VFX Pros Debate AI’s Impact On Jobs, Contracts and Creativity in ‘Behind the Screen’ Podcast

Digital artists and visual effects pros acknowledge that artificial intelligence-driven tools can contribute to the creative process. But they lament that jobs will be lost, ethics will be challenged, and it could lead to a “dehumanization of art” in a new episode of The Hollywood Reporter‘s podcast series Behind the Screen. The episode is an edited version of a candid panel discussion surrounding AI, recorded Oct. 19 at the View VFX and computer graphics conference in Torino, Italy.

The panel featured artist, designer and creative technologist Scott Eaton; artist and designer, Renderman, Dylan Sisson; VFX supervisor Andreas Maaninka; Richard Scott, CEO and co-founder of Axis Studios; and Daryl Anselmo, an artist and designer who works primarily in the games industry. Behind the Screen host and THR tech editor Carolyn Giardina moderated the discussion.

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During the panel, speakers agreed that AI can be a useful tool in areas such as ideation and to speed up some of the more tedious tasks in VFX, but Maaninka acknowledged that this can have an unfortunate impact. “I got into this to actually work with people, not to work with bots,” he asserted. “I still want to feel like I’m creative and wanting to push my boundaries of knowledge and emotion and get those things into artwork.”

He added, “I love using it, but I also hate using it. And I feel like it’s the dehumanization of art.”

Multiple speakers said that they believe jobs will be lost as AI-driven tools advance. “Jobs will be lost,” admitted Eaton. “The proposal for AI is massive efficiency gains. And there’s financial incentives for any company that’s employing people to be profitable. And the more efficient your employees are, probably the less employees you need.” This additionally raises concerns about already-lean VFX budgets. “I’m hoping that the budgets won’t go down. So we actually do have that time to spend on [the work],” Maaninka said. “But frankly, I think the budgets will probably go down because they will think ‘Oh, it’s so much easier to do.'”

Sisson added that particularly with the recent WGA and current SAG-AFTRA strikes and related labor issues, these are conversations that the community should be having. He added that when people ask him about AI’s impact on jobs, he’s reminded of previous tech-driven disruptions in the industry. “I try to be motivational. And I tell them, ‘Yes, most likely, probably, you’re going to lose your job.’ I lost my job. When I started off, before I got to Pixar, I was working in wax and paste, I was working on edutainment, CD-ROMs, things that don’t even exist anymore.” He added, “But at the same time, we have a front row seat to technology that nobody else in the history of the planet has used before. And that’s kind of exciting.”

Scott reported that his company Axis is currently not using AI in production. “There are lots of ranges of challenges for us as a studio to even think about using AI — everything [including] the kind of moral ethical elements to it,” he said. “We even have clients of ours who have asked us to amend our contracts with them to say that we will not deploy AI in the creation of work for them, and that all of the work has to be created by the hand of a human. And that’s the actual phrase from the contract.”

He elaborated, “The contract essentially says that you will ensure that if you want to deploy generative AI of any type … then you can make a case with this client and they will opt in or opt out, essentially. And let’s be honest, that means their legal department is going to review that situation and decide whether they think there is a copyright risk.”

Eaton made a distinction in where the AI conversations are based. “You see people polarized about generative AI, but everything else is just massive efficiency gains, and things that were tedious,” he said, adding that “we’re also talking, largely focused on the entertainment industry. But this technology is being pushed out into science and medicine and engineering, and all of those things interface with the real world to make things better, maybe achieve things that weren’t possible two years ago, five years ago. … And so there is good stuff happening out there as well. We kind of get in a little echo chamber, I think, of our immediate concerns creatively.”

On creativity, Scott emphasizes that ultimately, his studio still aims to hire talented artists. “Whether you’re using generative AI or not, you gotta have a sense of taste, panache, whatever the right word is. So to me all the same art fundamentals apply.”

Of course, at this point AI has arrived, and that won’t be reversed. Companies and individuals now talk about the use of “ethical AI” but asked if panelists believe that is an achievable goal, Maaninka quickly replied, “No. Honestly, I think all technology is going to be used for bad at some point by someone. So I think the framework is what needs to be set into place and laws and certain things.”

Speakers also talked about the issues surrounding copyrighted material. Anselmo noted that “the open source (software) is another lens that we have to look at that through. … Let’s say we’re in a world where it is regulated and training data somehow suddenly becomes something that [requires] correct copyrights. Well, suddenly, you’ve got an open source movement as well. So it’d be like an underground that’s likely going to weaponize and abuse AI.”

Anselmo added, “I think society has a bit of a responsibility now, like it or not, to help us define what is socially acceptable and what’s not socially acceptable.”

And what do panelist find to be among the misconceptions about the use of AI? “That there is intelligence there. And that’s got to be the biggest misconception, I think. And I’m not saying there won’t be, but I don’t believe there is at the moment,” Scott said, adding, “I think the other misconception is that you can completely replace creative talent.”

You can listen to the full episode here:

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