The Director of Anthony Bourdain Doc 'Roadrunner' Used AI to Recreate His Voice

Morgan Neville's decision has drawn backlash from filmmakers, critics and viewers
The Director of Anthony Bourdain Doc 'Roadrunner' Used AI to Recreate His Voice
New Anthony Bourdain documentary Roadrunner has come under fire after it was revealed that director Morgan Neville used artificial intelligence to create three quotes using the late celebrity chef's voice.

While the film features narration from Bourdain pulled from audio clips, show outtakes, video interviews and audiobooks, a New Yorker feature points to a moment in the documentary in which artist David Choe, a friend of the chef's, reads aloud an e-mail Bourdain had sent him before the voice fades to become Bourdain's own.

When asked by the publication's Helen Rosner how the audio of Bourdain's voice was obtained, Neville shared that artificial intelligence was involved:

"...There were three quotes there I wanted his voice for that there were no recordings of," Neville explained. So he got in touch with a software company, gave it about a dozen hours of recordings, and, he said, "I created an A.I. model of his voice." In a world of computer simulations and deepfakes, a dead man's voice speaking his own words of despair is hardly the most dystopian application of the technology. But the seamlessness of the effect is eerie. "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 A.I., and you're not going to know," Neville said. 

In a separate interview with GQ, Neville shared how the AI Bourdain was created:

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.

On Twitter, Bourdain's widow, Ottavia Bourdain, wrote that she "certainly was NOT the one who said Tony would have been cool with that," while others questioned the ethical implications of AI technology's use, in addition to what Bourdain would have thought.

As Neville told The New Yorker, "We can have a documentary-ethics panel about it later."

Read Exclaim!'s review of Roadrunner: A Film About Anothony Bourdain.