Roadrunner director used audio deepfake to recreate Anthony Bourdain's voice in documentary
Morgan Neville, the director of Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, has revealed that he used A.I. software to recreate the late chef and travel guru's voice for parts of the new documentary. The disclosure quickly sparked a debate on social media over the ethics of simulating Bourdain's voice, particularly in a documentary context. (Bourdain died by suicide in 2018, at age 61.)
Neville, the Oscar-winning filmmaker behind Won't You Be My Neighbor? and 20 Feet from Stardom, discussed creating an "A.I. model" of Bourdain's voice in multiple interviews published this week. Neville explained to The New Yorker that he used the simulation for "three quotes" written but not spoken by Bourdain that he wanted to include in the film, which features extensive use of sound bites drawn from Bourdain's TV shows, interviews, and audiobooks. "If you watch the film… you probably don't know what the other lines are that were spoken by the A.I., and you're not going to know," the director said. "We can have a documentary-ethics panel about it later."
In an interview with GQ, Neville elaborated: "We fed more than ten hours of Tony's voice into an A.I. 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 over the years."
Neville added, "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."
Reached for comment by EW, a spokesperson for Roadrunner distributor Focus Features provided a statement from Neville: "There were a few sentences that Tony wrote that he never spoke aloud. With the blessing of his estate and literary agent we used A.I. 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."
The author of the New Yorker piece, Helen Rosner, wrote on Twitter, "I'm not sure where I land on the A.I. tbh. People use voice mimicry for [voice-over] all the time, but there's something about the tech that does feel eerie."
Indeed, audio recreations and even dramatic re-enactments are nothing new in documentary filmmaking, but the use of narrative-film techniques in documentaries has long been a controversial subject. Perhaps most famously, Errol Morris' landmark 1988 doc The Thin Blue Line was deemed ineligible for a Best Documentary Oscar nomination due to its use of staged re-enactments.
The use of new technology to simulate deceased individuals on screen has been equally controversial in recent years. In 2016, Rogue One used CGI to recreate the appearance of actor Peter Cushing, who played Grand Moff Tarkin in 1977's original Star Wars film and died in 1994. More recently, in 2019, it was announced that Hollywood icon James Dean would be digitally recreated to appear in the upcoming film Finding Jack. Both incidents sparked extensive debate over the ethics of depicting deceased actors through CGI.
Roadrunner will be released in theaters July 16.
This article has been updated with a statement from Morgan Neville.