If the “Secret Invasion” credits aren’t an ethical use of AI art, what is?

Secret Invasion AI generated art

Image credits: Marvel Studios

This is not a trivial question; is unanswered. What is, if anything, an ethical way to use current generative AI in a major public-facing artwork?

This dilemma emerges from the furor regarding Marvel Studios’ use of AI to create the main title sequence of its latest show, Secret Invasion. AI Generated Art in This climate? From a company with billions to spend? Unacceptable! But this isn’t exactly the covert invasion of AI as it was initially characterized.

While some initially rebelled (and understandably so) when they thought Marvel simply pushed Midjourney or Runway into creating the opening sequence for a show with a nine-figure budget, the truth is considerably less evil. This was a stylistic choice conceived and executed by professional artists who specifically aimed to evoke the sense of unease and imitation that pervades both the show and modern life.

These end credits were done by the team at Method Studios, who have done VFX work for Marvel on several movies and shows, including the final battle sequence in Black Panther. As you can see from the editing of the title work, he also did the introductions of Godless, Warrior, The Twilight Zone and many other major productions, each with a distinct and artificial key aspect related to the themes of the show.

TechCrunch reached out to Method for comment yesterday, but they ended up giving their side of the story exclusively to The Hollywood Reporter, which is of course within their right. They wrote in part:

It involved a huge effort by talented art directors, animators (proficient in both 2D and 3D), artists and developers, who employed conventional techniques to accomplish all other aspects of the project. However, it is crucial to point out that while the AI ​​component has delivered great results, AI is only one tool among the range of toolsets used by our artists. No artist’s work has been replaced by incorporating these new tools; instead, they complemented and assisted our creative teams.

In the case of Secret Invasion, a show rooted in the idea of ​​alien beings impersonating humans, Method likely tossed in AI-generated imagery as a timely visual parallel. What could be better to suggest an uncanny imitation and the discomfort it brings? And on top of that, they probably launched this look way back in 2021 or early 2022 to ship it on time. This rather contradicts the notion that Marvel is turning to AI as a result of the writers’ strike or some other cost-cutting measure.

Now there AND certainly the question of whether Method used generative AI tools that in turn relied on scraping artists’ works without paying or crediting them (Method didn’t provide details beyond that he used a custom AI tool). This is definitely a legitimate complaint!

But how far should we take this complaint? Which art forms which Do should using generative AI be allowed, if any? Is it only okay if the end result doesn’t use unaltered generated images or is it also exploitative to use it in the conceptual stage? Are there ethically trained generative models that could be used, or is the whole way of creation (if we can call it that) compromised?

Again, these aren’t rhetorical or fanciful questions, these are real, open-ended questions. Depending on what you think, Method’s title sequence may or may not be a good example of using generative models to produce original artwork.

Personally, I think this use case works. There is no attempt to disguise the fact that it is generated by artificial intelligence, which is one of the practices people are concerned about. The whole look is deliberately designed to be unrealistic and feel out of place. Think an AI couldn’t produce a better likeness than Samuel L. Jackson? The art is not intended to replace true art, but to clearly show that it is itself a poor and creepy imitation. The choice to depict the stars and landscapes using the distorted images produced by an imperfect and strange AI is artistic, a style intended to represent the themes of the show.

Image credits: Marvel Studios

Obviously timing is poor with the strike and other issues of artistic exploitation. No one disputes that, ethically produced or not, the titles seem out of this world right now, but that’s probably because the very themes they’re supposed to express have gone mainstream!

If they had just made stills of Nick Fury with a background that only shows itself as AI when you look closely, it would be very different. An attempt to substitute an artist’s input, at this stage of the debate, is necessarily something of a surreptitious approximation like Indiana Jones substituting the golden idol for a bag of sand. It failed, and the AI ​​art has similar problems (although no boulders yet).

Notably, if you watch the show to the end, you’ll find that there are credits there, and a huge number of people who worked on the show are hundreds of artists, across a dozen houses and VFX units. Marvel isn’t sidetracking artists if I had to guess, I’d say it’s probably the largest employer or client of professional artists in the world. (Certainly if you include Disney.)

I’ve also heard that they often pay bottom dollar and work those artists like borrowed mules, of course, but that’s another matter (and worth taking on). This treatment for the titles didn’t quite read the room, and there’s still the question of whether the AI ​​tools used actually co-opted other artists’ creations to produce the result we saw, however carefully driven and composed it was. So no free pass to Marvel.

But the gut reaction of many also seems out of this world in its own way. Artists who create for a living are, from my experience talking to them, less concerned about the AI ​​tools themselves (in fact many already use them in their processes) than about the people making them and making decisions about them. (Of course, some I’ve talked to are a hard no.)

A generative model could not and did not produce this opening sequence, it was storyboarded, sketched, generated, tweaked, animated and everything in between by professionals. However, the fears that have arisen when people have seen it reflect a very real concern that producers and small-minded managers will choose to use AI even if it doesn’t do what they think and certainly despite ethical considerations. As others have pointed out, technology can be scary, but the people who use it are much, much scarier. In this case it was a bit of a miss, but not the insult to the artists that some have judged.

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