Daily Labor Report®

The Daring Young Man on The Flying Trapeze Just Might Be a Robot

Dec. 18, 2018, 10:45 AM

Richard Bradshaw has vaulted through glass windows, crashed into police cars, dueled on horseback in far away lands, and faced down fire-breathing dragons.

He’s not worried about robots doing any of that as convincingly as he does.

“The audience can feel when something isn’t real,” says Bradshaw, a veteran stuntman who recently wrapped up work on HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” “Doing stunts is as much a performance as acting is. I don’t believe the robots will ever take that away.”

That’s not stopping the Walt Disney Co. from trying. The entertainment giant is developing new robots to perform high-flying stunts at the company’s theme parks. The 90-pound “stuntronics” machines are already swinging from trapezes and somersaulting into the air on a Disney testing lot. Eventually sensors should enable them to spin, twist, slow down, and land in real time.

Actors and entertainers may not have the same kind of 9-to-5 gigs as the rest of the working world, but they’re facing many similar questions related to the future of their jobs, including whether they can be replaced by technology.

“We want to embrace innovation, we don’t want to stand in the way of it,” David White, SAG-AFTRA’s national executive director, told Bloomberg Law. The Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists represents some 160,000 actors, dancers, stunt performers, and others across the country. “But our job is to be one of the sources of the balance between our members and the production houses that has benefited the entire industry.”

That means keeping an eye on robotics and other automation that could have machines doing the work of actors and film crews, though SAG-AFTRA’s more immediate concern is with digital replication technology that could replicate actors’ images without their consent.

Disney declined Bloomberg Law’s requests for comment.

Stiff Performers

Mickey Mouse isn’t the only one playing in the robots sandbox.

Tony Kaye—the filmmaker best known for “American History X"—recently told reporters that he wants to cast a robot in a lead role in “2nd Born,” an upcoming project. The idea is to train the robot to act using artificial intelligence. Lotus Entertainment, the company producing “2nd Born,” declined to comment.

But the gap between man and machine remains wide, Ken Goldberg, a robotics professor at University of California, Berkeley, told Bloomberg Law.

“There are very narrow things machines can do like calculations, playing certain games, and performing certain rote tasks,” Goldberg said. “Trying to say you’re doing something with robots with human dexterity is total science fiction.”

“Cloud robotics” may eventually offer a solution to robotic performances. The technology allows robots to draw on information about the world around them from a network of computers instead of making calculations on the fly. It’s expected to help robots operate more smoothly while performing common tasks like picking up objects and moving multiple objects of various sizes.

“We think that there’s some hope in having machines learn over time,” Goldberg, who is working on technology to improve robot dexterity, says. “If one robot tries to grasp a plate or another object and drops it, you can transmit to several other robots the updated information and patch that to all of the robots out there.”

In the short term, automated machines are likely to see a larger role behind the scenes in movies. Industrial robots similar to those that are now common on factory floors are already hoisting cameras on film sets to get difficult shots. Giant robotic arms manned cameras and lights and even moved actors through an outer space set in the 2013 space blockbuster “Gravity.”

Proponents of automated stunt work and digitization often say the technology can help keep humans out of harm’s way. Bradshaw says technology is more likely to improve stunt work than eliminate it.

“It’s a similar conversation to the one that was had 15-20 years ago when green screen technology came in,” he said. That technology allows movie makers to film scenes in the comfort of an indoor set and later fill in exotic background behind the actors. “Green screen is used to integrate with a lot of live action, but it hasn’t taken away from the need for a real stuntman.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Chris Opfer in New York at copfer@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Cynthia Harasty at charasty@bloomberglaw.com; Terence Hyland at thyland@bloomberglaw.com

To read more articles log in. To learn more about a subscription click here.