Using Artificial Intelligence to Mimic Bourdain Documentary’s Audio Drawing Questions


The new documentary on Anthony Bourdain’s life, “Roadrunner,” is one hour and 58 minutes long, and is filled with footage of the star’s decades-long career as a celebrity chef, journalist, and television personality.

However, 45 seconds of the film’s opening weekend attracts the public’s attention.

The focus is on a few sentences that an uninformed audience member would believe Bourdain’s voice was recorded. Died by suicide in 2018. In reality, the voice is produced by artificial intelligence: Bourdain’s own words have been converted into speech by a software company that has given several hours of voice over that can teach a machine how to mimic its tone, cadence, and pitch.

One of the machine-generated excerpts is from an email Bourdain wrote to a friend. David Choe.

“You’re successful, so am I,” says Bourdain’s voice, “and I wonder: Are you happy?”

The film’s director, Morgan Neville, explained the technique in an interview. The New Yorker’s Helen RosnerReading an e-mail the filmmakers sent to a friend, he asked how they were able to obtain Bourdain’s recording. “We can do a documentary-ethics panel on that later,” Neville said, saying the technology is so believable that audiences probably won’t be able to tell which of the other quotes are artificial.

The time for such a panel seems now. Social media is brimming with opinions on the subject – some find it creepy and unpleasant, others not bothered.

And documentary professionals who often address ethical questions in nonfiction films are sharply divided. Some filmmakers and academics view the use of audio without disclosure to the audience as a breach of trust and a slippery slope when it comes to the use of so-called deep fake videos containing digitally manipulated material that appears to be real footage. .

“It wasn’t necessary,” said Thelma Vickroy, chair of the Columbia College Chicago Department of Film and Television Arts. “How does the audience benefit? They conclude that it was something he said while he was alive.”

Others don’t see this as problematic, considering that the sound comes from Bourdain’s words, and that evolving technology is inevitably used to give a voice to someone who is no longer around.

“Among all the ethical concerns one can have about a documentary, this seems pretty trivial,” said Gordon Quinn, a longtime documentarian known for executive productions such as “Hoop Dreams” and “Mind the Gap.” “The year is 2021 and these technologies are on the market.”

Using archive footage and interviews with Bourdain’s closest friends and colleagues, Neville examines how Bourdain became a worldwide name and delves into his devastating death at the age of 61. “Roadrunner: A Movie About Anthony Bourdain” received critical acclaim: A film critic Wrote for the New York Times“With tremendous insight, Neville shows us both the empathy and the narcissist,” at Bourdain.

Neville said on Friday regarding the use of artificial intelligence that the filmmaking team had obtained permission from Bourdain’s mansion and literary agent.

“There were several sentences that Tony wrote that he never spoke out loud,” Neville said in a statement. “It was a modern storytelling technique that I used in a few places where I thought it was important to bring Tony’s words to life.”

The chief’s second wife, Ottavia Busia, with whom he shares a daughter, criticized the decision in a Twitter post, writing that he would not allow filmmakers to use an artificial intelligence version of his voice.

A spokesperson for the film did not immediately respond to a request for comment on who gave the producers permission.

Experts point to historical reenactments and voice-over artists reading documents as examples of documentary filmmaking techniques commonly used to provide a more emotional experience for audiences.

For example, documentarian Ken Burns recruits actors to voice long-dead historical figures. And the 1988 documentary “The Thin Blue Line” It sparked controversy among film critics when it re-enacted the events of the murder of a Texas police officer, written by Errol Morris; The film received numerous awards, but left out Oscar nominations.

But in these cases, it was clear to the audience that what they saw and heard was not real. Some experts said they thought it would be ethically clear if Neville somehow disclosed the use of artificial intelligence in the film.

“When audiences begin to doubt the veracity of what they’re hearing, they question everything about the movie they’re watching,” said Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Mark Jonathan Harris.

Quinn compared the technique to the technique used by director Steve James. 2014 documentary It’s about Chicago film critic Roger Ebert, who, when the movie was made, was unable to speak after losing part of his jaw in cancer surgery. In some cases, the producers used an actor to convey their own words from Ebert’s memoirs, or relied on a computer that spoke on his behalf when he wrote down his thoughts.

For some, part of the discomfort with the use of artificial intelligence is the fear that deep fake videos may become increasingly common. At the moment, audiences automatically tend to believe in the veracity of audio and video, but if audiences begin to have good reason to question it, this could give people a reasonable denial of rejecting the actual footage, said filmmaker and assistant professor of journalism Hilke Schellmann. at New York University who wrote a book on AI

three years later Bourdain’s death, the film aims to help viewers understand both its virtues and weaknesses, and as Neville puts it, “to reconcile these two aspects of Tony.”

According to Andrea Swift, head of the film production department at the New York Film Academy, the use of artificial intelligence in these few pieces of footage provided a deeper understanding of the film and Bourdain’s life.

“I wish it hadn’t been done,” he said, “because then we can focus on Bourdain.”

Christina Morales contributed to the reporting.


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