‘You oughta be in pictures,” goes the 1934 Rudy Vallée song. And, as of last week, pretty much anyone can be. The entry requirements for being a star fell dramatically thanks to the launch, in China, of a face-swapping app that can decant users into film and TV clips.
Zao, which has quickly become China’s most downloaded free app, fuses the face in the original clip with your features. All that is required is a single selfie and the man or woman in the street is transformed into a star of the mobile screen, if not quite the silver one. In other words, anyone who yearns to be part of Titanic or Game of Thrones, The Big Bang Theory or the latest J-Pop sensation can now bypass the audition and go straight to the limelight without all that pesky hard work, talent and dedication. A whole new generation of synthetic movie idols could be unleashed upon the world: a Humphrey Bogus, a Phony Curtis, a Fake Dunaway.
Zao already has its first star: the 30-year-old artist and games developer Allan Xia, who unwittingly became the face of the app last weekend after inserting himself into a Leonardo DiCaprio montage. Western media outlets hadn’t paid much attention to Zao, which can only be accessed by users with a Chinese phone account, until Xia, who is based in Auckland but has a Chinese number, uploaded his experiments. After that, every media story covering the app came embedded with a clip of him strutting around in a Hawaiian shirt in Romeo + Juliet, and basking in the golden sunset on deck in Titanic. For the sake of fairness, he also uploaded his image on to Kate Winslet’s, thereby hogging both the male and female leads in one of the biggest films of all time.
How long did it take to claw himself to the top of the A-list? “Eight seconds,” he laughs. “It was so simple. All I did was take a selfie, which was then ranked by the app to give me an idea of how well it would be able to generate videos based on my photo. It’s looking to match your facial features to what is already there in its library of clips.”
Many people are by now familiar with the deep-fake videos showing Barack Obama and Mark Zuckerberg speaking words that never, in reality, left their lips – or the recent one in which the comic actor Bill Hader seems to metamorphose into Tom Cruise midway through impersonating him. But Zao is different: its aim is not to hoodwink or to produce a perfect replica. “With deep fake, if you don’t do a good job it messes up and glitches, whereas in Zao it’s always smooth,” says Xia. You can also only add your face to specific clips in the app’s library of programmes or movies – of which there are hundreds including, in addition to the DiCaprio titles, scenes from Leon, Fast and Furious 8 and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
“Sometimes you can tell my features aren’t really working and it resorts [to being more like] Leo than me. In deep fakes, the goal is to reach maximum accuracy, whereas Zao – where the videos are already set up with tracking markers, 3D mesh and transformation for each actor’s face – isn’t about accuracy. In my Leo clips, he has my eyes but it’s definitely his jawline; it’s not a one-to-one. This is more a BeautyCam-type meme effect [the app that gives users smoothed and idealised features], which is why it’s been so successful in going viral.”
Deepfake video shows Bill Hader morph into Tom Cruise in CBS interview – video
The technology can’t yet be applied to feature-length films, and any extension beyond meme length – five to 10 seconds – would bring copyright issues. But Xia predicts that it could become a publicity tool putting consumers into their favourite movies. “If rights owners like Disney or Netflix wanted to use this as a marketing exercise, I could totally see that happening. It would be very smart.”
Indeed, film-makers have been dreaming about this interface since the earliest days of cinema. In the 1924 comedy Sherlock Jr, Buster Keaton played a projectionist who enters the flickering on-screen action, while the traffic flowed in both directions in Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo and the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Last Action Hero, in which characters were able to step on and off the cinema screen at will. As high-tech as it is, Zao is only the latest manifestation of this age-old wish to erode the divide between reality and fantasy.
Almost as soon as it was being shared, though, a backlash was under way in China, with vocal reservations expressed about the app’s reach. They weren’t related to worries that the great performers of our time might be usurped by ordinary Joes, leading to a situation where, say, Meryl Streep is beaten to the best actress Oscar by Donna from Sidcup. After all, says Xia, it’s still DiCaprio who is doing all the heavy lifting in his clip. “You can’t fake the performance. You still need the actors for the acting part.” And though there were initial fears that images of users’ faces were being harvested by the Chinese authorities, that, too, seems unfounded: Chinese citizens are already called upon to provide photographs of themselves in so many other contexts that an app such as this is by the by. “There are much easier ways to get that data,” the Chinese tech expert Matthew Brennan told Wired magazine.
It is also unlikely that Zao’s technology could be used to plant images of third parties into footage without their knowledge: the app requires a selfie from a front-facing camera (in other words, you can’t use a pre-existing picture; the subject has to be there in the room). Of far greater concern to those not wowed by Zao is the small print.
There, among the terms and conditions, lurks the kicker: the user is giving “free, irrevocable, permanent, transferable, and relicenseable” rights to any content generated by the app. The outcry manifested itself in a wave of one-star user reviews. Zao, which is owned by the dating service Momo Inc, had no option but to issue a statement insisting that “we understand the concerns about privacy” and promising to “fix the issues that we didn’t take into consideration, which will take some time”.
The irony is not lost on Xia that he is currently the only person whose privacy is currently at stake. “Because it’s so popular in China, everyone there is sharing it and there’s no single iconic Zao clip. I made the initial post with the assumption that people in western media would try the app themselves, but that didn’t happen and I’ve ended up becoming the face for this whole thing. I feel like I might be arguably the only person in the world right now who really is experiencing a loss of privacy from using Zao.”
The technology journalist Chris Stokel-Walker was not taken aback by the speed of the backlash so much as where it came from. “China is usually much more comfortable about giving away stuff like facial recognition than we are,” he tells me. “You would expect this reaction outside China, but now there seems to be more of a widespread consciousness in the post-FaceApp world.”
FaceApp, which came to prominence this year, instantly ages users’ photographs to predict how they would look at pensionable age – lending crows’ feet and turkey necks to spring chickens. But much like its users’ pictures, that app got old real quick – right around the time that people realised they had surrendered their images for all eternity to a company based in Russia. “FaceApp is very much the precedent here,” says Stokel-Walker. “It’s the one that made us circumspect about apps like these. Without FaceApp, you wouldn’t have people meticulously going through Zao’s terms and conditions.”
Alhough fears that FaceApp would turn us all into Putin’s playthings turned out to be misplaced, the controversy tapped into a pervasive paranoia about the exploitation of images willingly surrendered. “It’s the trade-off we make in any tech we use,” says Stokel-Walker.
Couldn’t all these problems be solved in an instant if we could only break this compulsion to upload our faces to every available platform? “It’s a difficult one,” says Stokel-Walker. “If we did hold back, it would force tech companies to produce more equitable terms and conditions. But people won’t do that. We’re lazy and we like new things, and most of us don’t want to wade through pages and pages of terms and conditions. For all the fire and fury we saw toward FaceApp, people will still try that stuff because they’re impressed by it. It’s a cool toy.”
It says something unflattering about us that we want constantly to insinuate ourselves into the centre of every narrative. A generous interpretation might be that Zao is the benign digital equivalent of a green-screen experience, such as riding a broomstick at Harry Potter World. And perhaps it’s not really any different to those personalised books in which the names of children and their friends and family members feature among the text of anything from Alice in Wonderland to Paw Patrol. Children love to find themselves in the company of their favourite characters.
The sense that adults demand the same thrill is a sight more worrying, and suggests an empathy shortfall or a failure of imagination – a reluctance to process any scenario unless it in some way overlaps with our own life or experience. Surely a phenomenon such as Zao can only inflame that tendency.
Of course, this app is no different in essence to any social media fad with a narcissistic component: the Snapchat filter that gives cat’s ears or bunny noses to people who have never even heard of Ovid, or the ice-bucket challenge, a charitable endeavour that also doubled as another excuse to upload footage of ourselves to social media. It’s hard in this context not to have some sympathy with the actor Armie Hammer, who responded to the death of Stan Lee by objecting to the onslaught of celebrity selfies. “So touched by all of the celebrities posting pictures of themselves with Stan Lee … no better way to commemorate an absolute legend than putting up a picture of yourself,” he tweeted. Hammer later apologised, and pledged to work on his “Twitter impulse control”, but the point surely stands: it doesn’t reflect well on us if the first thing we do when a celebrity dies is elbow our way to the front of the online mourners to claim our space at the wake, honouring a rich and exemplary life by marking the fleeting moment at which it intersected with our own.
Zao can turn us all into screen gods but contentment and wisdom surely lie elsewhere. We may think we are the stars of our own movie. True maturity, though, can only come once we realise that we may not even rank as supporting actors – and make our peace with that.
Source: The Guardian