Uncanny Valley is inescapable. Just look at the latest eerie video – scroll down to watch it – from the amateur (for now) parodist Steven Connolly. The faces of Ronan O’Gara and Johnny Sexton have been merged with those of, respectively, Emilio Estevez and Ally Sheedy in John Hughes’s film The Breakfast Club. All rivalries are forgotten as the rugby legends make a touching romantic connection.
“Johnny has a public reputation for being a bit of a grump,” Connolly says. “So that suited Ally Sheedy’s character right there. So it just kind of worked. Rog has liked the video, but Johnny hasn’t. Ha ha!”
Just a decade or so ago, it would require millions – and the services of Hollywood's swankiest special-effects boffins – to merge footage in this manner
The video sits among an array of largely sports-related parodies on Connolly's increasingly popular YouTube channel. Enjoy Graeme Souness, the famously combative former footballer, recommending a new scent called Brutal. Rory McIlroy's face is superimposed on that of Sylvester Stallone in a subversion of Rambo: First Blood Part II. "You gave the order for people to start shouting when people are teeing off, didn't you?" RorySly grumbles before brandishing a knife at poor (unaltered) Charles Napier.
Over the past year or two Connolly has enjoyed the odd bit of feedback from the celebrities. Ricky Gervais liked his Oscar impressions video and helped that post go viral. Padraig Harrington also gave him a helpful retweet.
We catch Connolly, who works in IT, on his lunch break. “I have always mimicked,” he says. “I think I started mimicking the parish priest in Manorhamilton, in Co Leitrim, for a few laughs. Then I did the teachers in school. A few years ago, my brother said he knew someone who was setting up a radio channel. I auditioned. I didn’t get it, but I then formalised it. It is part time. I don’t think I’ve been paid for anything.”
There are two skills here. Connolly is as adept at the Co Down vocal rambles of McIlroy as he is at Souness’s more wintery Scottish grumbles. But it is the video trickery that establishes his parodies as entertainment of the moment. Just a decade or so ago, it would require millions – and the services of Hollywood’s swankiest special-effects boffins – to merge footage in this manner. Such “deepfakes” are now available to the skilled amateur.
You basically take the faces and the AI runs for about 24 to 36 hours, and then there is the editing on top of that. I could show somebody in a few hours how to do it
“You basically take the faces – Rog and Emilio, say – and the AI runs for about 24 to 36 hours, and then there is the editing on top of that,” he explains.
So is there a specific piece of software that helps out with such operations?
"Yes, this is DeepFaceLab. It would be tricky to use if you are not IT-orientated," he says, before going on to mention "batch files" and other terms that cause the civilian brow to furrow. "I could show somebody in a few hours how to do it. It is much more difficult if you are trying to work it out yourself."
We have become used to online creators playing any number of imaginative conjuring tricks with pre-existing footage. Dialogue is manipulated. Music is reimagined. One wonders where copyright comes into this. The venerable Universal logo is right there at the start of Connolly’s Breakfast Club clip.
“Parody is fine. That is my rudimentary knowledge of copyright law,” Connolly says. “YouTube will notify you if there is any issue with copyright. I put up Star Wars, and obviously John Williams’s soundtrack is in there. They say you can’t monetise this. But you don’t monetise anything anyway.”
Welcome to the new economy.