Use of AI “Deepfake” in Bourdain Biopic Sparks Backlash and Ethical Debate

Use of AI “Deepfake” in Bourdain Biopic Sparks Backlash and Ethical Debate

Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain is a new documentary biopic examining the life and death of the famed traveller and celebrity chef. Directed by Oscar-winner Morgan Neville–creator of the 2018 documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor–the film utilizes unseen, archive footage alongside brand new interviews with those who were closest to Bourdain.

Bourdain tragically took his own life at the age of 61, while shooting for a television series in France in the summer of 2018. Throughout the course of Roadrunner, it is suggested that Bourdain may have struggled to speak publicly about his personal battle with mental health.

Interestingly, the film features several lines of dialogue which, to the untrained ear, seem to be narrated by Bourdain, himself. Making use of AI technology, Morgan Neville reconstructed Bourdain’s voice with the help of a software company and more than a dozen hours worth of pre-existing voice recordings. The reconstructed lines appear as part of a scene in which Bourdain corresponds with his friend, artist David Choe. Viewers can hear Bourdain’s voice as he recites the content of his email to Choe:

“My life is sort of shit, now. You are successful, and I am successful, and I’m wondering: are you happy?

Neville seems to take pride in the seamless nature of the artificial lines, bragging that: “If you watch the film…you probably wouldn’t know what lines were spoken by the AI.” He goes on to paint the use of AI technology as a “modern storytelling technique,” arguing that the strategy merely brought Bourdain’s own words back to life. However, critics argue that the technique is inherently unethical and that the use of such tech is particularly nefarious when used without full disclosure to the audience. Boston film critic Sean Burns went so far as to retract his earlier review of the film, stating:

“When I wrote my review, I was not aware that the filmmakers had used an AI to deepfake Bourdain’s voice…I feel like this tells you all you need to know about the ethics of the people behind the project.”

Among those distressed by the use of AI tech was Anthony’s widow, Ottavia Bourdain, who pushed back against Neville’s claims that she had provided her blessing before the use of the AI. “I was certainly NOT the one who said Tony would have been cool with that,” Bourdain insisted, in a statement released on Twitter.

The controversy comes as deepfake technology becomes increasingly advanced, leading critics to worry that filmmakers may stand at the precipice of a slippery ethical slope. Neville’s film is not the first example of AI tech reconstructing the likeness of a deceased star. In 2013, Galaxy Chocolate released a commercial in collaboration with production company Framestore, featuring a meticulous and stunningly realistic animation of the late actress, Audrey Hepburn. Galaxy’s advert, however, was produced with the express approval of Hepburn’s estate, with transparency from the company regarding the animation process.

In the case of Neville’s film, the lack of transparency seems to be the greatest source of ire among critics. Documentary filmmaker Lindsay Beyerstein weighed in on Twitter, summarizing these concerns with the following statement:

“There’s no real problem with using AI in the place of a soundalike actor in a non-fiction film, as long as the creators are upfront about what they’re doing.” Replies to her statement called the use of AI “fraudulent” and “manipulative”, with one user going so far as to surmise: “Regardless, I’m pretty sure that would make Anthony Bourdain puke.”

In an interview with GQ Magazine, Neville attempted to explain his reasoning behind the AI’s use. He elaborated on the process, stating:

“We fed more than ten hours of Tony’s voice into an AI 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. The narrator voice got very performative and sing-songy in the No Reservation years. I wasn’t putting words into his mouth, I was just trying to make them come alive.” Ultimately, the filmmaker seemed to brush aside the critical outcry, stating in an interview with The New Yorker: “We can have a documentary-ethics panel about it later.”

Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain is currently screening in theatres nationwide.