Roadrunner: A Documentary and Artificial Intelligence

Anthony Bourdain, renowned chef, author, and traveler. His suicide in 2018 shocked fans and those who knew him. He was charismatic, creative, dynamic and left an indelible impression. He first became known for his bestselling book Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly. Several of his No Reservations food and travel shows featured Malaysian cuisine which he considers to be “natural fusion”. Anthony (a.k.a. Tony) has bagged many awards including the prestigious Peabody Award in 2014. He was named Food Writer of the Year by Bon Appétit magazine for Kitchen Confidential.

Image Credit: Michael Buckner/Deadline/REX/Shutterstock (9326613io) Morgan Neville

Roadrunner: A film about Anthony Bourdain premiered in June 2021 at the Tribeca Film Festival. Reviews from Rotten Tomatoes had a rating of 8/10. The film subsequently sparked controversial views and ethical concerns on the use of Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) technology to synthetically create a voiceover. Director Morgan Neville an Academy Award and Grammy Award winner told The New Yorker in an interview that “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. We can have a documentary-ethics panel about it later.” I did watch the documentary and he’s right, I couldn’t detect it.

The issue surrounding this debate is mainly about ethics. In my mind, when I watch a documentary it’s supposed to be authentic and not some anime movie or superhero fiction with special effects. The definition of a documentary is a film or a radio or television programme giving facts about something (Oxford Dictionary). It’s deceitful and misleading. Sean Burns, a film critic for Boston’s WBUR denounced the filmmakers as he was not aware of the deepfake Bourdain’s voice. Deepfakes have been around for quite a while and used to incite misinformation and political conflict. A paper from global law firm Hogan Lovells reports that Europe has not addressed the legal landscape of deepfakes directly.

Criticisms do not seem to bother Neville and he claims he had the blessing of Tony’s estate and literary agent. He also told GQ magazine that he got the approval of Tony’s widow Ottavia Busia who responded in her tweet: “I certainly was NOT the one who said Tony would have been cool with that”.

Neville insisted that there was no manipulation involved and merely contacted a software company to create an A.I. model of Tony’s voice so that he could be heard reading words that he wrote but was never recorded saying out loud. 

Neville’s approach is highly questionable and difficult to judge ethically. This “modern storytelling technique” has been previously used in many documentaries often to recreate and add narrative to verbalize written words. The use of voice-cloning technology in a documentary is a tricky and slippery slope. This technique undermines and stifles creativity. It’s close to special effects and unreal. Filmmakers shouldn’t take the easy way out and discount credibility. Disclosure to viewers is essential to make them aware of what’s happening. Maybe then, they wouldn’t feel deceived knowing what’s real and what’s not.

Thankfully, beloved Tony’s legacy is enduring and will remain so for a long time. Ethics do matter, especially in a documentary dealing with the life of someone distinctive and iconic.

Chuck is a content writer under Headliner by Newswav, a programme where content creators get to tell their unique stories through articles and at the same time monetize their content within the Newswav app.
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Author: Chuck

Just a guy who enjoys reading and a dose of jazz everyday.