Time Out for Human Talent?

Virtual influencers are taking Instagram by storm, attracting millions of followers and landing huge deals with big brands. Lil Miquela and Shudu Gram are at the forefront of the trend and offer us a glimpse of how CGI may mean time out for human talent.

Lil Miquela virtual Influencer
Image from the Lil Miquela Instagram account

Lil Miquela

Super secretive startup Brud posted the first image of the one of the latest virtual influencers, Miquela, on Instagram in 2016. She now has 1.3 million followers and partnership deals with brands such as Prada and Nike. The difference between Lil Miquela and other “influencers” is that she’s not human, she’s a CGI.

Lil Miquela instagram account
Screenshot from the Lil Miquela Instagram account

Created by artists and designers, Lil Miquela is said to be a 19-year-old model and musician from LA. She also supports good causes:

Black Lives Matter @innocenceproject | @lgbtlifecenter | @dwcweb | @justiceforyouth

This new breed of hyperreal avatar is taking CGI to a new level. Some people are starting to connect with the characters as if they were real, describing them using words like sympathetic and emotional.

There are many examples of hyperrealism in the media and the arts, the work of sculptor Ron Mueck being just one of them. But they aren’t designed to mimic the role of a real person and be involved in society in quite the same way that Lil Miquela and others like her are. The lines between what is real and what is not are becoming more blurred, at least from the audience’s perspective. “Why u look like a human doll?” Asked one Instagram follower.

These CGIs are fulfilling commercial job roles and this raises some questions. How long before technology delivers to us the first hyperreal avatar film star? What will the legal and ethical issues be and what impact will they have on the human talent of the future?

Shudu Gram

Shudu Gram is the creation of fashion photographer Cameron-James Wilson and is being hailed, by some, as the first virtual supermodel. Shudu has already been made to move and although, at the moment, the movement is a little clunky, it’s clear that it won’t be long before this is refined. But, in order for Shudu’s movement to be indistinguishable from that of a humans, much work would be required.

Ryan Lok, CGI specialist here at River Film explains.

“At the moment Shudu’s animation looks unnatural, almost like an animatronic, which causes the character to fall into the “uncanny valley”. To take it to the next level, the creators would need to turn to motion capture.

Motion capture (Mocap) would allow them to capture movements that you normally don’t pay attention to. Often these movements are very minute. For example, when you smile not only do your cheeks rise, but you also have wrinkles around the edges of your eyes and nose.

Mocap is not a cheap technique though. Capturing/recording is just one of the elements, lots of other resources are required prior to and after the capturing. Such as a more complex rig, needed to enable more detailed animation. Mocap data requires a lot of clean up, the animation will often need to be refined by an animator – whilst the captured data is accurate, it sometimes doesn’t give you that realistic feel.

The technique has improved and developed a lot over recent years with films such as Avatar, Lord of the Rings and Planet of the Apes etc. And it will continue to get better, cheaper and faster.”

shudu gram virtual influencer
Image from the Shudu Gram Instagram account

Concerns have already been raised, however, regarding some of the legal and ethical implications of how virtual talent is used. Whilst commenting on Shudu, one Twitter user wrote:

“A white photographer figured out a way to profit off of black women without ever having to pay one.”

Indeed the potential advantages of using CGI characters are aplenty; they don’t charge a fee, they don’t complain and are never late. So for brands and others who may seek to use them they offer reliability, consistency and economy. But what they can’t offer are things like collaboration, improvisation, spontaneity and unpredictability – the very things that can often contribute to brilliance in human endeavour.

So, it may well be that virtual influencers impose time outs on some of the more replaceable talent that’s out there, but they will never replace those whose talent is born of being inherently human.