Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Lil Miquela: Signed CGI characters are now an actual thing

It was only a matter of time before a CGI character was signed to an agency. Well now it has happened and there’s no going back from here.

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Lil Miquela is the first fully CGI character to be signed to a talent agency. You might want to sit back in that chair, because it’s not as weird or silly as it first sounds.

The character, or avatar as she is often referred to is described as a 19 year old Brazillian-American model, musician, and influencer. In reality – if there is such a thing any more – she is the creation of LA based company, Brud, a self described “transmedia studio that creates digital character-driven story worlds.”

The character of Lil Miquela has been around since 2016 when she first launched on Instagram. She now has a following of 2.2 million people, and nearly 550,000 followers on TikTok. She’s big business, having already signed brand partnerships with companies like Samsung, Prada, Calvin Klein, and YouTube. She’s even been ‘interviewed’ by publications like Buzzfeed, Vogue, the Guardian, and more.

It will no doubt raise some eyebrows that she has been signed to CAA, one of the biggest and influential agencies in the US. Founded 45 years ago, it now handles over 3,400 clients and employs 299 staff. The company hasn’t existed without its share of controversies, including the Harvey Weinstein affair, but never-the-less it remains a force in Hollywood.

Lil Miquela
The life of Miquela goes through all the ups and downs of, well, the average ‘pop star’!

Lil Miquela and the potential of virtual talent

Such an agency will be well aware of the potential of virtual talent, and whilst many people will be asking why, many others will be asking why not?

As computing power, AI, and the exponentially rising realism of human animation improves year on year, there comes a point at which it is simply much more economically viable to employ a virtual actor than a real one.

For years now there have been debates about the protection of digital representation. Famous actors can be made to stay eternally youthful in virtual form, possibly extending their careers well into old age. It is also possible that actors can appear in multiple productions, without being restricted by booking numbers.

These are well worn debates and known advantages, but what Lil Miquela represents is something completely different, and new. It is the antithesis of the idea of an actual person being represented in virtual form. What Miquela has proven is that it is possible to create a completely virtual personality with as much of a following and fanbase as a real one.

Miquela even has a break-up song

It’s a new take on an old idea

Is this a totally new idea? Yes and no. After all cartoon Manga characters also have big followings. Even Mr Blobby, an annoying ‘character’ invented for 80’s UK television show Noel’s House Party had a big following at the time. Everything from Road Runner to Meerkats have been used to sell products over the years. But this is the first time that a virtual character is being effectively represented as if they were an actual person.

Lil Miquela is also different because she sells a dream, a lifestyle. She connects with followers on a ‘human’ level. How she is used from a moral perspective will be down to her creators and animators, but there are still questions over how future influential CGI actors could be used to steer public opinion. This might sound absurdly silly, but human beings are capable of ‘humanising’ the unreal and the non human. We see this all the time. The fact that Miquela has such a following and is in fact known as an ‘influencer’ is yet more evidence of that.

Lil Miquela. Image: Brud.
Lil Miquela. Image: Brud.

Indeed the creators, Trevor McFedries and Sara Decou, have created a narrative for her as a social justice activist, even going so far as to having her Instagram hacked into. A setup that was used to introduce a new character called Bermuda. The creators clearly take a very tongue in cheek view of their characters, judging by the photo entries on the character’s Instagram accounts. 

The future will bring other questions to the fore, such as who owns the character? Who owns the movement? Until AI catches up, motion capture remains the primary method for facial acting and movement.

What’s clear is that with production at a standstill across the world right now, and the risk of something like Covid 19 happening again, producers will now want a way that they can continue to push new content out. Virtual actors allow this to happen. Expect great strides in progress to be made in the coming years, because you won’t be able to dismiss it as an anomaly any more.

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