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Annalise Ophelian

William Yu used photoshop and deepfake AI to help change the game for Asian-American actors [Ep #45]

Jul 30, 2018, 3:00 PM EDT

In 2016, William Yu was a former English major working in digital marketing. He liked movies and harbored creative ambitions, but had no real connection to the industry, which, combined with Hollywood's long history of slighting Asian-Americans, made a job in show business seem like more than a long shot.

Two years later, he's an award-winning screenwriter who goes out to dinner and DMs on Twitter with his heroes, some of whom will participate in a live reading of his prize-winning screenplay on Tuesday night at CUNY.

So, what happened?

Chris Rock pulled a cheap gag when he was hosting the Oscars.

"He brought out three little Asian children and he was like, 'These are PricewaterhouseCooper's most diligent, hardworking accountants,' and the entire crowd cracked up," Yu remembers in a new episode of The Fandom Files. "That year was especially bad when came to whitewashing Asian roles, from Aloha with Emma Stone to the casting of Ghost in the Shell and Doctor Strange."

Hollywood was continuing to cast white people in roles that should have gone to actors of Asian descent, either changing the character or just sort of ignoring the source material so that more well-known actors could take the part. Yu's frustrations reached a tipping point — even his family and friends kept telling him to chill out about it — and when Rock made that joke, Yu had to do something.

"It just seemed to be piling on again and again and again, that for me as an observer, just being told, 'Your stories don't matter, your stories don't matter, your stories don't matter. We'd rather see someone else who looks different in a role in an environment that is yours, but we're not letting you have it,'" Yu recalled, his frustration even now very apparent.

A study from UCLA that confirmed that movies with diverse casts make more money gave him a hook for an idea. He wanted to make very clear that not only should Asian-Americans be in ensembles, they should be the focal points of movies.

"I was like, you know what, I'm done talking about it. If no one's gonna really try, then I'll just make something and I'll show you," Yu remembered. "I'll show everyone else what it looks like,  so we can just stop talking about it and we can actually have a tangible physical thing from there on."

Thus the #StarringJohnCho movement was born. Though he didn’t have all that much skill with Photoshop, he taught himself enough that he was able to start superimposing the actor John Cho's face on movie posters. Instead of Matt Damon in The Martian, the one-sheet had a close-up shot of Cho's half-smiling mien, staring off into the middle distance. Cho became Paul Rudd, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Bond, and Captain America.

It was an instant viral smash, thanks in part to some early assistance from people like the blogger Angry Asian Man, and the posters lit up Twitter. People began inserting Cho into other movies, and Yu was featured on the BBC and in the New York Times. He also got a dinner invite from Cho himself when he was in New York for the Star Trek Beyond press tour. They spent a night on the town, getting dinner and drinks, an experience that Yu described as "surreal," but also affirming of the whole campaign, which had thrust Cho into a spotlight that he had not pursued.

"He understood it as an advocate himself or for Asian-American representation," Yu said. "I think one part of the reason why I chose John is that he's someone that understands that as much as a project like this is about him, it's not really about him, it's about the larger message. I think he was really able to understand and accept that kind of conversation that we're trying to have right now."

It took about a year, Yu says, for the attention to the campaign to dwindle down. Shortly thereafter, a new idea came to him, this one inspired by a much more innocuous source. People on Reddit were using deepfake technology to place Nicolas Cage's face in famous movie scenes, which got Yu thinking that he could take his #StarringJohnCho posters to the next level.

Yu had a little bit of coding knowledge, mostly cursory HTML and CSS, so he had to learn all he could about AI and deepfake. For the most part, it's been utilized by creeps for less noble purposes, which made research a bit treacherous.

"I set out on this dark Google journey of trying to figure out how these things are made," he said. "I wouldn't recommend anyone younger than 15 go check this stuff out, because it gets pretty gnarly."

One obstacle was the need for a higher-powered computer; Yu's Mac is great for writing, not so much for AI and intense video rendering. So he did what anyone would do in that situation: Yu went to Costco, bought a gaming computer with a supercharged processor, then returned the computer within the few months' grace period that the store has on electronics.

This time around, he included more actors. For the #SeeAsAmStar campaign, Yu has inserted Cho, Steven Yuen, Constance Wu, and Arden Cho in films like Ghost in the Shell, Avengers: Age of Ultron, 500 Days of Summer, and The Hunger Games. Some are more natural fits than others, but each is impressive enough to illustrate just how easy it would be to have Asian-American actors in high-profile roles.

In the wake of his success, Yu has not only urged change in Hollywood's creative development process; he's worked to insert himself into the business as well. He moderated a Q&A last week for the movie Searching — which stars John Cho — and has taken a yearlong creative sabbatical from his digital marketing job to try his hand at screenwriting. His first script, called Love You, Charlie, earned him an award from the Asian American International Film Festival.

"It's a thriller set in a suburban high school," he explained. "The protagonist is this high school senior named Alice Park, and her best friend Charlie — they're both Korean-American — gets framed for murder. She goes about on this desperate journey to try to prove his innocence and try to find out who the real killer is."

Baked into the movie are some cultural references and tensions, especially with Alice's parents, that make it a story that would require Asian-American actors. But for the most part, it sounds like a story that could happen in any culture, and without the specific references, you could pretty much cast anyone. Thanks to Yu's activism, it would be that much more likely that Asian-American actors would get the call for the film anyway.

And yes, there's a role for John Cho in there, if he wants it.