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“Responsible AI”? Some Hollywood VFX Pros See the Upside

As artificial intelligence continues to be a focal point in Hollywood amid the actors and writers strikes, terms such as “responsible AI” and “ethical AI” became key messaging for computer graphics thought leaders gathered in Los Angeles for the 50th SIGGRAPH conference.

“The generative AI era is upon us, the iPhone moment of AI, if you will,” Jensen Huang, founder and CEO of NVIDIA, said during his Aug. 8 keynote. Before thousands of delegates, he introduced the tech giant’s newest related tech, including its GH200 Grace Hopper Superchip and AI Workbench toolkit. “Startups are doing amazing things,” Huang added. “Of course they’re doing content creation, but they’re also using generative AI to steer a self-driving car … generate proteins, chemicals, discover new drugs.”

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The CG and VFX community has been using AI in some form for decades — like the software that helped created armies in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy in the early 2000s. So it’s no surprise that, compared with Hollywood at large, the narrative at SIGGRAPH was more optimistic about the power of this technology. “[AI] is scary because of the speed at which it moves,” admits Habib Zargarpour, an Oscar nominee and co-founder of Interdimensional VFX. “Everybody who says, ‘It’s not quite there yet’ — wait a week.”

Still, across SIGGRAPH, the use of new buzzwords such as “responsible AI” underscored broad fears about the impact the tech could have on Hollywood.

“I’m hearing about actors scanning themselves and copyrighting their scans. I wonder if it’s going to be affordable enough for anyone to do that,” admits one delegate. “The background actors are concerned right now in the strike, and I don’t blame them. Will they be scanned and reused?”

Says Eric Bourque, vp content creation within Autodesk’s Media & Entertainment business: “We really have to make sure it’s ethical, responsible. AI is an additional tool … [artists] will still always be involved.”

This message was echoed by reps of numerous tech firms — but sources said some studios, streamers and tech developers have told employees not to discuss the thorny subject in public.

“There’s a new definition of AI that has emerged as if it’s some sort of threat to creativity,” says a source at SIGGRAPH. “In fact, the way it’s used today, and will likely be used in the future, is an enhancement to creativity.”

Zargarpour has thoughts on how the tech could help ensure human creators are fairly compensated in areas such as concept art. “The AI knows exactly what percentage of what [imagery or other references] it used. In theory, it should be possible to say, ‘I want to use this [new] image in my movie. I’m going to license it, and then the person who made the concept art [that inspired the image] gets their fair share,’ ” he explains. “Then [AI use] becomes sustainable for the artists and powerful for the users.”

The VFX veteran is one of many looking at how AI can efficiently create believable digital humans. Citing Industrial Light & Magic’s use of AI to “learn” from early footage of Harrison Ford to help artists create the young adventurer who appears in Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, Zargarpour notes, “Just before that, if you look at The Irishman, that was done the really hard way.”

Adds Christopher Nichols, director at entertainment tech developer Chaos: “There’s so much tedium that happens in computer graphics that is no longer necessary. The big issue with digital humans, especially in the old days, was you can get the major movements but not the in-between finesse. AI can fix a lot of small problems — like how to fix hands or eyelids.”

Nichols continues, “AI is not about taking jobs from people, it’s about making things faster and more efficient.” He says Chaos uses AI to speed up its ray tracing toolset, giving it real-time capabilities so VFX pros can use it in virtual production workflows.

Looking ahead, Nichols says the related deep learning tech known as NeRFs (Neural Radiance Fields) is also on the not-so-distant horizon and could essentially “scan areas — or faces — with very spare data sets and get very accurate information about it.” He asserts, “You are going to start seeing NeRFs in things.”

One thing is certain: AI is here, and Hollywood must figure out its place. “We need to move forward with it,” says David Morin, who heads the Academy Software Foundation. “There’s no going back.”

This story first appeared in the Aug. 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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