On July 16th, Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain will open in US theatres. Like many documentaries, the film pieces together archival footage, including interviews and show outtakes, to attempt to tell the story of its subject in their own words. It also includes words Bourdain never spoke to a camera before his death by suicide in 2018, and yet you’ll hear his voice saying them.
In an interview with The New Yorker, the film’s director, Morgan Neville, said there were three quotes he wanted Bourdain to narrate where there were no recordings, and so he recreated them with software instead. “I created an AI model of his voice,” he told the magazine.
It appears that was no easy feat either. In a separate interview with GQ, Neville said he contacted four different companies about the project before deciding on the best one. That company fed about a dozen hours of audio to an AI model. A lot of the work involved deciding the exact tone of Bourdain’s voice Neville wanted the software to replicate since the way the author and travel host narrated his writing changed so much over the years he was on TV.
Compared to some of the other ways we’ve seen AI and deepfakes used to trick people, this isn't the worst example, but the ethics of it are still questionable. The film, as far as we’re aware, doesn’t include a disclosure that AI was used to replicate Bourdain’s voice. “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,” Neville told The New Yorker. “We can have a documentary-ethics panel about it later.”
In his interview with GQ, Neville said Bourdain’s family and literary executor told him “Tony would have been cool with that,” a fact Ottavia Bourdain, his widow, disputes. "I certainly was NOT the one who said Tony would have been cool with that," she said on Twitter on Friday afternoon. In a separate tweet, Bourdain told one of her followers her involvement in the documentary was limited to an interview and sharing some footage. After news of the film's use of AI started to spread online, Neville shared a follow-up statement with Variety.
“There were a few sentences that Tony wrote that he never spoke aloud,” he said. “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.” Representatives for the project claim the AI technology is used for less than 60 seconds throughout the film.
Update 07/16/21 1:25PM ET: Added comment from Ottavia Bourdain.