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Starring John Cho as Captain America

Hollywood is still ignoring Asian-American actors. Could deepfake technology, mostly known for fake porn, make it change its ways?

At left, a deepfake animation of John Cho as Captain America. At right, a deepfake animation of Constance Wu in Ghost in the Shell.
Animation by Slate. Video by www.seeasamstar.com.

You don’t need to wait until the summer premiere of Crazy Rich Asians to see Fresh Off the Boat’s Constance Wu headline a big-budget movie. Here she is starring in the live-action Ghost in the Shell, and here she is in Luc Besson’s Lucy, and here she is as Black Widow in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Yes, those are all films that starred Scarlett Johansson, but not in the corner of the web containing the new social media campaign #SeeAsAmStar, where Wu enjoys a retconned blockbuster career.

#SeeAsAmStar relies on deepfake technology, a technique that uses artificial-intelligence software to edit faces into videos in which they were not originally filmed. Deepfakes are mostly associated with scarily realistic pornography featuring the faces of famous actresses superimposed onto the bodies of adult performers. The campaign, which appeared last week, employs the deepfake toolkit for a nobler purpose: the fight for better representation of minorities in pop culture. The hashtag’s creator, digital strategist William Yu, hopes that his transformed movie clips and GIFs—of actors Wu, John Cho, Arden Cho, and Steven Yeun—will help audiences and maybe even the industry see Asian Americans as “heroes, romantics, and leaders” this Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. In the case of Wu’s implantation into Ghost in the Shell, in particular, his campaign offers a glimpse into an alternate universe where the whitewashing of Asian roles isn’t common Hollywood practice.

Yu is the mastermind behind #StarringJohnCho, the 2016 hashtag that accompanied viral Photoshops of John Cho in The Martian, Jurassic World, and other films. (A #StarringConstanceWu campaign launched soon thereafter, with crowdsourced images.) #StarringJohnCho has been the most visible manifestation of ongoing discontent about the dismissal of Asian-American stories and the lack of opportunities for Asian-American performers in mainstream entertainment. Hashtag activism often achieves nothing, but these complaints—which essentially serve as free market research for studios—seem to have yielded some results. Wu and Cho’s careers are currently on an upswing, a white actor backed out of a Japanese-American role in the upcoming Hellboy reboot to make room for an Asian-American performer, and in August Crazy Rich Asians will become the first Hollywood production to tell a contemporary story with an all-Asian cast in 25 years, to be followed by the live-action remake of Mulan in 2020.

All of which raises the question: Why bring deepfakes into this cause? Since its emergence last year, the practice has made (justifiably) alarmist headlines about its limitless potential for abuse, mostly in porn and politics. Because deepfakes can make any woman, famous or familiar, into a porn star, the technology is ripe for use as revenge porn. And its ability to put words in politicians’ mouths could make our current epistemological crisis look like nothing in retrospect. Jordan Peele shot a public service announcement last month to illustrate how easily anyone can make a video in which, say, Obama calls Trump a “dipshit.” Eerie deepfakes that render Nicolas Cage into Indiana Jones and Lois Lane illustrate the funnier applications of the technique—and the fact that this tech is definitely still in beta mode.

Those Cage videos gave Yu his “lightbulb moment,” the activist told me via email. “#StarringJohnCho was built off a frustration rooted in the fact that if no one was going to cast an Asian American lead, then I’d do it for them,” he wrote. “Deepfake technology enabled [me] to take this motivation one step further by literally inserting Asian American faces into Hollywood films and combating those who would argue that Asians aren’t expressive enough, lack the presence of a franchise star, or don’t appeal to a wide audience.” On the #SeeAsAmStar website, the four actors he chose—based on their pre-existing fan bases and leading-role experience—can be seen implanted into videos and GIFs of mega-franchises like The Hunger Games and Captain America, as well as critically successful dramedies like 50/50 and (500) Days of Summer. Yu hopes to release more videos and GIFs this month but admits that creating these works—which require sorting through tens of thousands of images—takes quite a bit of time. Plus, they have to reach a certain level of noncreepiness. “There were definitely a few clips that weren’t so pretty and I still have nightmares about today,” he said.

But the deepfakes he’s published are still kinda creepy. #SeeAsAmStar is a worthy experiment, and I laud his determination to make change where he can’t see it. Taking the “if you can see it, you can be it” slogan a little too literally, though, these deepfakes overestimate how much a face swap can make a difference while underestimating how jarring they truly are.

Take his deepfake of Arden Cho in the Jennifer Lawrence role in Silver Linings Playbook. It’s an intense scene, in which Lawrence’s grieving widow tells off her bewildered love interest (played by Bradley Cooper): “There’s always going to be a part of me that’s sloppy and dirty, but I like that. With all the parts of myself. Can you say the same about yourself, fucker?” The deepfake doesn’t quite look like Cho, and the vehemence of her words and tone doesn’t match her numbed expressions on screen. More distractingly, it’s clearly Lawrence’s (extremely recognizable) voice coming out of the faux Cho’s mouth, which makes me wholly unable to suspend my disbelief. At least the character’s sweat-sticky ponytail is something I can imagine on a woman of Asian descent. In contrast, I enjoyed the winking subversion of an Asian-American Captain America, but I spent the entirety of the deepfake in which John Cho plays Steve Rogers looking at his blond, white person–textured hair. It turns out I want to look at Asian hair as much as I want to see Asian faces—and that when I see Cho, I want as much of him as possible, which means not only his hair and voice and intonations, but also his figure and mannerisms.

#StarringJohnCho became the viral hit that it did because it allowed people to open up their imaginations. Yu doctored several movie posters for that earlier campaign, and movie posters are by design meant to be suggestive of greater possibilities. But deepfakes—in addition to being kinda icky and unconvincing—limit the imagination, or at least these ones did mine. And considering how labor-intensive it is to make deepfakes (even if instructions are easily found), it’s difficult to imagine many people contributing their own videos or GIFs to the hashtag.

With the state of deepfakes where it is today, it makes sense that it’s (apparently) most used for porn and mocking Nicolas Cage. Porn doesn’t usually employ a huge variety of expressions or nuances therein, so the primitiveness of the tech should suffice. As for Cage, his weirdo status, especially online, suits the uncanniness of deepfakes rather well.

But deepfake tech will only get better, which might throw an unexpected option to audiences at some point. Many of our sci-fi visions of the movies of tomorrow involve choose-your-own-adventure stories that involve plot alternatives. Such choices may be available soon. But maybe it’ll be just as likely one day that viewers will have the option of selecting the race (or gender or sexuality or body type) of their desired protagonist, as we already do in video games (and porn). Why not? I’ve seen stranger things.