Anthony Bourdain’s AI-Faked Voice in New Documentary Sparks Backlash

·4-min read

UPDATED: Documentary filmmaker Morgan Neville paints a raw and personal image of Anthony Bourdain in his new documentary, “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain” which opens in theaters on Friday.

In the documentary, editors Eileen Meyer and Aaron Wickenden weave in narration by Bourdain pulled from audio clips, show outtakes, video interviews and audiobooks. However, when asked how he obtained some quotes from Bourdain in a new article in the New Yorker, Neville tells writer Helen Rosner that he used artificial intelligence to create three quotes with Bourdain’s voice. “I created an AI model of his voice,” Neville says. He goes on to say, “If you watch the film, other than that line you mentioned, you probably don’t know what the other lines are that were spoken by the AI, and you’re not going to know.”

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Speaking to GQ magazine, Neville explained the process to Brett Martin. He said, “We fed more than ten hours of Tony’s voice into an AI model. The bigger the quantity, the better the result. We worked with four companies before settling on the best. We also had to figure out the best tone of Tony’s voice: His speaking voice versus his “narrator” voice, which itself changed dramatically of over the years. The narrator voice got very performative and sing-songy in the “No Reservation” years. I checked, you know, with his widow and his literary executor, just to make sure people were cool with that. And they were like, Tony would have been cool with that. I wasn’t putting words into his mouth. I was just trying to make them come alive.”

Film critics and documentary filmmakers took to Twitter in response to the article, expressing their discomfort with the artificially generated voice, which Neville characterized as a “modern storytelling technique.”

After the backlash broke out on Twitter, Neville responded to Variety, saying, “There were a few sentences that Tony wrote that he never spoke aloud. With the blessing of his estate and literary agent we used AI technology. It was a modern storytelling technique that I used in a few places where I thought it was important to make Tony’s words come alive.”

Washington Post reporter Dave Weigel tweeted the interview excerpt and simply commented, “Thanks I hate it.”

Critic Sean Burns wrote, “When I wrote my review I was not aware that the filmmakers had used an A.I. to deepfake Bourdain’s voice for portions of the narration. I feel like this tells you all you need to know about the ethics of the people behind this project.”

Documentary filmmaker Lindsay Beyerstein questioned whether the use of AI was disclosed to viewers, tweeting, “There’s no real problem with using AI in the place of a soundalike actor in a non-fiction film, as long as the creators are upfront about what they’re doing.” Another user replied to her saying, “Regardless, I’m pretty sure that would make Anthony Bourdain puke.”

Author Issac Butler wrote, “This feels unethical to me maybe?”

Other twitter commenters called his use of AI fraudulent and manipulative.

Neville adds in the New Yorker article, “We can have a documentary-ethics panel about it later.”

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