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Anthony Bourdain documentary Roadrunner causes controversy with use of deepfake to recreate late star’s voice

‘We can have a documentary-ethics panel about it later,’ said director Morgan Neville

Louis Chilton
Friday 16 July 2021 09:52
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Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain trailer
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A new documentary about the life and death of chef and TV personality Anthony Bourdain has provoked controversy with its use of a deepfake voiceover.

Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, out today in the US, supposedly includes three instances in which computer technology is used to mimic the voice of the late Parts Unknown host.

Filmmaker Morgan Neville confirmed this to The New Yorker, revealing that AI was used to make it sound like Bourdain was reading aloud an email he sent to the artist David Choe.

“There were three quotes there I wanted his voice for that there were no recordings of,” Neville said.

After providing a software company with “about a dozen” hours of recordings of Bourdain speaking, Neville was able to access an “AI model of his 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 said.

He added: “We can have a documentary-ethics panel about it later.”

New Yorker writer Helen Rosner later revealed on Twitter than Neville had told her that the use of AI had been fully sanctioned by Bourdain’s estate.

Nonetheless, the decision has still been met with uncomfortable reactions from Bourdain’s fans on social media, with some questioning the tastefulness and journalistic ethics of the choice to use AI.

“Between the anthony bourdain deepfake thing & the pop smoke posthumous release thing i think we (as in fans/consumers but also creators and execs) need to collectively reevaluate our relationships with notable artists and question why we feel so entitled to them even in death,” wrote one Twitter user.

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Late chef and travel host Anthony Bourdain, as seen in a promotional image for ‘Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain'

“This is yet another ethically uncomfortable step in the growing field of holographic and CGI performances from those who no longer have a say in their own legacy or portrayal,” wrote another.

Someone else described it as “unethical and deeply questionable”, while another Twitter user said it was “unambiguously bad”.

Bourdain died by suicide in June 2018. He was best known as the host of acclaimed travel series Parts Unknown, and as the author of books including the bestselling Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly.

If you are experiencing feelings of distress and isolation, or are struggling to cope, The Samaritans offers support; you can speak to someone for free over the phone, in confidence, on 116 123 (UK and ROI), email jo@samaritans.org, or visit the Samaritans website to find details of your nearest branch.

If you are based in the USA, and you or someone you know needs mental health assistance right now, call National Suicide Prevention Helpline on 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The Helpline is a free, confidential crisis hotline that is available to everyone 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

If you are in another country, you can go to www.befrienders.org to find a helpline near you.

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