As artificial intelligence (AI)-based programs like voice assistants Siri and Alexa help billions of people do everything from making long-distance calls to family to putting on the next episode of Bridgerton without even lifting a finger, these advanced digital systems gradually familiarize themselves with the preferences of their human users. Yet what if such technology not only knew everything about you and the decisions you make, but also used that knowledge in sinister ways?

Though popular and prescient series like Black Mirror have dramatized the dangers of artificial intelligence and social media, such dangers are now a terrifying reality thanks to technological developments like “deep fakes” (or virtual replications of real people, including politicians and celebrities), and the even more chilling prospect of “digital twins”; simulations who may be made of ones and zeros, but whose awareness of digital user behavior prompts these computerized clones to act and look disturbingly like flesh and blood humans.

It’s a reality that prompted Writers Guild award winner Daryn Strauss (Weight) to explore how artificial intelligence threatens to endanger our society in the brilliant new thriller I Am You. Filmed vertically and streaming exclusively on the new mobile video app Rizzle (available for iPhone and Android devices) and on Rizzle’s desktop site (linked to at the end of this article), I Am You‘s short episodes (running 60 seconds or less) present a frightening battle between an enormously advanced digital predator and the human prey whose every preference becomes a weapon of psychological manipulation.

Suzanne Lenz (HBO's SILICON VALLEY) plays Acacia Reynolds, a popular social media influencer whose life is suddenly endangered by an AI who bears a creepy resemblance to her in writer/director Daryn Strauss' suspense thriller I AM YOU, streaming exclusively on the Rizzle mobile video app.

Suzanne Lenz (HBO’s SILICON VALLEY) plays Acacia Reynolds, a popular social media influencer whose life is suddenly endangered by an AI who bears a creepy resemblance to her in writer/director Daryn Strauss’ suspense thriller I AM YOU, streaming exclusively on the Rizzle mobile video app.

I Am You stars Suzanne Lenz as Acacia Reynolds, a popular social media influencer whose life gets invaded by an uncanny virtual copycat (also played by Lenz in a role similar to the AI character, Fiona, which she portrayed on HBO’s Silicon Valley) who ceaselessly warns her human counterpart that her very existence is imperiled. Yet as the real Acacia continues to ignore her digital doppelganger’s increasingly threatening tactics, the consequences for her ignorance become even greater.

Both an acclaimed filmmaker and a renowned digital media producer, Strauss instantly developed the high-concept premise of I Am You after getting a scary glimpse into the future of artificial intelligence: “…I produced a live virtual event last year, and one of the speakers, a futurist, started talking about digital twins and it totally creeped me out,” she says. Though Strauss was comfortable with the initial purpose behind such technology – consumer product testing – the facts she learned about “digital twins” in a human context gave her pause.

“…She (the speaker) started talking about how in the future there will be digital twins of people — basically, an AI replica of you created from your data to run virtual simulations of your life in order to predict your behavior. I was like, ‘excuse me? That’s so creepy! That seemed so (much like) Black Mirror.’ I thought, well, there could be a great series concept out of that — the digital twin of a person has predicted something terrible will happen to that person in a virtual simulation and now has to find a way to warn her.”

With social media and AI catching up to the needs and desires of consumers at a relentless pace, and with such technologies presenting ethical challenges in all parts of society, there’s literally no such thing as true “privacy” these days. Knowing how a sophisticated and highly responsive program like a Siri or Alexa can gain an enormous level of voluntarily user-contributed knowledge through the user agreements we sign or the credit card info we enter to purchase items, Strauss created an eerily omnipresent AI in I Am You.

“The idea of receiving a direct message from yourself (albeit, a virtual simulation of you) is so creepy but it’s also very possible because there is so much data being collected on each and every one of us, and we live in a time where deep fakes and voice cloning and virtual influencers are actual things we have to worry about,” Strauss adds. “Plus, I loved the idea of this salty purple-haired AI randomly popping up in people’s feeds. Conceptually, I am so proud of it (the idea for I Am You).”

I Am You‘s remote-based production, coordinated by Strauss during the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, required a complex and often tricky system of communication between Strauss and series lead Lenz. Having taped her live-action and digitally manipulated scenes while acting on direction issued by Strauss prior to filming, Lenz also had to play multiple parts while not on camera.

“She (Lenz) also had a tough job because she was playing two different versions of the same character plus also (being the director of photography) and lighting herself so she had to deal with me giving her production directions too, which as an actress, she wouldn’t normally have to deal with,” recalls Strauss, who helped Lenz seamlessly meet the unique performance demands of the dual Acacias she played in I Am You while encouraging the actor to make her  characters’ visual delivery as authentic as possible.

“I directed her to shoot the real version of Acacia handheld and I gave her some camera moves to try so that the real version felt more raw and unpolished, like genuine social media content. Then for the AI version, she set the camera on a tripod and hung up a green screen cloth that I sent her so that I could green screen in a virtual background. She would record some takes and then send them to me. If I had notes, I would send them to her, and she would re-record. Then I just enhanced the footage in post. It worked pretty smoothly.”

L-R: A side-by-side comparison of how the "deep fake" version of Suzanne Lenz's character in I AM YOU was designed for the series. On the left is the untouched version of Lenz's performance, while the final color-graded version of that performance appears on the right.

L-R: A side-by-side comparison of how the “deep fake” version of Suzanne Lenz’s character in I AM YOU was designed for the series. On the left is the untouched version of Lenz’s performance, while the final color-graded version of that performance (as seen in I AM YOU) appears on the right.

Lenz was the perfect actor to play both the human Acacia and her diabolical AI facsimile, and as Strauss explains, Lenz’s past work on Silicon Valley proves the wisdom of that casting decision. “…Suzanne Lenz is just genuinely brilliant at playing an AI. She played an AI (Fiona) on Silicon Valley on HBO and she is so creepy at it that I could’ve probably done nothing other than just capture her performance.”

When it came to capturing and designing that performance, though, Strauss decided to straddle the line between creepy realism and digital manipulation. “…From a design perspective, the goal was to make the AI version of the character seem more computer generated than the real version but not too computer generated that it couldn’t fool people – kind of like the filtered, facetuned version of yourself that you post on Instagram,” says Strauss.

To fine-tune Lenz’s AI recreation of her character in I Am You, Strauss delicately conceived a series of computerized enhancements and slight cosmetic alterations. “I green-screened (Suzanne) in a virtual background and then I color graded the footage so she looked computer generated,” Strauss notes.

“The secret trick is that I then lightly face-tuned the AI episodes before I posted them which further differentiated the AI simulation from how the human version of her looks. Suzanne is gorgeous and has flawless skin to begin with so it just erased her pores so she looked a little less human.”

Given the restricted lengths of Rizzle’s hosted video content – such as I Am You – Strauss knows the creative limits of making a series that has little time to tell a story. “On Rizzle, you don’t have 60 minutes per episode to escalate the plot. You have 60 seconds. You have to escalate tension very rapidly so that viewers want to binge it. The challenge was in getting all of the plot points of an intellectual cyber thriller in under 60 seconds. So that was the trickiest part.”

Though having only 60 seconds to establish a suspenseful scenario would definitely perplex even the most experienced filmmakers, Strauss took the challenge of writing and directing an easily consumable mobile video series in I Am You one minute at a time. That opportunity came in large part due to Strauss’ connection with Rizzle Studios’ head of Creative Development, Thom Woodley.

“…(Thom) reached out to see if I had any ideas that would work for the app because they were ramping up original series. The episodes would have to be under 60 seconds and shot vertically. I thought it would be a fun creative challenge. I wanted to come up with a concept that could be produced remotely since we were in quarantine but also would be highly engaging – something you would want to watch on a social media app. I came up with I Am You specifically for this format. They (Rizzle) green-lit it immediately.”

I AM YOU in app2

I AM YOU, as seen on the Rizzle mobile app.

Since Rizzle also allows for the same face-to-face video chat capabilities simulated in I Am You, Strauss naturally structured the series around those capabilities. “I also came up with the series format that the two characters are sending video direct messages back and forth to one another, which is actually a feature on Rizzle,” she notes. “You can send video responses. I like when digital writers embrace the technology of the platform into the narrative. So that was the fun part.”

Though I Am You got off to a slow start upon its debut on Rizzle, its audience would eventually increase in remarkable numbers. Thanks to viewers actively sharing the show with their fellow users on Rizzle, I Am You‘s following on the platform skyrocketed up to 10,000 users in only a week. It was an incredibly uncommon path for a web series to travel, as Strauss indicates, and such growth makes the creative responsibilities of filmmakers like her all the more important.

“We had the opposite trajectory of most shows. The views went up each episode because more people were engaging as the series went on. Also, as a creator on social media, you have to realize as you are writing that you never know what episode will pop up in someone’s feed. It could be the first episode; it could be the fifth.”

While I Am You is an intense drama that’s created to entertain, Strauss’s project, just like other sci-fi favorites including Black Mirror, Her and Ex Machina, raises an even bigger series of questions about technology and the ways we either engage with it – or fight against it. For Strauss, the experience of making I Am You has elicited not only a sense of professional fulfillment, but also a significant level of self-reflection on the role of technology in her own life.

“As we bring so much technology into our lives, I do spend a lot of my time thinking about data privacy because the ethics at the core of this series is the amount of data Acacia has put out into the world. But the funny thing is that since quarantine began, we are living so much of our lives virtually, sometimes I’m like, I might as well be artificial intelligence at this point!”

With Strauss already planning I Am You‘s second season, and with the show’s creator looking to expand the short-form series beyond its 60-second box, the potential for it to become even more dramatic and thought-provoking than its first season is already evident. I Am You is inspired not just by Strauss’s lifelong personal and professional involvement with technology, but also by how technology affects everyone – for better and for worse.

“I think technology is fascinating. I don’t know if I would have a career without it. There are amazing aspects, and there are creepy aspects about it,” Strauss says of I Am You. I hope as people watch I Am You, they are both amazed and creeped out by how much information they have shared with technology. Plus, the series is also pretty funny too. It’s kind of tongue-in-cheek so it will make you think and you’ll be entertained too.”

In addition to the Rizzle mobile app, I Am You can be seen via desktop at the following link:

Find out more about I Am You here: