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What's the value of becoming the literal face of a character?

Bryant Francis

December 8, 2023

7 Min Read
A screenshot of Quan Chi from Mortal Kombat 1
Image via NetheRealm Studios and Warner Bros. Games.

What, precisely, is the value of an actor's face in the world of video games?

Say you're a performer who lands a gig on a video game. They only need a single day's work from you, and they're up front about what it is: they need to scan your exceptionally distinctive face to make a highly detailed 3D model of a video game character. You sign the paperwork, go in, get scanned, and then 2-3 years later you see your own face staring back at you in a trailer announcing a new playable character.

That's the exact situation actor and model Shahjehan Khan ran into with the recent release of NetherRealm Studios' Mortal Kombat 1. In a delightfully charming TikTok feature with WBZ News Radio's Matt Shearer, the Boston native recounted his experience becoming the face of Quan Chi, a longtime character reinvented for the series' soft reboot as a DLC character.

In a catchup call with Game Developer Khan described the experience as somewhat overwhelming—in a good way! "It was kind of like feeling [everything] at the same time," he laughed. He said in the last 2 years it's felt like his career has begun to really surge, with more regular gigs with his punk band The Kominas and an appearance on season 4 of the HBO TV show Succession.

Seeing his face—right down to a recognizable birthmark—recreated in a series he loved as a child was a "super cool" experience but it's also "a super scary thing" for his profession, he told Shearer. For a one-time fee Khan (knowingly and willingly, he stressed in our call) signed away his face to NetherRealm and its parent company Warner Bros. Games for the purposes of portraying Quan Chi. The studio and publisher can now use it to make millions in profits for Mortal Kombat 1's lifecycle.

Khan admitted in Shearer's TikTok that he hasn't even been sent a copy of the game.

His fear is only amplified by the potential of generative AI to endlessly recycle performances—one of the many factors that drove actor's union SAG-AFTRA to strike over this summer after negotiations collapsed with the AMPTP. The union's interactive branch is currently negotiating with video game studios on the same topic, and its members have already authorized a strike of their own.

Khan's experience raises a valid question: how precisely, should face models be paid for their work in video games? He only did one day of work, but a performer's face is a deeply personal thing to sign away. Any solutions would be understandably complex.

But, intriguingly, Khan himself may be the face (pun intended) of a solution that could work for performers everywhere. What works for professional models might just be what's needed in the world in video games.

It takes many performers to make a face

Motion capture performer and technician Katherine Grant-Suttie pointed out in a call that Khan is just one of many performers that make up a character like Quan Chi. Like Frankenstein's monster, Quan and so many other video game characters are stitched together using anywhere from one to five actors (sometimes more!)

There's good reason to break up the roles. Khan was Quan Chi's face model, but the character was voiced by actor Sean T Krishnan. Another actor may have done what's called "performance capture" where they walk around the capture stage and emote Quan's everyday animations, another actor may have done the facial capture performance and yet another actor may have done dedicated stuntwork motion capture for his fighting moves. "Different parts of video game technology evolved at different rates, and it's created the element of bringing in specialized talent," Grant-Suttie explained.

Each performer would have brought something unique to Quan Chi, and the demon sorcerer benefits from each of their work. Grant-Suttie herself been the building block of many such characters through her voice work and motion capture performance.

Face model Ben Jordan replaced John Bubniak as the face of Peter Parker in Marvel's Spider-Man 2. Image via Sony.

She loves the work but seems to agree with Khan's assessment—new technology that can supplement those hyperspecialized roles may shrink opportunities in the industry. Splitting the work of performing a character can empower developers to craft exactly the persona they want, but it can also depress the wages of each person involved.

Grant-Suttie's personally worried about the impact of generative AI. Reusing performance capture data or face models is already a reality in the video game world and she's been stunned by what's become possible with emerging tools. Elsewhere, voice actors have been ringing alarm bells over how generative AI can be used to recreate their voices without their input.

It's why she wants legal stipulations that prevent reusing her face or motion capture performance for AI tools whenever she's on a gig. She said she's far less "cavalier" about taking non-union motion capture jobs, saying they're less likely to offer such protections.

Legal barriers against the use exploitative AI technology is exactly what SAG-AFTRA is negotiating with game studios over as you read this piece. Actor and union negotiating committee member Zeke Alton told Game Developer that in his experience, creatives at game studios studios believe in supporting performers' rights.

"The difficulty that the union will always have is that the IP law departments, and executive level business affairs people at studios are always looking to retain as many rights as possible" he said. "This unfortunately leaves performers open to abuse."

Applauding the talent at #TheGameAwards! 🏆🕹️ Amidst the excitement, let’s ensure our voices are heard—demanding fair contracts that recognize the dedication of video game performers. Together, we can level up the industry! #SagAftraStrong#LevelUpTheContractpic.twitter.com/f3gr9emMTI

Alton also pointed out a frustrating fact about Khan's experience: face models aren't protected by union contracts. "Scanning of performers is treated like print photo shoots. Which is to say outside of the jurisdiction of the union because it is not a performance."

SAG-AFTRA is sponsoring a bill currently before the United States Senate Judiciary Committee to protect the right of publicity as intellectual property at the federal level. Alton said that this would "give performers some measure of control over the use of their likeness."

So even if the union secures a great contract in its current negotiations, models like Khan wouldn't may not gain new protections. What's the right way then, to ensure performers like him are fairly rewarded for the importance of their face?

Professional models already have a useful compensation model

Remember, Khan is also a professional model. He quipped that you're more likely to find his face in the pages of medical journals than on billboards for fashion campaigns—but both types of models can negotiate contracts that reward them for continuing use of their face.

Those contracts, he noted, pay better than what he received for being in Mortal Kombat 1. "This was on the lower end of my contracts, where it's one-time and that's it," he explained. Modeling contracts will be "re-upped" if an advertising campaign is renewed or if the images are re-used for a different medium (like if he modeled for a magazine campaign that migrates to billboard).

It creates steady income for Khan and gives his employers a cost-efficient way of continuing to use his visage.

That model doesn't translate directly into a situation like his Mortal Kombat 1 experience, but it's at least a starting point. One possible method could be to pay Khan a modest fee every year that a piece of game content featuring his face remains on sale.

We should note that modeling is also not what you'd call the most ethical industry in the world, meaning any developer wanting to offer such terms should avoid that industry's worst practices.

Khan's enthusiasm for being in Mortal Kombat 1 was palpable in our chat, even as he talked about the complexities of how actors should be paid. "It brought me back to childhood...I don't know if I ever envisioned if anything like this was possible." He thinks face modeling is an artistically meaningful work and takes joy in seeing how players are reacting to Quan Chi's return.

What would he say to developers who want to do right by face models? "Keep watching Matt's [TikTok] because it's so good," he said.

Game Developer has reached out to Warner Bros. Games for comment on this story, and will update it when the company responds.

About the Author(s)

Bryant Francis

Senior Editor, GameDeveloper.com

Bryant Francis is a writer, journalist, and narrative designer based in Boston, MA. He currently writes for Game Developer, a leading B2B publication for the video game industry. His credits include Proxy Studios' upcoming 4X strategy game Zephon and Amplitude Studio's 2017 game Endless Space 2.

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