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New Technology Changes Faces in Film to Protect Identities

Process uses artificial intelligence to replace the usual shadowy images
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jan 26, 2020 12:15 PM CST
A scene from "Welcome to Chechnya."   (HBO Documentary Films via AP)

(Newser) – In documentaries, people whose identities need to be kept secret have often been reduced to shadowy, voice-distorted figures—or worse, pixelated blurs. But a documentary premiering Sunday at the Sundance Film Festival has, with the aid of advanced digital technology, gone to greater lengths to preserve the secrecy of its sources while still conveying their humanity, the AP reports. Welcome to Chechnya, directed by David France, is about an underground pipeline created to rescue LGBTQ Chechens from the Russian republic, where the government has waged a campaign against gays. In the predominantly Muslim region in southern Russia ruled by strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, LGBTQ Chechens have been detained, tortured, and killed.

France couldn’t reveal the identities, or the faces, of his main characters. Their lives depended on staying anonymous. The usual methods of disguise can be dehumanizing, he said. So in his film, the faces of all the LGBTQ Chechens have been replaced, using artificial intelligence, with those of 22 volunteers. The "face doubles" were shot on a blue screen stage and converted into algorithms that, with machine learning, could digitally mask the subjects. Different voices were substituted, too. Editors worked on encryption drives, never letting original footage with real faces touch the internet or even a computer that had previously been connected to the internet. "It added a lot of time to our work," he said. "But it reminded us every day what the stakes were." HBO plans to release the film in June.

(Read more documentary stories.)

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