Background actors worry studios will replace them with body scans

Back in July, we covered the start of the SAG-AFTRA actors strike in Hollywood. One of the reasons behind the dispute was the concern that studios would body scan actors and use their digital likenesses without further payment. It has now been reported that this process has already started.

Background to the strike

SAG-AFTRA is the actors’ union and stands for Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. The union represents actors in the US who work in movies, television and on the radio. SAG- AFTRA members went on strike on July 14th, 2023. The reasons for this strike include the level of payments from streaming services as well as the use of AI and digital images to replace actors. Further information regarding this last concern has now been published.

Background actors

The nonprofit website has reported accounts from background actors who have already been digitally scanned. Background actors are also known as extras. They are the actors you see walking down the street or sitting in a restaurant in the background of a scene in a film or TV show. In the past, large crowd scenes involved hundreds or even thousands of background artists. However, with modern technology, film and TV studios use a technique known as “crowd tiling.” This basically means copying and pasting a small number of background artists to create a larger group.

Digital scanning

During the pandemic, Alexandria Rubalcaba worked on the Disney+ series “WandaVision” (2021). However, after four weeks on the job, she and many other background actors were asked to go to a trailer. In the trailer was a rig of digital cameras. While they were there, the actors had their faces and bodies scanned in different positions and with a variety of expressions. Rubalcaba described the instructions they were given: “Have your hands out. Have your hands in. Look this way. Look that way. Let us see your scared face. Let us see your surprised face.”

Why is this a problem?

Rubalcaba wasn’t told how the digital scans were going to be used. She also did not give her permission for them to be used in any film or TV show. SAG-AFTRA background actors earn a union rate of $187 per day. The studios have claimed that a background actor’s digital image would only be used on a production for which they have been paid. However, SAG-AFTRA is concerned that if the studios have a digital scan of a background actor, they could use that forever without paying them again.

What we think

Background actors are an important part of the film and TV industry. Digital effects technology and body scans means that Hollywood is unlikely to film scenes with thousands of human extras as in the past. However, it’s important to protect the rights of actors to ensure that they are adequately rewarded if their likenesses are used. The increased use of AI also complicates the matter further. In addition, it’s clear that there is distrust between the studios and SAG-AFTRA. Hopefully, the two sides can come to an agreement soon so that film and TV productions can recommence.

Pete Tomkies
Pete Tomkies
Pete Tomkies is a freelance cinematographer and camera operator from Manchester, UK. He also produces and directs short films as Duck66 Films. Pete's latest short Once Bitten... won 15 awards and was selected for 105 film festivals around the world.

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