Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

‘Roadrunner’ Contains Undisclosed Generated Re-Creations of Anthony Bourdain’s Voice

Helen Rosner, of the New Yorker, interviewed Morgan Neville about his new film “Roadrunner”, a documentary about Anthony Bourdain’s life:

There is a moment at the end of the film’s second act when the artist David Choe, a friend of Bourdain’s, is reading aloud an e-mail Bourdain had sent him: “Dude, this is a crazy thing to ask, but I’m curious” Choe begins reading, and then the voice fades into Bourdain’s own: “… and my life is sort of shit now. You are successful, and I am successful, and I’m wondering: Are you happy?” I asked Neville how on earth he’d found an audio recording of Bourdain reading his own e-mail. Throughout the film, Neville and his team used stitched-together clips of Bourdain’s narration pulled from TV, radio, podcasts, and audiobooks. “But there were three quotes there I wanted his voice for that there were no recordings of,” Neville explained. So he got in touch with a software company, gave it about a dozen hours of recordings, and, he said, “I created an A.I. model of his voice.” In a world of computer simulations and deepfakes, a dead man’s voice speaking his own words of despair is hardly the most dystopian application of the technology. But the seamlessness of the effect is eerie. “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 A.I., and you’re not going to know,” Neville said. “We can have a documentary-ethics panel about it later.”

Since Bourdain wrote the words generated by this faked audio, I can see how this might seem like a fine compromise if you twist your brain around a little bit, but it is diving headfirst into some murky ethical waters. In this specific case, it comes across as exploitative and disrespectful.

This email is apparently not the only generated audio in the film, too, and it is unclear what the circumstances are around other clips. A big reason why there are no clear answers here is because Neville reportedly does not disclose the use of generated speech in the film — and that is inexcusable. For shame.