Anthony Bourdain Doc uses "Deepfake" voice narration

I saw this making rounds over the weekend and was certainly surprised to see something like this in a posthumous film with such a well-known subject.

In short, the creator behind the upcoming Anthony Bourdain documentary (which, for what it's worth, I cannot wait to see. I was a big fan!) used clips, and outtakes from Bourdain's many projects to create a sort of narration track throughout the film.

This is all normal, pretty creative, and a great use of the hours of film and content available. However, this is where it gets tricky. The creator ALSO had a few lines that were needed that aren't recorded anywhere, so he used digital software to create a digital recreation of Bourdain's voice to make him say things he had never actually spoken.

Read more:

Quote from the piece:

“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 AI, and you’re not going to know,” Neville told The New Yorker. “We can have a documentary-ethics panel about it later.”

Pure filmmaking ethics aside , what are your feelings about AI technology being able to recreate a voice like this?


  • stephciccarelli
    stephciccarelli Member, Voices_Guest
    10 Comments First Answer 5 Likes Name Dropper

    Thank you for sharing this topic with us, @Andrew Zuber.

    The (re)construction of a voice, image or likeness without its owner's consent is a timely conversation to have. Approaching this thread as a layman, I've got so many questions! Hopefully we can bring someone in far more knowledgeable on the subject to continue the conversation. For now though, here are my thoughts.

    1) Were these statements actually made by the celebrity?

    Did Bourdain make the statements generated for this film with AI in text format when he was alive? If so, it makes a bit of sense for why the producer thought they could have him 'say' these words aloud using AI (provided they were in context). This is different from what happened with film critic Roger Ebert when he had lost his voice and a new one was constructed for him using recordings from old broadcasts and speeches. He was able to benefit from the use of this constructed voice while he was still alive.

    2) If not, were they congruent with what he would have said?

    If Bourdain didn't say those things in text format or otherwise, was what was said in Bourdain's 'voice' using AI in alignment with other statements he would have made when he was alive? Does intentionality matter, or is this just a no-no across the board?

    3) Is piecing together a voice with AI better than hiring a voice match?

    Why use AI when they could have got another actor to do a voice match that would have come across as being more natural? Is there greater authenticity in piecing together Bourdain's voice than there would be in hiring an actor to voice match his voice?

    4) Should AI or voice matching be used in this context, period?

    Should they have even attempted using AI for 'bringing to life' words or phrases Bourdain would not have said or affirmed, especially if these sentiments were not made in text while he yet lived?

    5) Where do you get permission to do this sort of thing?

    Is the estate involved and were they asked for permission / did they need to be consulted beforehand? When you use recordings of someone's voice or want to do an impression of someone's voice who has passed away, it is most appropriate to reach out and obtain permission to do so from their estate. I've heard of a talent requesting permission to record a VO demo of this nature and being given permission to create a demo doing a vocal impression of that celebrity, so it is a viable route to take.

    We've covered AI and synthetic voices on the blog before and the conversation is ongoing and growing. What's new is this idea (and as we now see, reality) that the voices of real people are being recreated, with or without their consent.

    We're going to have to wait for the documentary ethics panel referenced by the documentary's creator and see where this conversation goes. Looking forward to hearing from our community on this!

  • ganbeck
    ganbeck Member, Voices_Premium
    25 Likes 10 Comments Photogenic Name Dropper

    @Stephanie Ciccarelli and @Andrew Zuber

    Good topic for conversation. My concern is covered by Stephanie's post. For me, it's mostly concern about whether or not the statements can be confirmed to have come from him. One might argue that it's no different than when somebody in a documentary relates something a 3rd person said. The difference is that the viewer can decide if he/she believes this person is being truthful and accurate. However, if a deepfake voice is used and the viewer is unaware, then there be no question in his/her mind that it's true.

    I suppose when you get down to it, whether using an AI or a very good impressionist, I would be wary of presenting the audio even if there was a disclaimer. At that point, why bother? Just have the narrator read the quote.

  • ganbeck
    ganbeck Member, Voices_Premium
    25 Likes 10 Comments Photogenic Name Dropper

    On a related topic, I have to admit that I have heard some VO that was done with Talkia software. It was the closest artificial speech I have heard from software to date. I could tell the difference because I know what to listen for, but I think a lot of the average listeners wouldn't know. It was pretty close to being passable for most explainer or other instructional videos.

    The technology is getting much closer to competing with VO talent, however, I think it will still be a long time before this can truly emulate some of the things we do. I'm thinking of those little inflections or intentional vocal fry for effect. Certainly for character voice acting, I don't think it's a good fit, but for straight up narration, it's a contender for serious competition.

    Oddly enough, I heard the sample from a client. They sent me a video with a Talkia VO because they wanted me to do the VO along with some video editing. I wondered if they would have hired me just for the VO if I wasn't also doing the video work :)

  • ginascarpa
    ginascarpa Member, Voices_Premium
    5 Awesomes 5 Likes Photogenic Name Dropper

    It's definitely a hot-button topic right now. I had the pleasure of interviewing Anthony when I worked as a television reporter and he was an extremely lovely person to talk to.

    The documentary features words that Anthony Bourdain wrote, but never actually said. The only reason we are even discussing this is because people figured out that he never said those words and called the director out on it so he was forced to address it. The director claims that Anthony's estate gave their permission but his ex-wife said she knew nothing about it and would not have given permission. As far as I can tell, the media has not been able to confirm that permission was given. It really makes you question the ethics of that decision.

    It is definitely concerning that an AI version of a human voice could be used without permission or disclosure. It's a situation we all need to keep our eyes on but rather than be afraid of it, we should be looking to gain knowledge and be part of the conversation. I'm glad you posted about this @Andrew Zuber with great thoughts from @stephciccarelli & @ganbeck!

  • carladerrico
    carladerrico Member, Voices_Premium
    Name Dropper First Comment

    @Andrew Zuber I got the chance to see Roadrunner, and have been a fan of Anthony Bourdain's shows for years. Truth be told, I didn't know beforehand that they used digital recreations of his voice. When I watched the movie, it wasn't so obvious. In fact, I was surprised. It sounded pretty natural.

    I think that this a case where using digital recreations would be not only acceptable, but helpful. Since the person is no longer alive and they wanted his voice for their vision. From what I saw, they used it in a way that was true to Anthony Bourdain's character. I think it enhanced the movie.

    Another acceptable use, in my mind, is being used in the upcoming movie Val, about Val Kilmer's life. If you didn't know already, Val Kilmer had suffered throat cancer and now has to speak through a voice box. Yes, technically they could still use his voice. But it wouldn't sound pleasant and may not be that honorable to the actor.

    There are definitely times when digital voice recreation can be used for the wrong reasons. But I am simply pointing out the positives in these cases.

  • @carladerrico Great review! Thank you for your thoughtful input. As a big fan myself, I am really excited to see it as well.

    Staying true to character and to the vision, as you said, is truly important when it comes to situations like this. And creating a few lines vs. generating a total top-to-bottom script are definitely two totally different situations with different concerns.

    I hadn't heard about the Val movie, but I'll be looking into that, too!