Anthony Bourdain’s new life documentary, “Roadrunner,” lasts an hour and 58 minutes, much of which is filled with footage of the star over the decades of his career as a celebrity chef, journalist and personality. from television.
But on the film’s opening weekend, 45 seconds grabbed the audience’s attention.
The focus is on a few sentences of what an unconscious viewer would believe to be an audio recording of Bourdain, who died by suicide in 2018. In reality, the voice is generated by artificial intelligence: Bourdain’s own words, transformed into speech by a software company that had received several hours of audio that could teach a machine to imitate its tone, cadence and inflection.
One of the machine-generated quotes is from an email Bourdain wrote to a friend, David Choé.
“You are successful, and I have succeeded,” said Bourdain’s voice, “and I wonder: are you happy? “
The film’s director Morgan Neville explained the technique in an interview with The New Yorker’s Helen Rosner, who asked how the filmmakers could have gotten a recording of Bourdain reading an email he sent to a friend. Neville said the technology is so compelling that members of the public likely won’t recognize which of the other quotes are contrived, adding, “We can have a documentary ethics panel on this later.”
The time for such a panel seems to have come. Social media have erupted with opinions on the matter – some find it scary and unpleasant, others are not bothered.
And documentary scholars who frequently examine ethical issues in non-fiction films are sharply divided. Some filmmakers and academics view using audio without disclosing it to the public as a breach of trust and a slippery slope when it comes to using so-called deepfake videos, which include digitally manipulated material that seems be authentic sequences. .
“It wasn’t necessary,” said Thelma Vickroy, chair of the film and television arts department at Columbia College in Chicago. “How does the public benefit from it? They deduce that this is something he said during his lifetime.
Others don’t see it as problematic, given that the audio comes from Bourdain’s words, as well as an inevitable use of evolving technology to give voice to someone who is no longer there.
“Of all the ethical concerns one can have about a documentary, this seems rather trivial,” said Gordon Quinn, a longtime documentary filmmaker known for his executive production titles like “Hoop Dreams” and “Minding the Gap “. “We are in 2021 and these technologies exist. “
Using archival footage and interviews with Bourdain’s closest friends and colleagues, Neville examines how Bourdain became a global figure and explores his devastating death at the age of 61. The film, “Roadrunner: A Movie About Anthony Bourdain,” received positive reviews: A New York Times film critic wrote, “With immense insight, Neville shows us both the empath and the narcissist” in Bourdain.
In a statement on the use of AI, Neville said on Friday that the film crew received permission from Bourdain’s real estate and literary agent.
“There were a few sentences Tony wrote that he never said out loud,” Neville said in the statement. “It was a modern storytelling technique that I used in a few places where I felt it was important to bring Tony’s words to life.”
Ottavia Busia, the chef’s second wife, who he shared a daughter with, appeared to criticize the decision in a Twitter post, writing that she would not have allowed filmmakers to use the AI version of her voice.
A spokesperson for the film did not immediately respond to a request for comment on who gave permission to the filmmakers.
Experts cite historical re-enactments and voiceovers of actors reading documents as examples of documentary filmmaking techniques widely used to provide a more emotional experience for audience members.
For example, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns hires actors to express long-lost historical figures. And the 1988 documentary “The Thin Blue Line” by Errol Morris sparked controversy among film critics when it re-enacted the events surrounding the murder of a Texas police officer; the film received numerous awards but was excluded from Oscar nominations.
But in these cases, it was clear to the audience that what they saw and heard was not genuine. Some experts have said they believe Neville will be ethically clear if he has somehow disclosed the use of artificial intelligence in the film.
“If viewers start to doubt the veracity of what they have heard, then they will question everything about the movie they are watching,” said Mark Jonathan Harris, an Oscar-winning documentary director.
Quinn compared the technique to what director Steve James used in a 2014 documentary about Chicago film critic Roger Ebert, who when the film was shot couldn’t speak after losing part of his jawbone. during cancer surgery. In some cases, the filmmakers used an actor to communicate Ebert’s own words from his memoirs, or they relied on a computer that spoke for him as he typed his thoughts into it.
For some, part of the unease over the use of artificial intelligence is the fear that deepfake videos are becoming more and more ubiquitous. Right now, viewers tend to automatically believe in the veracity of audio and video, but if audiences start to have good reason to question this, it could give people plausible deniability. disavow authentic images, said Hilke Schellmann, filmmaker and assistant professor of journalism. at New York University who is writing a book on AI
Three years after Bourdain’s death, the film seeks to help viewers understand both its virtues and vulnerabilities and, as Neville puts it, “reconcile these two sides of Tony.”
For Andrea Swift, chair of the filmmaking department at the New York Film Academy, the use of AI in these few clips of footage has gone beyond a deeper appreciation of the film and Bourdain’s life.
“I wish that hadn’t been done,” she said, “because then we could focus on Bourdain. “
Christina Morales contributed reporting.