The Plain View
For a couple days in late September, no one seemed clear on who owned Bruce Willis. The British newspaper The Telegraph claimed that the actor, who has retired because he suffers from aphasia, had digitally reincarnated his career by selling performance rights to a company called Deepcake, which used artificial intelligence technology to map Willis’ face onto another actor. Not long after, representatives of Willis said that the star of Die Hard had done no such thing and had no relationship with Deepcake, even though the company’s website had a complimentary quote from the star.
The episode raises a lot of questions, not least the meaning of identity at a time when one’s image can be so easily faked. So I went to the source and spoke to Deepcake’s founders. The two-year-old startup from the former Soviet state of Georgia is the project of Ukrainian-born CEO Maria Chmir, a marketing executive, and head of machine learning Alex Notchenko, who has a doctorate in AI. Chmir told me that the company never claimed to own Willis’ future rights, but had a previous and mutually satisfying arrangement where Deepcake digitized his appearance in a 2021 ad for Megafon, a Russian cell network. The Willis ad is part of Deepcake’s game plan to serve customers who want to digitally clone humans. “We are one of the first on the market to be commercially successful in the field of legal deepfakes,” says Chmir. “But we don’t like this word. These are sort of replicas, or digital twins.” (I wondered why, if she wasn’t fond of the word, she named her company on a variation of it, but whatever.)
How good is that technology? Let’s go to the tape. In the Megafon commercial, a person who is unmistakably Willis, even if you know it really is not, is among two hostages tied to a ship mast, next to a digital clock ticking down seconds before a bomb goes off. While the figure has Willis’ face, it doesn’t quite convey his trademark insouciance. And for some reason, this Willis has a different voice—a gruff bark that speaks Russian. Still, it looks like Willis—digitized and generated, Chmir says, by algorithms trained on 34,000 images from his earlier films.
Chmir says that Willis was deepfaked because he wasn’t available to travel, but the process makes economic sense as well. While leasing an actor’s rights might be about 30 percent less than the usual appearance fee, she says, still bigger savings come from the lower costs of filming a cheap actor-double instead of a superstar, who requires first-class travel, a big trailer, and ridiculous demands in contract riders.
But Deepcake isn’t just faking superstars. They recently did a job for an agricultural firm that wanted to make educational videos starring its in-house expert, a busy person not comfortable in front of a camera. With the subject’s permission, Deepcake converted video of an understudy in an exact duplicate. “We also cloned the voice for full similarity, of course,” Chmir says.