Performing sexual simulation means deep faking it

by Mic Wright 

The first sex scene in the movies made it into cinemas in 1933, a year before the Motion Picture Production Code (or Hays Code) arrived to crack down on nudity and all forms of “permissiveness” at the pictures. Even then, it wasn’t a Hollywood product that pushed the boundaries but a Czech film called Ecstasy, starring legendary screen siren Hedy Lamarr.

The movie – the story of a young woman who leaves her wealthy and impotent older husband for a virile young engineer – features a scene in which Lamarr’s face is shown in close-up as her character has an orgasm, and others in which she is filmed nude. The film was denounced by the Pope and described by the American censor Joseph Breen, in a memo to William H Hays, president of Hollywood distribution, as “highly – even dangerously – indecent”.

Inevitably, given the movie industry is dogged by claims of exploitation to this day, there were suggestions, not least from Lamarr herself, that she was tricked. A 1938 profile of the star in Liberty magazine, published after Lamarr had become a contract player for Louis B Mayer’s MGM, claimed: “When Lamarr applied for the role, she had little experience nor understood the planned filming. Anxious for the job, she signed the contract without reading it. When, during an outdoor scene, the director told her to disrobe, she protested and threatened to quit… To calm her, he said they were using ‘long shots’ in any case, and no intimate details would be visible. At the preview in Prague, sitting next to the director, when she saw the numerous close-ups produced with telephoto lenses, she screamed at him for tricking her.”

The contractual terms around nudity have changed a lot since Lamarr’s days and the use of intimacy coordinators on sets has become more common in the post- MeToo age. But the increasing power of CGI in general and deepfake technology in particular – which can convincingly map people’s faces and expressions onto footage that they had no part in creating – has given actors a whole new set of worries.

A simple way of thinking about deepfakes is that they’re a kind of animated photoshop, with machines doing the hard work of convincingly combining one set of footage with the facial structure and expressions of the person you want to place into the scene.

This becomes alarming when you realise the technology to deepfake voices is increasingly effective, while completely artificially-generated faces are more convincing by the day. A website (and Twitter account) called This Person Does Not Exist already produces hundreds of realistic images of people who, as the name suggests, do not exist in the here and now.

The Time’s Up campaign group, which was founded to combat sexual harassment and exploitation in the entertainment world, has issued new guidance that explicitly refers to the use of CGI nudity. They advise actors to negotiate a “simulated sex” rider: a contract setting out what they will and will not do, including what – if any – computer-generated enhancement they are comfortable with.

The guidelines say that CGI should not be used to make scenes more explicit, nor to imply that performers took part in a more extreme scene than actually occurred on set. They read: “No computer-generated imagery, prosthetics, or digitising of your image or body with respect to the nude and simulated sex scenes may be conducted without your written consent.” The rules also anticipate Hollywood attempts to harness deepfakes, warning against: “digital doubling or digitization, such as using CGI to superimpose a performer, or body parts, onto the body of another performer.”

Actors have good reason to request that conditions on CGI and deepfake manipulation of sex scenes (and all other scenes, in fact) be written into their contracts. In March 2021, a project by Belgian visual effects artist Christopher Ume and Tom Cruise impersonator Miles Fisher was international news. The pair created a TikTok account that posted clips of a deepfake Tom Cruise, created using a combination of Fisher’s impressions and Ume’s graphics manipulations.

While Ume and Fisher’s creation took a lot of time and computing power, the potential for almost anyone to produce convincing deepfakes is already here. And Hollywood has also shown itself perfectly willing to bring actors back from the dead to star in new movies. Peter Cushing died in 1994 but returned as Grand Moff Tarkin in 2016’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story with the aid of deep-fake-influenced CGI trickery.

The issue for sex scenes in the future isn’t just how CGI can and will be used to do far more than just splice an actor’s performance with that of a body double. It’s about how Hollywood could opt to deploy entirely artificial actors, who will do whatever they want, with the easy consent of a computer model. And if the pressure of the casting couch is bad now, imagine how much extra pressure flesh-and-blood actors will feel, knowing they can be replaced by an endlessly compliant artificial actor – which has no mum and dad to be embarrassed at the premiere.


Mic Wright is a freelance writer and journalist based in London. He writes about technology, culture and politics

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