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On the Origins of Deepfakes

Published October 5, 2022

In this week’s Video Rewind, “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum” makes an appearance. That film was helmed by a guy named Chad Stahelski. He’s not a household name but he was part of some crazy cinematic technological advancements. You see, Stahelski was a stand-in for Brandon Lee after he fatally died on set of “The Crow,” and apparently a bunch of pioneering CGI happened back then where they were able to finish filming with Lee’s face superimposed onto Stahelski. Moviegoers could hardly tell the difference. Fast forward nearly thirty years later and deep fakes abound. Check out this story:

The commercial opens with Bruce Willis tied back-to-back with a tuxedo-wearing Russian, while some kind of unspecified explosive device counts down, one intense digital number at a time. Willis speaks flawless Russian, and presumably he and his well-dressed co-star start talking about mobile phones at some point, because this whole setup is an advert for Megafon, a Russian telecom company. 

The truth is, that’s not Bruce Willis. The ad was created by AI-powered platform Deepcake, who used “an authorized deepfake” of the Die Hard actor. “The process of teaching [an AI] neurone algorithm takes some time,” Deepcake CEO Maria Chmir told Reuters. “The first video, a training one, takes about 15-17 days to make. However, after that, we can speed up the process and produce footage up to 4K resolution […] in 3-5 days.” 

Although the commercial was released last year, it was largely overlooked by most of the world until Britain’s Daily Mail reported that Willis — who revealed his aphasia diagnosis in March — had sold his image rights to Deepcake, and that the actor could continue to “appear” in movies that used his deep-faked digital face. 

First, if the Daily Mail reports that your legs are on fire, you should probably look down and double-check before calling 911. Next, the BBC followed up and learned that Willis hadn’t done anything of the sort. A spokesperson for Willis told the Beeb that the actor had “no partnership or agreement” with Deepfake. 

Although the MegaFon commercial was authorized, Willis’ involvement was directly with MegaFon, not with Deepcake.  “The rights to Bruce Willis’ image [and] to his Digital Twin belong to Bruce Willis and to him only,” a Deepcake spokesperson told Variety. “Our engineers processed a dataset composed of 34,000 images of Bruce Willis and made his ‘digital twin’ for the series of MegaFon ads. Bruce Willis, whose bilateral contractual agreements with MegaFon remain unknown to Deepcake, appreciated our service and described it as ‘a very new and interesting experience’ in the official MegaFon press release.”

Either way, we’re not interested in seeing deepfakes of anyone – not unless they could make A Good Day to Die Hard less shitty. 

Oh yeah, back to the Video Rewind that has nothing to do with deep fakes, but certainly inspired this rabbit hole:

Featured image courtesy of: Hotrod18001, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0