While countless individuals have eagerly anticipated the arrival of Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, the newly-released tribute documentary has already raised debate over the ethics of leveraging deepfake technology to replicate someone’s voice from beyond the grave.
The vast majority of Roadrunner has been narrated by Bourdain through the use of archival footage. Three lines, however, were achieved through alternative means. As Academy Award-winning director Morgan Neville revealed during an interview with The New Yorker, approximately 10 hours of recorded speech had been fed into a machine to read the following (originally sent via email by the late chef prior to his passing):
“My life is sort of shit now. You are successful, and I am successful, and I’m wondering: Are you happy?”
The recreation is so unnervingly convincing, if it hadn’t been pointed out, you would’ve never known Anthony Bourdain himself never actually spoke those words into existence. And although it has understandably caused quite a stir online, Neville sees no issue with it whatsoever.
“We can have a documentary-ethics panel about it later,” the director joked after explaining the technical process behind the end result.
Neville later added he had apparently obtained consent from the estate of Anthony Bourdain prior to the decision.
“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.”
Ottavia Busia-Bourdain, on the other hand, has since denied offering any sort of approval to use an AI model for the purpose of adding dramatic effect. It was only after her exceedingly public response on Twitter that Neville clarified he had, in fact, only approached Bourdain’s estate and literary agent.
“Unapproved voice cloning is a slippery slope,” notes Andrew Mason, Founder & CEO of voice generator Descript.
“As soon as you get into a world where you’re making subjective judgement calls about whether specific cases can be ethical, it won’t be long before anything goes.”
“When I wrote my review, I was not aware that the filmmakers had used an AI to deepfake Bourdain’s voice for portions of the narration,” says film critic Sean Burns.
“I feel like this tells you all you need to know about the ethics of the people behind this project.”
From the publication of his game-changing memoir Kitchen Confidential to achieving mainstream stardom with his hit CNN series Parts Unknown – setting aside the ethics of resurrecting a human being using artificial intelligence, for just a moment – by all accounts, Roadrunner has proven to be an intimate examination of Bourdain’s storied career, met with widespread applause before the controversy.
Featuring close friends, colleagues, industry peers, and production crew members, you can expect appearances from the likes of restauranteurs and fellow celebrity chefs, David Chang and Eric Ripert, longtime producer and Parts Unknown director, Tom Vitale, artist David Choe, as well as singer Alison Mosshart of The Kills.
Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain is now screening in select international cinemas – scheduled to hit domestic theatres in the coming month, eventually streaming on HBO Max (meaning it may very well land on Australia’s HBO Max equivalent, Binge).
2021 marks three years since the death of Anthony Bourdain. If you or anyone you know is anxious, depressed, considering self-harm or suicide, there are people who want to help. Reach out here or call Lifeline on 13 11 14. And as always, don’t forget to check on your mates.