Canadian background actors say AI could improve profession, but pay must be fair

Canadian background actors say AI could improve profession, but pay must be fair

British Columbia actor Owen Kwong remembers being digitally scanned on set in 2014, which he believes may have allowed a studio to use his likeness anew through artificial intelligence.

Kwong says he never felt comfortable with the experience and didn’t get an answer on what the scan would be used for.

“I just know they were able to keep that image and it almost felt like you were signing away your own face,” he said.

Now residing in Toronto, Kwong has used background work to make ends meet as he pursues future acting opportunities. He has appeared as an actor in Disney’s live-action adaptation of “Mulan,” and as an actor in the CW series “Arrow,” and OMNI’s “Blood and Water,” starring Simu Liu, among other projects.

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Kwong says that since he began acting, he noticed background performers getting the short end of the stick in terms of pay and treatment. He’s worried that will only get worse with technology that can render performers obsolete.

Nine years later, Kwong’s concerns about the unregulated use of AI are echoed by the industry as one of the key issues in a U.S. labour dispute between performers represented by Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) and major film and television studios, which has now stretched into a nearly month-long strike.

Canada’s actors union, the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA), is closely watching the outcome of the SAG-AFTRA negotiations with studios around AI, says national president Eleanor Noble, noting that “their fight is our fight.”

ACTRA’s current agreement with Hollywood studios concludes at the end of 2024, with the protection of an actor’s digital likenesses being a hot-button issue on the table.

“We share the same issues when it comes to AI,” says Noble. “We stand our ground very hard on the fact that we need fences and guardrails in order to protect our livelihoods.”

SAG-AFTRA joined the Writers Guild of America, also on strike since May, in calling for regulations around the use of AI in entertainment — the former argues performers should be compensated and notified when their likeness is duplicated and used by artificial intelligence.

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Some Canadian background performers, who feel vulnerable due to low pay and lack of security, say they aren’t necessarily opposed to AI as long as safeguards are put in place to prevent exploitation.

Toronto actor Nathan Hoppe says his own introduction to having his likeness reused came in 2017.

A film crew guided him to a booth, where he stood still as cameras took several photos of his face for a single day’s pay of background work for an unnamed project.

The ACTRA member says that it was only later that he recognized his face across a number of different TV shows from the same production company, whether it was on a business card or a family portrait shown in a scene.

“It would be nice if they were going to explain that they were going to use you in that way beforehand,” says Hoppe.

“They’ve taken a photo of you and now they’re allowed to use it with no separate pay associated with that. It was just kinda done on the fly without any explanation…that probably started going on at least five years ago.”

Background performers, also called extras, normally secure employment via casting agencies that work with production companies. The work is done under a contract — more commonly referred to as a voucher issued by ACTRA for background roles under the Independent Production Agreement (IPA) — which details the production company, location of set and the description of the role.

Hoppe says his contracts never required that any production company explain how his likeness might be used in the future and that it was often at the discretion of the studio.

“People don’t want to rock the boat, especially when you will take anything and keep your mouth shut because you’re concerned about paying rent,” says Hoppe, who has learned to turn down a request to have his photo taken when he doesn’t feel comfortable.

“It would be nice to be protected and know that they won’t just take one photo of you and that’s the end of your career — as long as we are paid every time that we’re used and are protected in that way, then most people would be fine with AI.”

Toronto-based actor, background performer and ACTRA member Jesse Ship says that background actors are sometimes filmed for crowded shots and later used for any number of productions, and that has been routine and expected.

For years, studios have employed a technique known as “tiling” to produce crowd scenes. For example, extras are filmed while sitting in one section of a stadium and then relocated, with the images duplicated and seamlessly stitched together during post-production for reuse.

Ship says discussions about the evolving use of technology in the industry have been concerning since background work pays so little and the idea of not receiving income for what would be considered additional work in the absence of AI is the issue.

“It’s been a bad year for background performance and luckily, I’ve personally had support systems like employment insurance…that’s not something you’d get if you were solely a background performer for example,” says Ship, who makes a living from three different career streams, including office work.

“When you think about the work this way, the ownership aspect of your likeness is disturbing … it’s just disturbing that people would think that the current model would be a fair agreement for anyone.”

In the United States, SAG-AFTRA has emphasized that its intention is not to ban the use of AI, but to ensure that it’s used with fair compensation.

Canadian actor Miranda Lukaniuk, who owns Local BG Talent, an agency specializing in providing Canadian background performers with work in rural areas, says some of her clients have made similar arguments.

She adds that she’s asking her union to push for residuals for background actors including for the use of their AI likeness, noting “there are a lot of cool things you can do with the technology.”

Unlike principal actors, dancers, and stunt performers on set, background performers in Canada say they do not receive residual cheques, which are typically calculated based on factors such as the ongoing use of production, where the content appears and what’s negotiated by an industry trade union such as ACTRA.

Lukaniuk, a member of ACTRA and IATSE 873 says she still receives the occasional cheques in the mail for stunt work she did in the “The Boondock Saints,” starring Norman Reedus.

“It may not always be as much as a day’s pay when you’re physically there, but every time they decide to use your file, they should pay you because a residual has been agreed on in a contract.”

Noble says ACTRA supports additional forms of compensation as it approaches the contract negotiation period in November 2024, and says the livelihoods of performers depend on the fair use of their images and voices.

“To steal that in any way without guardrails or fences to manipulate and reuse without us having any control over our likeness without added compensation is just wrong,” she says. “Without it, there would be massive job losses and a replacement of performers and writers.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 9, 2023.

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