Disney forms task force to study AI applications and cut costs amid Hollywood’s writers and actors strike

Disney creates task force to study AI applications across its entertainment conglomerate amid Hollywood's battle with the technology.

Edited By Fareha Naaz
First Published9 Aug 2023, 08:18 AM IST
Disney forms task force to explore AI applications across its entertainment conglomerate, despite opposition from Hollywood writers and actors.
Disney forms task force to explore AI applications across its entertainment conglomerate, despite opposition from Hollywood writers and actors.

Walt Disney has established a task force to delve into the applications of artificial intelligence (AI) across its entertainment conglomerate, even as Hollywood writers and actors grapple with the industry's use of this technology.

Introduced earlier this year, prior to the Hollywood writers' strike, the group is aiming to develop AI applications in-house while also seeking partnerships with start-ups, as informed by three sources who spoke to Reuters. Disney presently has 11 open job positions that call for individuals well-versed in artificial intelligence or machine learning. These roles span virtually every facet of the company, ranging from Walt Disney Studios and the engineering division to the theme parks and Walt Disney Imagineering, as well as Disney-branded television and the advertising team, which aims to build an AI-powered ad system for the future, as indicated in the job descriptions.

AI has ignited considerable debate in Hollywood, where writers and actors perceive it as a potential threat to job security. This matter has become central to contract negotiations involving organisations like the Screen Actors Guild and the Writers Guild of America, both of which are currently on strike.

A spokesperson for Disney chose not to comment on this matter.

One executive who has worked with Disney conveyed that "AI research at Disney has a long history and is centred around all the topics being discussed today: Can we develop something that aids us in creating movies, games, or conversational robots within theme parks for people to interact with?"

One of the insiders, an internal advocate speaking anonymously due to the sensitive nature of the subject, emphasised that traditional media companies like Disney must either embrace AI or face the risk of becoming obsolete. This supporter perceives AI as a potential tool to mitigate the escalating costs associated with film and television production, which can skyrocket to $300 million for major releases such as "Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny" or "The Little Mermaid." Over time, savings could be substantial, the individual explained.

The Imagineer highlighted the example of Project Kiwi, which harnessed machine-learning techniques to fashion a small, free-roaming robot embodying the movements and persona of the "Guardians of the Galaxy" character Baby Groot. Machine learning, a subset of AI that empowers computers to learn without explicit programming, informs the vision systems of such robots, enabling them to recognise and navigate objects within their environment. The aspiration is that, in the future, Baby Groot will engage with park guests, the Imagineer shared.

In the context of Disney's parks business, AI could enrich customer support and create innovative interactions. This sentiment was shared by a second source and confirmed by a former Disney Imagineer, who chose not to disclose their identity due to a lack of authorisation to speak publicly.

Disney has been cautious in its public discourse about AI. Visual effects supervisors involved in the latest "Indiana Jones" film highlighted the labour-intensive efforts of over 100 artists who dedicated three years to digitally "de-ageing" Harrison Ford, allowing the actor to appear as a younger version of himself in the movie's initial scenes.

History of Disney's engagement with technological innovations

Disney's engagement with technological innovation dates back to its earliest days. In 1928, the company unveiled "Steamboat Willie," the first-ever cartoon with synchronized sound. Presently, Disney holds more than 4,000 patents with applications spanning theme parks, films, and merchandise, according to records from the US Patent and Trademark Office. Bob Iger, currently in his second tenure as Disney's CEO, made the adoption of technology one of his three major priorities when he initially assumed the role in 2005.

Also read: Hollywood strike may hit Indian box office

Three years later, the company announced a substantial research and development initiative in collaboration with renowned technology universities across the globe, funding laboratories at institutions such as the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich and Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Pittsburgh lab was later shut down in 2018.

Disney's US research group has pioneered a mixed-reality technology known as "Magic Bench," enabling individuals to share a space with virtual characters on a screen without necessitating special glasses. Meanwhile, in Switzerland, Disney Research has explored AI, machine learning, and visual computing. Over the past decade, it has been instrumental in creating "digital humans" that are described as being "indistinguishable" from real counterparts, or fantasy characters "puppeteered" by actors. The Medusa performance capture system, which reconstructs actors' faces without traditional motion-capture techniques, has been employed in over 40 films, including Marvel Entertainment's “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.”

Also read: Disney explores strategic options for its business in India: Report

Hao Li, CEO and co-founder of Pinscreen, a Los Angeles-based company specialising in AI-driven virtual avatars, shared that he collaborated on several research papers with Disney's lab during his studies in Zurich from 2006 to 2010. Li said, "They essentially delve into research related to performance capture of humans, crafting digital faces. Some of these techniques will likely be adopted by Disney entities," reported Reuters.

In the preceding year, Disney Imagineering introduced the company's inaugural endeavours in an AI-powered character experience, materialising as the D3-09 cabin droid situated in the Star Wars Galactic Starcruiser hotel. This droid interacted with guests, answering queries on a video screen and adapting based on conversational interactions. Scott Trowbridge, an executive in Imagineering, remarked during that time, "Not only is she a fantastic character to engage with and constantly available in your cabin, which I find incredibly fascinating, but behind the scenes, it also encompasses a remarkable piece of technology."

(With inputs from Reuters)

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First Published:9 Aug 2023, 08:18 AM IST
HomeNewsWorldDisney forms task force to study AI applications and cut costs amid Hollywood’s writers and actors strike

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