Likeness


by Ethan Hedman


“So? What do you think?”

Aaron stared at the projection. “It’s my face, all right.”

“Obviously. Is it good?”

He shrugged. “Why ask me? You’re the expert.”

“Not really, no. I’m the artist. I can tweak our scans of you all day, but you’re the expert. It’s like Socrates said; know thyself.” Tina, his likeness designer, took a sip from her mug and recoiled. “Ugh, I need new coffee. Look, I just want some honest feedback. Does this look more like a sculpture, or like the face that stares back at you when you glance into a mirror?”

“Both?”

Tina sighed. “If you had to choose?”

“I guess the sculpture. I mean, it’s not moving.”

“Well, we can do something about that. Put this on.” She slid a bit of fabric across the desk. It looked like a sack covered in tiny white orbs.

“What’s this?”

“A simple motion tracking kit for your head. It’s outdated, but it’ll still give us a rough idea about how your likeness will look once we start rolling it out to clients. Put it on.”

Aaron tugged the kit on. It was a full facemask with tiny holes for the wearer’s eyes and a thin slit for the mouth.

“Comfortable?” Tina asked, reaching out to adjust the mask slightly.

“Not really,” he muttered, constrained by the fabric. “It’s tight. And itches.”

“Everyone says that. You won’t need to wear it for long. Stand right in front of the projection. As still as you can, please.” She tapped a few keys and the face came alive. “Here we go. I’ve got the eye movements running on an automated algorithm since the sack can’t actually track them independently, but your other facial features should come through fine. Go ahead, move your head around a little.”

Aaron looked up and down, gradually turning his head both ways. His digital duplicate did the same. Together they raised their eyebrows, stuck their jaws out, and scrunched up their noses, all in perfect unison.

“So?” Tina asked.

“This is weird,” Aaron finally said, the face silently mouthing his words.

“Go on.”

“It’s like I’m watching myself. Really watching myself. Like an out of body experience, or whatever.”

“Just what I wanted to hear.” Tina tapped her keyboard and the face returned to its default dormant state. “To be honest, I felt really good about this one. Feedback from the model’s essential, though, and I didn’t want to get you all excited before hearing your thoughts. People always know when something’s wrong with their face. Oh, you can take that off now.”

Aaron pulled the itchy sack off and instantly started scratching his forehead. “So, that’s it?”

“For the default full-body profile? That’s it. Depending on what your likeness gets used for it might get more customization in the future. Hairstyles, musculature tweaks, that sort of thing.”

“I meant on my end.”

“You could do a voice profile, too, in case the likeness ends up in a speaking role, but that’s between you and the casting guys. They’re picky, but if they end up liking your voice you’ll make more money in the end. And don’t forget to swing by legal whenever you’re done to sign your contracts and releases. Otherwise we can’t actually sell you and this whole day’s been a waste of time.”

“Gotcha. Anything else after that?”

Tina smirked. “After that, you sit back and wait for your royalties to show up. We’re getting in on the ground floor of something novel here, y’know. This is gonna be big.”

 

* * *

 

At first Aaron wondered if the whole thing had been some sort of elaborate identity scam. A couple of days spent with technicians and designers for a shot at a few years of easy extra income sounded a little too good to be true. But, sure enough, in a matter of weeks, a few royalties came.

The first of Aaron’s payments were nearly nothing, as his likeness was used as a model in online ads and stock photos. But before long Aaron found himself thrust into the world of TV commercials, advertising cheap products with inflated shipping and handling costs. It amounted to a few dollars here and there; some real money only found its way into his account once his likeness hit the big screen.

The likeness trend was catching on like wildfire in Hollywood. As movie budgets had gotten bigger and production times grew shorter, stuntwork had gotten much faster and more furious, racking up dozens of controversial career-ending injuries. By using likenesses for any stunt-heavy roles, the performers could easily capture safer routines and let an animation team fill in all of the potentially dangerous gaps. Aaron was 28 and in good shape, making his recent likeness scan an ideal action movie grunt.

Aaron made a point of going to all of the movies featuring his likeness, eager to spot where his latest paycheck came from. He’d consistently appear for just a few seconds in a fight, with a little more screen time when one of his likenesses died. He saw himself as a poker cheat, shot down by a gunslinger in a dingy saloon. He watched his body spasm on a prison floor, stabbed in the aftermath of an escape gone wrong. He even got to see himself crushed under the hull of a crumbling ship in a far away galaxy.

After having witnessed himself in nearly fifty confrontations as a silent participant, Aaron’s likeness started to be used in a handful of roles with more character and dialogue. His spitting image would be embodied by a cocky detective one day and a drunken pirate the next. He ate up every minute of it, smiling and laughing at his other selves in each new movie, and with each release his name crawled just a tiny bit higher in the credits.

Eventually Aaron went from anonymously munching on popcorn at his local theater to attending the occasional red carpet premiere. His spike in pay let him quit a tedious part-time job and look for a better apartment. He even found a new social circle with some of his fellow likenesses and the widely-unknown actors who digitally portrayed them.

All the while, the likeness trend was a raging controversy in Hollywood. Most of the major studios loved them as a hot, new, affordable alternative to the highly-paid well-knowns and were using likenesses as often as they could. Meanwhile, veteran actors insisted the concept was an insulting, hostile attack on their work, diminishing the art of acting itself and the viability of their careers.

Aaron ignored the commotion entirely. Finally having a more stable income was a welcome relief, but was nothing compared to how he felt each time he got to see himself on the big screen. He was thrilled watching so many of his other selves exploring so many other lives.

But then, one day, his appearances stopped.

 

* * *

 

After ten minutes of enduring the same obnoxious minute-long music loop, the hold music finally cut out. “Hi, Aaron. I’m Rick Barbour. I’m the agent assigned to–”

“Why the fuck isn’t my likeness getting used anymore, Rick?”

“Whoa, easy, kid. If you’ll let me explain–”

“Damn right, you need to explain. Why’d you stop selling me?”

“Look, just calm down and I’ll tell you the good news. I’ve got your likeness on pause because I’m negotiating something big. There’s a deal in the works for its exclusive use.”

Aaron took a breath. “What do you mean, exclusive use?”

“As in, the folks who buy it get to hang onto it for whatever they want as long as they keep footing the bill. It’s a new thing, mostly been happening with some of the best likenesses hooked up to franchises. You know, the big ones; movies, shows, games, t-shirts, the works. Anyway, no matter the gig, it’s steady cash. Listen, you get a tiny percentage of our profit when we use you, right? A fixed percentage.”

“Yeah, so?”

“So, since I’m your likeness’ agent, I do, too. Every time I strike it big selling your likeness, you strike it big, too. The whole exclusive thing’s a new idea, who know’s if it’ll last, but in theory these deals could go on for years. There’s a little hold-up right now while I hammer out the details, but if this thing works out we’re both gonna be happy.”

Aaron sighed. “How long is this going to take?”

“Shouldn’t be long. Look, I don’t know what you thought I was doing–of course, I could just stop selling you, but why would I? You’re valuable, Aaron. We’re in this thing together.”

Aaron set the phone down and put it on speaker. “Okay, fine. But I need this resolved, alright? The sooner the better.”

“I’m on it.”

“Who’s the deal with, anyway? One of the big studios?”

“Sorry, can’t tell you that just yet. You know the drill, we keep you informed when the contracts are signed, not before. Sorry to keep you out of the loop, but it’s a legal thing.”

“Yeah, okay. Sooner the better, though.”

“I’m doing everything I can to speed this thing along, pal.”

 

* * *

 

Two days later, Aaron got a new payment. Hours after that, he stormed into the company’s office.

“I need to see the guy who manages my likeness,” he said to the startled secretary behind the front desk. “Rick… uh, Rick something.”

“Do you have an appointment set up already?”

“No. Sorry. It’s urgent.”

“Okay, no problem. Let me just check if he’s available. Feel free to sit in the meantime.”

He didn’t, pacing around the room instead. Finally, after a whispered call, the secretary indicated where Rick’s office could be found.

Aaron flung the door open when he finally found it. “Are you fucking kidding me with this?”

“Whoa.” Rick furrowed his brow. “Easy there, tiger, calm down. You got paid, didn’t you?”

“Did you even glance at this while you were brokering the damn deal?” Aaron spun the print-out of his banking summary across the sleek, modern desk.

Rick scanned the document. “It’s the right amount, pal, and it’s more-or-less what you were getting before as a minor roles guy. Why the hell are you upset?”

“Look where the money came from! Actors United for the Abolishment of Likeness Acting? Do you know who these people are?

“Of course I do. They’re easy money.” Rick grinned. “Bunch of uptight, washed up actors who can’t get with the times. They’re out to make a statement against likenesses, and how? By buying out some of our up-and-comers like you to try and get some media attention and make people pay attention their dumbass talking points.”

“I’m in goddamn commercials spewing their ‘talking points’ as if they were the gospel. A bunch of them came out right after the payment processed and my phone’s been blaring with texts ever since.”

“Magazines’re trying to hit you up for interviews, or?”

“No, not for interviews, from other likenesses who’re just as pissed off as I am! We’re both in this thing together, you said, and you’re fine with this? They’re trying to end our careers, and now I’m a fucking turncoat because of you!”

“Who cares? There’s always been morons who’ll buy stacks of books they hate just to burn ’em. This whole thing’s gonna blow up in their faces. Look,” he said, leaning back in his chair, “we let them use you as their little PR puppet for a while, take their money, and laugh in their faces when they flop. The deal’s golden.”

“Golden?” Aaron took a deep breath. “You know what? Forget the whole thing. The deal’s off. I’m taking my likeness somewhere else.”

“No, you’re not. Sorry, kid. You’ve got a whole mountain of paperwork with us. You signed yourself over, you don’t get to just pull out. Oh, yeah,” Rick said, gesturing at a fresh stack of papers, “while I’ve got you here, you should glance at some of the fine print. The gist of it is you can’t appear in anything during this thing and you can’t publicly criticize their little cult. So if a magazine does come knocking for an interview while you’re mister popular about all this, you can’t give it. That goes for personal social media posts, too, of course. Total silence, kid.”

Aaron shook his head. “No. I’m not signing that.”

“Did you not get what I just said? You already signed everything we needed back when we did your profile, including a bunch of stuff about our right to make future deals on your behalf. I’m the one managing your likeness and how it gets used. I’m just keeping you in the loop.”

“You’re kidding me.”

“I’m not. Don’t worry about the politics, champ. People are gonna see how dumb these AUALA clowns are sooner or later.” Rick scrunched up his face. “AUALA. They couldn’t even think of a catchy acronym. Look, it’s not like it matters how you’re being used, or aren’t. You’re getting your checks.”

“You can’t just sell me off to spew bullshit and rot. I’m taking this to court.”

“Yeah? Go ahead. Try and find a lawyer who won’t laugh you out of the room after peeking at the paperwork.” Rick sneered from across his desk. “You come in all high and mighty like you had to work for something, screaming at me like I’m trying to take you down. Newsflash, kid: you’re just a fucking face. You’re not a real actor like those idiots who bought you to shove words in your mouth. You’re an ungrateful nobody.”

Rick kept talking, but Aaron stopped listening. He shifted his gaze towards a small statue sitting on the desk. It was an artistic take on the likeness management company’s logo: an angelic figure, wings outstretched, holding a face in each hand. Aaron guessed it had been given to Rick as some sort of trophy from the company, a token for bringing in so much money from Aaron and his fellow likenesses. Aaron snatched the statue off the desk and flung it as hard as he could at Rick’s head.

For days, Aaron was all over the news. For the first time, it wasn’t because of his likeness.