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  • Jonathan Hanst

Dead Eyes and Deepfakes

Have you seen this new feature on the iPhone where a call comes in that displays “Scam Likely”? It always makes me laugh a little. Today, my phone lit up with that message again but what was unusual was that a few moments later a tone alerted me that ‘someone’ (Senor Spam?) had left me a message.


I was curious. Could the phone have gotten it wrong this time? Did a legit person really call me from ‘Augusta GA’ (maybe I was being invited to The Masters!). Intrigued, I checked my voicemail.


Initially, I will admit, I thought the caller was real. “Hey Stranger, long time, no speak. It’s Leonard.” My synapses scanned my internal Rolodex. Did I know a Leonard from Georgia? But within another moment, I realized: nope. This was pre-recorded, 100% robo.

Even though I sorted out the truth quickly, I guess when you’re leaving thousands of messages a day, you only need a few suckers to take the bait.


We are up to our eyeballs in hogwash these days. I’m not talking about conspiracies or ‘fake news’, I mean the sheer volume of things that are made to look or sound completely real, even though they aren’t. Take the new Lion King, for example. After remaking The Jungle Book for Disney, director John Favreau was brought in to do the same for ‘Lion’ which has been a financial juggernaut since its first incarnation in 1994. Capitalizing on the tech that has advanced since The Jungle Book reboot, Favreau and his team were able to take the new Lion King to even greater heights of digital realism. Many reviews said the look of the film was astounding, with the wildlife and the African landscape appearing super realistic.


But a deeper scan of most Lion King reviews reveals something else: that Favreau’s technical prowess was diminished by the film’s lack of soul. Even though all the creatures looked absolutely spot on, a lot of viewers didn’t feel connected to them. Something was just a bit … off.


I’m not writing this as a takedown of Jon Favreau. As far as I’m concerned, as the guy who wrote Swingers and directed Elf, he doesn’t need to do anything else in his life to get my approval. What’s interesting to me is the very subtle, almost subconscious reaction humans have to things that look (or sound) almost totally real, but aren’t.


For voiceover folks like me, the nightmare scenario was summed up in this video by Adobe. When some of their software was given several minutes of a real person talking, it was then able to replicate that person saying ANYTHING. Joe Rogan repeated this exercise not long ago and found the results so realistic that even he said he would be fooled. A collective chill went down the spine of the voiceover community. The robots are coming and they want your job!


I’m here to say: Hold up. Breathe. The connection between Rogan’s sonic doppelganger, Favreau’s Lion King and some of the ‘deepfake’ videos you may have read about is this: they’re all missing a heartbeat. Sure, they might seem real at first (or even second glance) but each one of them, when scrutinized, is not quite ‘there.’ In videos, I think the eyes give it away. There’s a spark missing. A lifeless quality. And in audio form- to me, anyway- something just doesn’t quite add up.


I’m sure to some extent, like every industry, the voiceover market will be affected by technology. We’ve already seen the Internet make significant changes over the last decade. But what most brands are aiming to do with their messages- whether it’s commercials, eLearning or a podcast- is make a human CONNECTION. To evoke emotion and gain trust. And just because technology may be able to look like and sound like a real person, it’s that little gap of believability that makes all the difference.


Will a robot ever be able to improv a joke on the fly? Take a script and tweak the cadence just enough to pull heartstrings? Add the slightest chuckle to a read? No to all three. At a time when technology seems destined to expand and improve on so many levels, some things will always be better handled by a human being.


Have you ever been fooled by a robo call or a deepfake video? Tell me about it in the comments!

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© 2020 by Jonathan Hanst