn’t otherwise have done. But union officials say they will only support a contract that ensures adequate compensation to actors for their likeness being used.
The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, the trade group that represents studios and producers, said it will offer “reasonable compensation” if an actor’s digital copy is used. They say they will use such AI creations only after taking permission from the actor.
Still, both sides disagree about the meaning of consent. Studios suggest they will ask the background actors’ permission once – after they are employed. Union officials say any use of an actor’s digital replica should be negotiated separately each time the digital likeness is used.
Dom Lubsey, a Los Angeles actor who primarily does background work, said that unlike lead actors, extras have little say in how their performances are recycled.
“I don’t often hear people speak up for (actors’) backgrounds, or if they’re being abused, if they’re not being treated properly, if they should be paid more,” he said. “You just don’t hear that.”
He said it’s something that goes through his mind every time his face and body have been scanned on set. The first time it happened was on the set of a popular racing movement, in 2019. Most recently, he was scanned for a television program about basketball.
“They wanted me to cheer. I had to make angry faces. They asked for war cry faces. I did it all,” he said.
After that he felt a little rattled. He stepped out of the semi-truck trailer, where a large cylinder equipped with hundreds of small cameras had just scanned his various movements like a game audience. Perhaps the cost of doing business in Hollywood in the AI era, even if it’s also one step closer to his professional extinction, he wondered?
“My first thought leaving the trailer was, ‘Oh, this might just be the future,” Lubsey said. “We might just lose our jobs.”