Deepfake controversy in Bourdain film

While the new documentary about late Anthony Bourdain has largely been lauded for its authenticity, one detail in the film has struck an unpleasant nerve among critics.

Morgan Neville’s documentary, Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, in many ways brought Bourdain back to life, three years after the beloved food critic and TV host died by suicide at age 61.

But one controversial method adopted by Neville to achieve such a feat has been heavily criticised and caused some critics to renege on earlier praise.

In an interview with The New Yorker, the filmmaker divulged that artificial intelligence had been used to create Bourdain’s narration voice – one that was initially thought to be his own.

“I created an AI model of his voice,” Neville told journalist Helen Rosner.

“If you watch the film … you probably don’t know what the other lines are that were spoken by the AI, and you’re not going to know,” he said.

Neville said about 10 hours of Bourdain’s recorded speech had been fed into a machine to create the most realistic narrative voice possible.

“The bigger the quantity, the better the result,” he told GQ Magazine.

“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.”

Neville said he had gained consent from Bourdain’s family to take the controversial approach to having his voice feature in such a way.

“I checked, you know, with his widow and his literary executor, just to make sure people were cool with that,” he said.

“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.”

The method has not sat so well with others since the documentary’s release, with many critics expressing their distaste after learning of Neville’s approach.

Several have taken to Twitter to express their thoughts, including Washington Post journalist Dave Weigel who shared an interview excerpt and the words, “Thanks I hate it.”

Film critic Sean Burns conceded that he was not aware that “deepfake” technology was used for Bourdain’s voice before he reviewed the documentary.

“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,” he said.

“I feel like this tells you all you need to know about the ethics of the people behind this project.”

Fellow documentary filmmaker Lindsay Beyerstein argued that in some cases using AI was appropriate “as long as the creators are upfront about what they’re doing”.

The tweet received a reply that stated, “Regardless, I’m pretty sure that would make Anthony Bourdain puke.”

Author Issac Butler joined in on the discussion, writing, “This feels unethical to me maybe?”

Many others argued it was impossible to attain proper consent for using AI because there was no way Bourdain himself could approve it.

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