July 15, 2024
'AI-powered' ad ignites creator controversy on Instagram

A new ad from Under Armour featuring boxer Anthony Joshua has come under fire from creatives on Instagram after its director claimed it as the “first Ai-powered sports commercial” — but critics in the industry say it blatantly reused others’ work without credit as part of an AI hype cycle cash grab.

Director Wes Walker posted the spot, along with several variations and riffs, on Instagram earlier this week, saying: “Under Armour asked us to build a film from nothing but existing assets, a 3D model of Anthony Joshua and no athlete access. This piece combines Ai video, Ai photo, 3D CGI, 2D VFX, Motion graphics, 35mm film, digital video and advances in Ai voiceover. Every current Ai tool was explored and pushed to the maximum.” [I have left “AI” as “Ai” throughout.]

Seen on its own, the ad is not in itself objectionable. Live footage is intercut with 3D models, landscapes, and abstract scenes, all rendered in contrasty monochrome.

Walker claimed that the whole thing was done in three weeks flat, which is quite short for a major brand and athlete, and noted of the reliance on AI that “Key in this industry shift is that we stay true to the core of what we’re here to do – tell powerful stories and uplift the human soul with beautiful, provocative and interesting visions…Ai will integrate into our workflows in ever evolving ways … but the heart and the mind that peer behind the veil and doors of perception … is still and will always be ours.”

“Ours,” however, may have been an overstatement. While this is all be quite run of the mill self-promoting pablum, as one often finds in such captions, the director was quickly taken to task by other creatives who pointed out that his ad in large part repackaged another’s work — and much more difficult and valuable work at that.

The caption says that 35mm was a part of this “mixed media” production. What probably should have been said is there was an entire existing but unmentioned film-based production, directed by Gustav Johansson two years ago. “Cool film, But all the stuff with athlete is shot by André Chementoff and from a commercial I did?” asked Johansson in a comment.

It looks really good! But neither creator was initially credited in the caption, a professional courtesy that costs nothing and would have much more honestly represented who actually created the images seen here.

Johansson, Chementoff, and others showed up in the comments incensed not that their work had been used (it’s inevitable in commercials) but that it was seemingly just redeployed as a cost-cutting measure and credit taken without acknowledging their contribution.

In an apparently now-deleted comment, Walker says that they did ask for access to Joshua, but “were rejected several times. UA had limited time, limited budget, 3 weeks from ideation to delivery… Timeline, budget, access, and the realities of production are all real and highly limiting concerns with commercials of this level.”

“UA get to do what they want with the footage of course but slippery slope you as a creative saying it’s AI when it actually humans behind it? AI has nothing to do with it really, it’s more how you choose to label and promote your work [is] even more important when times are shifting,” wrote Johannson in conversation with Walker.

“The future is brands training Ai on their products, athletes, aesthetics + repurposing existing footage bases + using Ai to do more with less in less time,” wrote Walker. (After arguing for some time, he did relent and successfully petitioned to have credits for them and others added to the post.)

This perspective had creatives from around the industry coming out of the woodwork to decry what they perceived as another step down the road of AI not replacing what they do but being used by companies to take advantage of them. While there is an expectation that commercial work will be abused and reused to some extent, they pointed out there is a vast gulf between shooting stock footage or everyday stuff, and being commissioned to create a film with a unique treatment and creative vision — but both are being treated as raw material by brands.

Wrote cinematographer Rob Webster: “If times are shifting, surely it’s the responsibility of creatives to resist changes that allow agencies and brands to steal work from colleagues without appropriate credit…. The use of this technology is inevitable but the application of it, and discourse around it is very much in our hands.”

Video production firm Crowns and Owls: “If you’re somebody that shoots for Shutterstock then you know you’re handing over work with the literal purpose behind it being re-use/recyclability. There’s a fundamental difference if you did a commercial three years ago and then it’s kept on a hard drive by a brand just so they can wheel it out and bastardise it whenever they don’t have “time or budget”, which let’s be honest, is almost always and will be increasingly so.

“The legality is the legality – corporate worlds will always thrive in the grey area, but there’s a blatant artistic moral coding that’s been overstepped here, and it signifies a pivotal moment. The change is already underway. As artists, now more than ever we must prove our worth and we must be in dialogue.”

Producer Elise Tyler asks: “When you see the original, you begin to understand why this conversation needed to happen already. Why didn’t they just commission the original director again? Why would a new director make an ungodly by most standards day fee to ‘direct’ this? They didn’t need crew, they didn’t need locations, they didn’t need craft… Filmmakers have to stand together as we traverse this new AI landscape. Not turn a blind eye and say ‘but it’s the future!’ ”

Director Ivan Vaccaro summed up what may be among creatives last resort: refusal. “Saying no to a client and an agency is the most powerful creative and human tool we can have. Something that no artificial intelligence will ever achieve.”

While Walker and his production may be the villain of the week, they are hardly unique in their approach, and indeed the buck may not stop with him for accepting a job that may or may not be ethical, but with Under Armour for rushing a quick turnaround to capitalize on the AI craze. Perhaps they underestimated the passion of the creators whose decidedly analog and human-focused processes actually produce original and compelling content.

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