How do you safely shoot a commercial during a pandemic? Hulu simply decided to fake it.
The streaming service launched a new ad last weekend to publicize the restart of sports on its TV service. It features athletes such as Damian Lillard and Skylar Diggins-Smith unenthusiastically trying their hands at favorite quarantine hobbies; think painting self-portraits and baking sourdough bread.
But there was a problem: Lillard has been in the NBA's bubble in Orlando, and in-person shoots didn't seem like a good idea for the other star athletes, either. That's why Hulu shot the commercial with body doubles on an otherwise unoccupied set in Los Angeles, and then used deepfake algorithms to superimpose the faces of the stars into the resulting clip.
The deepfake algorithms were trained on footage of the athletes that was shot exclusively over Zoom, explained Hulu marketing VP Ryan Crosby. "Throughout each shoot, we captured several different facial angles including straight-to-camera, 45-degree angle, 90-degree side angle, looking up and looking down," he said. "Athletes were asked to say the vowels ('A' 'E' 'I' 'O' 'U') at each angle along with 'Hulu Has Live Sports Again.' We also recorded several different facial expressions that pertain to their specific movements and speaking lines within the spot."
Hulu worked with Sao Paulo, Brazil-based VFX studio Tribbo on the clip, which also used some still photographs of the athletes to beef up the training data for the AI algorithms. The whole production process took about six weeks, Crosby said.
Hulu isn't the first company to use AI video manipulation for its commercials during the pandemic. In April, State Farm ran a commercial that featured doctored footage of former ESPN SportsCenter anchor Kenny Mayne. In it, a much younger Mayne predicted that ESPN would air "The Last Dance" in 2020. "It's going to be lit. You don't even know what that means yet," the clip has 1998-Mayne saying.
And it's not just for high-end commercials anymore. The AI video startup Synthesia, which promises customers the ability to produce videos without actors and film crews, has seen a 10x growth in demand since the beginning of the pandemic, according to co-founder and COO Steffen Tjerrild. Synthesia's AI dubbing tech takes text input and then manipulates mouth movements of archive footage to produce custom clips, like this one.
AI will eventually do to video production what apps like Instagram filters did to photography, Tjerrild predicted. The need for companies to hire actors and book studio time will in many cases go away when they can just manipulate existing footage with the help of cloud-based algorithms. The cost savings alone could be significant enough to make this stick around even after the pandemic is over. "Allowing anyone to create videos at one hundredth of the cost and 1,000x the speed is here to stay," he said. "The quality and authenticity is only going to get better and better as this space matures."
For now, it's still possible to tell the difference between AI-produced and "real" video. "We knew the biggest fans of these athletes, and sports fans in general, would recognize the imperfections," Crosby said. That's why Hulu hinted at the trickery in its own social posts and on the social feeds of participating athletes. Lillard, for instance, told his fans on Instagram: "Why did Hulu put my face on some random guy's body? Cause I'm too busy getting buckets in the bubble to shoot commercials."