Deepfake videos used to be something casual that I can quickly giggle at and forget about. But not anymore. They are no longer naive ‘fan arts’ that remind us what could have possibly been if other celebrities took over popular roles in blockbusters.
Wondering what Tom Cruise could have looked like as Iron Man? See for yourself if Cruise is indeed a better Tony Stark. Nicolas Cage as a lady? Say no more. Seriously, I would not be surprised at all if you just had a good laugh at those deepfake videos above and wondering what this buzz is all about. Afterall, they are noticeably fake from various angles. The face proportions are off, the facial expressions are muffled, and some cheekier ones like that lady-Nicolas-Cage, doesn’t look much like Nicolas Cage at all. But then, those are products of deepfake technology of the yesteryear. Technology moves fast, and deepfake’s AI is ruthlessly catching up with us. It is stealthily turning into serious business, and nobody seems to be fully aware of it.
No, no, I am not referring to the apps-business. Yes, I understand. It is cool to see your buddies inserting their faces into clips from Avengers using their mobile phone apps, and then posting them on social media. Of course those are as realistic as the Hugh Jackman below:
But apps are not our main focus for today. Ladies and gentlemen, this, is what I meant by ‘business’:
Groundbreaking? Hardly. The earliest deepfake videos accessible by the public found their way to the internet way back in 2017. Shocking? Not really. Emily Blunt as MCU’s Black Widow is not something that never crossed my mind, but the more I look at the video, the more frightening it becomes.
I am not frightened by the possibility of Blunt joining the MCU for a future role. I am frightened by the razor-edged, deepfake-wizardry that occurred behind the scenes of the ‘Blunt Widow’ video above, which made it completely passable to me as an Emily Blunt-starred film, had I not watched the original titles. Of course, Scarlett Johansson’s voice is a huge, huge giveaway in that particular video. One could always argue that it is foolish to conclude that the general public will always fall for ‘finely’ deepfaked videos, because voice is an unavoidable tell-tale sign of whether that celebrity has actually ‘starred’ in the clip. True, you can’t just slap Danny Glover’s face on any of Morgan Freeman’s clips, not when the latter’s iconic voice is pulling all the attention from the background.
With that said, don’t you think that we are a little late in the game to argue about voice, now that the visual capability of deepfake AI’s has advanced so far into perfection? And as a plus, you can replay the clip of Tom Cruise as Iron Man suggested above, and listen to the voice throughout the deepfaked video. Now, whose voice is that? Cruise’s? Or RDJ’s?
The Blunt Widow video was posted by master-deepfaker Shamook, who runs a Youtube channel under the same name. Shamook is the creator of some of the most viral face-swap videos recently, like Christ Pratt in Indiana Jones, and young Harrison Ford in Solo: A Star Wars Story. If you look close enough at the description box of the Blunt Widow video, you will notice that it says “created using DeepFaceLabs”. But what exactly is DeepFaceLabs?
It turns out that DeepFaceLab is a popular, open-source deepfake software available at GitHub. DeepFaceLab claims that more than 95% of deepfake videos are created with their software, and it is widely used by popular Youtube channels such as, you guessed it, Shamook.
95% is not some silly number to make fun of, and in short, it is the numero uno software for people to go to when creating deepfake videos, regardless of what intention that they have in their minds.
Of course, any dispute towards DeepFaceLab’s status as a leading software will automatically end once the world learns that Disney is, in fact, using them as a benchmark for their very own deepfake technology. Yes, you heard that right. The House of Mouse has already deployed researchers to develop their own deepfake tech, and they even benchmarked their model against DeepFaceLab’s. If you think that Shamook has already done a darn good job deepfaking the Blunt Widow video, the outcome that Disney will achieve when they eventually roll out their DeepMouseFake (copyright pending, I guess) in theaters will be terrifying.
Are we branching out into a dystopian filmmaking industry?
It is worth noting that Disney has been resorting to traditional VFX when the need to face-swap arises, such as for the role of Carrie Fisher in Rogue One (2016). As one of the researchers mentioned, it proved to be expensive and time-consuming, as months of work could potentially translate into mere seconds of footage. Naturally, Universal Studios could have faced the same set of difficulties when they were obliged to complete Furious 7 (2015) after the sudden passing of Paul Walker.
If I am reading between the lines correctly, the availability of DeepMouseFake or something similar in the future may mean drastically improving the efficiency of face-swaps, and ultimately, opening the floodgates to such practices in the future Hollywood. It will spawn even more ambitious-yet-disturbing projects similar to how James Dean is undergoing a ‘CGI-rebirth’ into an upcoming Vietnam war drama.
Perhaps, the stars of the future will be nothing like what we know today. Actors or actresses with deep talent and attractive voices, but without the looks can be ‘hybridized’ with well-known, alluring faces, paving way for a new norm. Like the case of James Dean, the stars themselves or their next-of-kin will be able to give consent to future studios on when and where to use their ‘faces’. More often than not, this type of consents involve monetary compensation, and in business terms, are better known as ‘licensing’.
Eventually, at some point in the future, cyberpunk filmmakers will have a vast library of ‘faces’ to choose from. With the technology that we enjoy right now, there is no way that photography and videography will go into a decline anytime soon, and faces of famous people will only get increasingly better-documented with each year passing by. Now, imagine future filmmakers having access to every square-inch of details of celebrity faces from the past 200 years. Translate that into today’s context, it means that we can literally cast Albert Einstein as Doc Brown in a Back to the Future reboot, or cast Bruce Lee himself as the titular superhero in Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.
The filmmaking industry, as we speak, could still be heading towards either a utopian or a dystopian future. But with theaters struggling globally due to the pandemic, and with the rise of deepfake technology that threatens to reset the rules of filmmaking, I am inclined to believe that we are heading towards the latter.