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Actor's Death Linked to Interactive Sitcom Sweatshop
February 8, 2016
ANAHEIM--In court filings Monday, Orange County District Attorney Bruno Chen alleges that the death last April of actor Matthew Perry was the result of months of "coerced labor and forced detention" in "sweatshop-style facilities dedicated to the production of interactive situation comedy programs." Declining to comment on the ongoing investigation, DA Chen announced the formation of a specialized taskforce committed to investigating and prosecuting the owners of sweatshops who "[exploit] actors in pursuit of a quick buck."
Discovered by a neighbor in an abandoned Anaheim condominium allegedly owned by the brother-in-law of Carrie Gloo, president of a production company specializing in interactive situation comedy, Perry's body reportedly showed signs of dehydration, malnutrition, and advanced exhaustion. "It was terrible, really terrible," recalls Able Carney, who has lived in the neighborhood for more than 13 years. "The conditions, just appalling. Those ugly bars on all the doors and windows. People going in and out at all hours of the day and night. We all knew something was going on in there, but nobody seemed to know what."
Interactive programming, like that on which Perry was reportedly working, permits members of the audience to fully immerse themselves in the show and to interact with the characters, shaping the plot and influencing the development of the characters. Typically achieved through a combination of high-end computer simulations and pre-recorded 'cutscenes,' interactive programming, though popular with advertisers, is prohibitively expensive. "Few people really understand the economics of the whole thing," notes Variety reporter Dan Dime. "Because the ad revenue's there, everybody wants to be in iProgramming, but, because there're huge, pre-pilot development costs to build the simulations, coupled with the very real chance of a flop, there's lots and lots of pressure to cut costs."
A number of studios, including Warner Brothers, the owner of Perry's contract, have begun to outsource 'scenariation,' the cycle-consuming development of the computer-based simulations upon which interactive programming depends. "It's really pretty simple," explains Dime. "The studio hires out development to a mom-and-pop shop that turns around and saves money by using antiquated motion-capture equipment and working the actors to the bone."
To avoid the costs of deriving algorithms complex enough to adequately simulate the movements, poses, and gestures of actors, producers use digital equipment to record actors' movements as they respond to hundreds, and sometimes thousands of possible contingencies. "iProgramming unfolds dynamically, in response to audience input," explains Dime. "So the show has got to be ready for lots of possibilities. It's almost like a chess game. At first, there are only so many possible moves, but, if you're trying to anticipate even just three of four moves on down the line, it gets pretty out of control."
Police reports filed with the court by District Attorney Chen indicate that Perry "suffered injuries consistent with prolonged and abusive motion capture," including "bilaterally symmetric spot-bruising at key corporal vertices consistent with unsanitary affixation of motion capture reflectors." Reports further describe ankle-bruising matching the "grip signature" of shackles found by investigators chained to a cot in an upstairs bedroom in the Anaheim condo.
"All evidence indicates that Mr. Perry was held for a number of weeks during which he was made to enact 'scenarios' for his situation comedy for between 16 and 19 hours a day," notes an investigative memo. "Aggressive, exemplary prosecution of both the property-owner and the employer are recommended."
Representatives of the Screen Actors Guild, applauding the District Attorney's initiatives, noted that the Guild "has been actively drawing attention to the increasingly grave and abusive working conditions faced by many of our members. Our sincerest hope is that something good, in the form of better legal protections for actors, can come from this tragedy."
Though promotional spots for 'Friend,' the comedy on which Perry was working at the time of his death, continue to be available in most areas, production of the show has been halted, pending outcome of the litigation.
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