Judging from a recent commercial, Bruce Willis speaks pretty flawless Russian. His acting is certainly on par for Bruce Willis, judging from the past two or so decades’ worth of work — that is to say, like a very hungover-yet-affable crossing guard. Yet Bruce Willis doesn’t actually speak the slightest bit of Russian (that we know of), and his bored, mechanical line delivery could be recreated by even the laziest of impersonators. That’s basically what’s happened, thanks to new deepfake technology.
The Russian language website, Sostav, describes a new series of Russian mobile service commercials as “co-starring” the action film icon. In reality, the ads use a sanctioned deepfake of the actor.
The publication recently spoke with two higher-ups at MegaFon, the telecom company largely responsible for the idea, about the Pandora’s box of surreal knock-offs, greed, and laziness that is now opened in the entertainment industry. “We realized that we can deliver high-quality content without becoming hostages of pandemic restrictions on movement around the world. The use of technology allows you to shoot content faster and for less money than attracting celebrities to the set,” said Vasily Bolshakov, MegaFon’s Director for Brand and Marketing Communications.
Using “face generation technology” based on neural network algorithms analyzing “34 thousand units of content,” their system was able to create a near-perfect Willis replicant to star alongside Russian comedian, Azamat Musagaliev. According to MegaFon execs, Bruce Willis was pretty quick to agree to the idea, something that doesn’t come as too much of a surprise given his pretty infamous laziness in recent years.
But the entire project will have ramifications far beyond a string of cheesy, Russian cell phone ads. We’ve officially entered a new era of licensing one’s likeness, and it’s hard to tell where the intersection of ethics, profits, and creativity will take us.
A new way to MegaFon it in — After one gets over the eerie uncanniness that still plagues deepfake tech, viewers will probably note that the “Bruce Willis” of MegaFon’s first ad looks a few decades’ younger than his actual, 66-year-old self. “We [are open] about the technology we used and do not mislead anyone,” Bolshakov told Solstav. “On the contrary, we believe that to see Bruce from the times of Die Hard and The Fifth Element again in a new role is a great opportunity for all of us.”
While Hollywood has been toying with similar tech for a few years now, as screenwriter and director Michael Idov pointed out on Twitter, “this might be the future of mainstream second-world filmmaking: local blockbusters with digital copies of Hollywood stars licensed at, say, 1/10 their corporeal salary.” Although we don’t know how much Willis got paid for doing little more than signing some legal papers, we can assume it was still more than most of us make in a year. It won’t be long until similarly lazy, greedy, and/or resigned actors offer up their own likenesses for all manner of overseas commercials, cameos, or even film franchises.
It’s a weird time for the concept of truth, one that will only get weirder watching not-Nicolas Cage hawk Taiwanese soda, or a much younger, deepfaked Steven Seagal star in an entirely new, still shitty action franchise. God only knows what entertainment industry ethical abysses await us all in the years to come. One thing is for certain, apparently: Russia is going to be seeing a lot of deepfake Bruce Willis in commercials for the next few months.