Like so many other things on the internet, the viral video “Sassy Justice” seemed too good to be true when it hit TV earlier this week and then hit the internet. The video will be presented as a local news broadcast on a station in Cheyenne, Wyo, and hosted by a reporter named Fred Sassy, who appears to be a dead alarm for President Trump – if he was in a cheap suit and white wig and spoke to him campy accent.
Sassy does an interview with Al Gore and saves with the unscrupulous dialysis center owner who looks a lot like Mark Zuckerberg. Meanwhile, he warns of the dangers of deepfakes: sophisticated computer-generated images that have been manipulated to look like familiar people, engaging in actions that never took place and speaking words they never uttered.
Of course, “Sassy Justice” itself is an elaborate series of deepfakes – beginning with its host – that are designed to ridicule executives and celebrities while also highlighting the risks such videos pose to our understanding of truth and reality.
And although its creators did not immediately identify themselves when first published, the video is the work of seasoned satirists: Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of “South Park,” and Peter Serafinowicz, the actor and speaker.
As these staff explained on a recent video call, “Sassy Justice” is in part their attempt to educate viewers about deepfakes and demystify a potentially terrifying topic.
“Before the big scary coronavirus thing came up, everyone was so scared of deepfakes,” Stone said. “We just wanted to make fun of it because it’s less scary.”
The project is also their way of delving into the technology – to see what it can do as an art form and to salvage the investment they made in a fake feature film that was shelved as the pandemic spread.
As Parker said, “It’s really this new form of animation for people like us who like to construct things shot by shot and have control over every single actor and voice. It’s a perfect medium for us. “
Serafinowicz, a star of TV shows such as “The Tick” and “Miracle Workers,” as well as films such as “Shaun of the Dead,” has also compiled an impressive list of celebrity impressions he has received on British sketch shows and political satires listed.
But President Trump’s voice is difficult to control. “Paradoxically, it is almost impossible for someone who is so exaggerated to get an accurate impression of him,” said Serafinowicz. “There are so many puzzles in this man.”
Taking a different approach, Serafinowicz created a series of viral videos in which he replaced Trump’s voice with various accents and voices he played, including Sophisticated Trump, Cockney Trump, and Sassy Trump.
He also started experimenting with his own deepfake videos, although at first he had a hard time finding reputable instructors on the internet. “There’s a small community of deepfakers who used it almost exclusively to incorporate celebrities into porn videos,” he said. (Eventually he found more conscientious trainers and learned how to work with open source code.)
Serafinowicz (who voiced characters on “South Park”) began working with Parker and Stone on a script for a full-length deepfake film. In the spirit of comedies like “The Great Dictator” and “Dave,” it would record Fred Sassy, a meek character who looks like Trump and is accidentally drawn into the presidential administration.
The filmmakers, who independently funded the project to find a rental company later, set up a studio called Deep Voodoo and hired about 20 deepfake artists and technicians. They began prep work for the film earlier this year in hopes of finishing it before the presidential election and before Parker and Stone had to start new episodes of “South Park.”
Only a few days of preliminary recordings were complete when the pandemic stopped production in mid-March. “Everyone thinks the Covid thing could delay us for a week,” recalled Stone. “And we think how are we going to survive this? We were against it. “
After their shock and disappointment subsided and Serafinowicz rushed to London, the three were determined not to waste their time and energy. They had their deepfake crew, the Fred Sassy character, and some props that had already been made for the movie (like his news van that cost them $ 30,000) – why not make a TV show for him instead?
With Parker in Los Angeles, Stone in New York and Serafinowicz in London, they spent the next few months remotely writing and producing the 15-minute video “Sassy Justice”. They used their fake artists to digitally transfer famous faces onto the footage they themselves recorded.
They recruited their own family members for the project: Serafinowicz (whose characters include Fred Sassy, President Trump and Michael Caine) designed his wife, actress Sarah Alexander to play Julie Andrews, while Parker (who plays Gore) his 7th birthday -year-old cast – The old daughter Betty played the creepy, childlike version of Jared Kushner.
The segments were rewritten and the jokes were refined on the fly as the team further figured out the deepfake process. But when Parker saw himself digitally transformed to look like Al Gore, he said, “It was the first time in a long time that I laughed at myself.”
Parker added, “I always hate watching myself. Even with ‘South Park’ I have a perfect picture of what it’s going to look like in my head all the time. But there were moments when we felt like children in our basement again. “
For Parker and Stone, the experience also reminded them of “The Spirit of Christmas,” their 1995 self-made short film that went viral in a more primitive age of the Internet and paved the way for “South Park”.
They channeled the same energy and promoted the video “Sassy Justice” on (including) Wyoming television this past weekend
Check your local paper pic.twitter.com/TOIZ2sfKmJ— Sassy Justice (@sassyjustice) October 26, 2020
. Neither of these advertisements fully explained what “naughty justice” was.
Hey Cheyenne pic.twitter.com/HrbCKuKdFz— Sassy Justice (@sassyjustice) October 28, 2020
“They know there are at least six or seven super high people in Cheyenne who have just gone mad,” Parker said. “For us it’s almost worth it.” He, Stone and Serafinowicz also informed a few close friends and industry colleagues about the video.
Technology ethicists, public order advocates, and journalists have been ringing alarm bells for deepfakes for years, and Congress has held hearings on the subject fearing that rapidly improving technology will be used to affect financial markets and elections, or otherwise threaten national security could.
(Remember, if you watch a grossly exaggerated sequence on “Sassy Justice” that shows a fake interview between Chris Wallace and President Trump in which the President appears to have had a stroke and Wallace says, “I’m a terrible person I lived a terrible life. ”)
The creators of “Sassy Justice” said they trusted their audience to find out what is real and what is being manipulated, and to understand that everything in their video is offered to entertain, not to deceive.
While recognizing the potentially treacherous power at their disposal, the creators said that their decisions are guided by what they think is the funniest.
“There’s something scary about it,” said Stone. “You could call it a moral question – we call it a comedy question. Just tearing something down and trying to fool someone for more than a second, that’s our no interest. “
Parker added, “We want to put Mark Zuckerberg in a turkey suit.”
Serafinowicz said he views deepfake technology as a high-tech form of makeup or costume – just another element he can use to enhance his acting.
When performing one of his imitations, Serafinowicz explained, “I imagine I look like the person I’m doing. That has now become real. It’s like wearing the most realistic mask possible. When it works, it’s just terrifying. It’s like magic. “
The creators of “Sassy Justice” said they spent “millions” of dollars creating the video, including the initial investment in producing the paused film and setting up the Deep Voodoo studio, although they refused to disclose the exact cost . “It’s probably the most expensive YouTube video ever made,” said Parker.
After spending that money and creating “Sassy Justice” as a proof of concept, they consider what to do next with the project, whether to go back to their original film idea or keep producing it as a TV show.
No matter who is president next year, Parker said a “Sassy Justice” series could continue to mock “whatever is going on in the world,” though I think Trump will remain a great character for a long time regardless.
Meanwhile, Parker said, “We’re waiting for Steven Spielberg to call us and say, Hey, we need your fake company my Film.“
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