Curt Skelton has been obsessed with visual effects since he was a kid, playing hours of fun on Adobe After Effects CS3.
“I can’t imagine a life without visual effects,” says the 22-year-old Los Angeles college student and liquor store employee. “It’s been my biggest passion since I was in college.”
Skelton, who aspires to make VFX his career, has worked in various capacities on a few yet-to-be-released films, according to his IMDb page. But he became famous for this TikTok creation:
In the video, posted Thursday and viewed 13.5 million times, Skelton convincingly (to some) reveals that he is AI-powered. Skelton claims he’s a composite of different effects – a DALL-E image (prompt: “Conan O’Brien and Matt Smith had a 22-year-old son”) wrapped around a skeleton and brought to life using gesture tracking software.
The video shows the voice of the supposed woman behind Curt Skelton – a 21-year-old New Jersey-based TikTok visual effects artist named Zahra Hussain – being altered to create Skelton’s speech.
Hussain tells To input that Skelton enlisted her with a direct message on TikTok: “I HAVE THE GREATEST IDEA FOR A TIKTOK COLLABORATION!” The two were mutual follow-ups, but not close before the project.
“He had a complete idea ready to go,” says Hussain. “He brought me on board with his enthusiasm.” When Hussain said yes, Skelton sent him a video showing what to do, including how to stand and what to say in order to ease the transition between the two.
The video suggested that AI would be able to replace the role of visual effects artists – and that almost a year of Skelton TikToks were fabrications. This sets off huge worry among some and vocal skepticism among others.
But Skelton insists he wasn’t trying to fool people. “I don’t blame people who thought it was real,” he says. “I’m just disappointed. My Instagram was linked to my TikTok account the whole time. The goal was never to deceive people. They did this to themselves.
Skelton says he came up with the idea for the viral video earlier this month, reading conversations online about fears that AI would replace the careers of visual effects artists around the world. “I’ve always liked the idea of AI being used in art, but what caught my attention lately was that all artists were worried about being directly fired because of it,” he said.
The video was meant to be a lighthearted way to poke fun at this concern. “Nobody got the original joke from the video,” he says, “which probably means it wasn’t a good joke. But when I say, ‘Will AI replace the role of VFX artists?It already does, you expect me to talk about how it replaces jobs, not the literal VFX artist.
Skelton says he wrote the initial script for the video in an hour. After Hussain did his part, he edited and uploaded the video to TikTok. Then he went to work a shift at the liquor store.
“By the time I finished, it was by far my biggest TikTok, with the most interactions,” he says. “I realized how big it got when friends sent me screenshots of it on their Twitter feed and Elon Musk liked the video.” Skelton gained more than 100,000 subscribers over the weekend, bringing his total to nearly 275,000.
The public reaction surprised Skelton, especially when people started scouring his internet presence to try and figure out if he was an AI-generated bot. “People flooded my Instagram with comments asking if I was real – and also my girlfriend’s Instagram, letting her know I was actually a robot,” he says. Amateur sleuths unearthed old Instagram posts, including photos of his driver’s license, as evidence the video was a scam.
The controversy highlights fear around deepfake media and the potential for people to be tricked by AI. Agnes Venema, a researcher at the University of Malta who studies deepfakes and misinformation, says Skelton should have been more careful in how he presented his video. “Few people have the time to investigate linked accounts and do research, or are aware of them,” says Venema.
“I don’t buy the idea that Skelton is a liability per se,” she adds, “but the nonchalance with which he wrote the script and posted this video concerns me as to whether he really considers or not the consequences of his actions.”
Meanwhile, Casey Fiesler, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, posted a video on TikTok debunking Skelton’s production, comparing it to tweets “I taught an AI to write X” which rose to popularity in 2018. “If you want to take a positive spin on the fact that so many people have been duped,” Fiesler says, “it also suggests that people understand the potential for very convincing deepfakes.”
Skelton hopes that whenever the AI is good enough to completely fake an individual, their TikTok will be viewed the same way we watch old episodes of The twilight zone who predicted the future.
The most worrying part for him was the threat to his career prospects. “Some people on Reddit were mad at me and said I would never get a job in visual effects because studios are blacklisting people who make fake viral videos,” he says. “They called me ‘passive’ and ‘risk’. That part really upset me.
At one point, Skelton was considering deleting his entire account. But then he received a text – one he calls “the greatest possible text ever”. Skelton refuses to say who the text came from or what it said. “It’s confidential,” he says, “but just know that you should never listen to people on Reddit because uploading this video turned out to be the best thing for my career.”