The new Anthony Bourdain documentary used a deepfake of Bourdain’s voice to read a despairing, personal email

  • The just-released documentary about the late Anthony Bourdain, “Roadrunner,” fakes his voice.
  • A computer-created deepfake of Bourdain’s voice is used to read a personal letter he wrote to a friend.
  • “You’re not going to know,” the director said. “We can have a documentary-ethics panel about it later.”
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

In the new documentary “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain,” the iconic voice of beloved travel and food celebrity Anthony Bourdain can be heard throughout.

Many of the instances of that voiceover were re-created from years of clips of existing voiceover he recorded before his death in June 2018. But in at least one major instance in the film, his voiceover was created fresh using artificial intelligence software — so-called “deepfake” technology.

“There were three quotes there I wanted his voice for that there were no recordings of,” the film’s director, Morgan Neville, told The New Yorker in a new interview. For those quotes, Neville said, “I created an A.I. model of his voice.”

Specifically, an email sent from Bourdain to his longtime friend, the artist David Choe, is read in the film in a voice that sounds like Bourdain. “My life is sort of shit now,” the voiceover of Bourdain’s email says. “You are successful, and I am successful, and I’m wondering: Are you happy?”

That quote, it turns out, was the deepfake version of Bourdain — not Bourdain himself. 

When pressed on the ethics of re-creating a dead person’s voice, especially as a means of reading a deeply personal email, Neville pushes back.

“If you watch the film,” he says, “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. We can have a documentary-ethics panel about it later.”

It’s unclear if this is the first such use of deepfake technology in documentary filmmaking, but it’s certainly the most notable. Bourdain’s image and voice are directly tied to the years of television he starred in and narrated, and “Roadrunner” is the first major documentary on Bourdain since his death.

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