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How a foreign dub of Robert De Niro in this 2015 crime thriller sparked an AI revolution in Hollywood
Before The Irishman, there was Heist.
Four years before he pushed the limitations of de-aging technology to their absolute breaking point with Martin Scorsese's The Irishman, actor Robert De Niro unintentionally kicked off a different technological revolution with Heist.
Currently streaming on Peacock, the Reservoir Dogs-meets-Speed project centers around a pre-The Walking Dead Jeffrey Dean Morgan and a pre-Guardians of the Galaxy Dave Bautista as a pair of disgruntled casino employees who decide to hijack a bus after a robbery goes terribly wrong. The police are hot on their tail, of course, but the fuzz are the least of the thieves' problems. What they really need to worry about is the owner of all that stolen money — Francis "The Pope" Silva (De Niro) — catching up with them.
Should you happen to mention the movie to director Scott Mann, however, he'll quickly tell you the real title is actually "Bus 657," which recalls the crime and action thrillers of the 1970s like The Taking of Pelham 123 and Assault on Precinct 13.
"It was renamed Heist at the last moment," Mann explains to SYFY WIRE over Zoom. "I would say that Heist' is not an accurate title that really reflects what happens in the movie. We almost didn't even have a heist in the movie, frankly. It's a story point, it's not the focus. The film really focuses in and around Bus 657, and everything that happens around that."
Thankfully, the director's preferred title stuck around for the movie's international rollout, but that's also where the trouble began. Mann received quite a shock when he came across a poorly executed foreign dub that "changed the dialogue and all the performances" for the sake of trying to sync a different language with existing mouth movements. He was so incensed by this inexcusable butchery of narrative, that he set out to fix the glaring flaws of the global film distribution model adopted by major studios in the United States and abroad.
"What I realized as a filmmaker is that for all the character and delicacy you can do with a given film — every moment and every scene and everything else that feeds into the direction of acting — can be quickly ruined through the current way that we've been dubbing and subbing films," he explains. "It really spoils a movie and content in general. It makes a lot of sense why that doesn't travel."
This epiphany led Mann and Nick Lynes to co-found Flawless, an entertainment company that uses patented and award-winning artificial intelligence learning (pioneered at the Max Planck Institute in Germany) to subtly alter an actor's facial performance in post-production without incurring exorbitant reshoot costs. "We've been focused on solving the foundational problems of the film industry, which is the ability to change dialogue and alter dialogue and do these foreign authentic translations like the original," Mann says.
As fate would have it, the first trial involved a scene of De Niro from Heist: "I picked out a particular scene where I knew what the performance should be, what the dialogue should be, and then saw the foreign version, which was not those things. We used that as a testbed and had everyone get involved. I re-recorded the dialogue as it should be and then we used this technology to re-render the visuals of it to sync up, so it’s as if De Niro is performing the same scene in German like he did it on set."
A test is one thing, but what about a real-world scenario where hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of dollars are on the line? Flawless officially entered the big leagues last summer with Mann's acrophobic thriller, Fall, which also happened to feature Jeffrey Dean Morgan. The film was shot and Lionsgate was on board to distribute, but only on the condition that the MPAA give the movie a PG-13 rating. With no time or money for traditional reshoots, Mann and his team relied on what the director calls "AI reshoots."
"We were ... able to swap around performances and no one can tell it’s been done, but it’s been done," he elaborates. "That's the first time we went out at that scale on a cinematic release of those kinds of reshoot outputs. It was fitting that it happened on a movie that I was doing. We're using it for that now on a bunch of things ... It’s going to allow you to focus on the performance itself and really capture that stuff properly and then not worry so much about all the kind of technical hindrances that usually surround a film set. It's a really freeing and efficient way to do it."
Mann is not one to mince words, describing the film industry as completely and utterly "broken." What it needs, he goes on to say, is a surefire way "to drive down the cost of production" and "up the audience." The latter at least can be achieved by using Flawless technology to make any film or TV show accessible to any audience without compromising quality.
"If we can essentially make things for a global audience and make them for that larger audience, then that solves huge problems that feed back into production and will allow us to get back into a space of making original movies for reasonable budgets at a bigger level. That’s been the focus for us, is how to use these new technologies for the film industry and to pioneer the new uses of it in the industry."
As the filmmaker points out again and again, the service offered by Flawless is not an art, but an exact science — the benefits of which Hollywood is slowly starting to comprehend. "I'm being modest by saying it’s pretty transformative," he concludes. "It’s literally going to change the film industry and that’s probably going to be happening next year."
Heist is now streaming on Peacock alongside other De Niro outings like The Godfather Part II, Midnight Run, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, Shark Tale, The Good Sheperd, Red Lights, Killing Season, and The Intern.