Anthony Bourdain Documentary Uses AI To Recreate His Voice

The new documentary is out now, and it uses special software to recreate the late chef's voice.


The new Anthony Bourdain documentary, Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, releases today, July 16, and it features the voice the late chef, writer, and host. Director Morgan Neville said to The New Yorker that the production team compiled audio samplings of Bourdain's narration from across his appearances on TV, audiobooks, podcasts, and radio to have him speak in the movie. Additionally, the team used an AI program to add even more lines from the late chef.

The movie has three quotes in particular Neville could not source from Bourdain's various speaking appearances, and this is where the AI software came in. "There were three quotes there I wanted his voice for that there were no recordings of," he said. He worked with an unnamed software company on the AI technology. "I created an A.I. model of his voice," Neville explained.

"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," Neville said, while acknowledging he's stepping into ethically murky waters. "We can have a documentary-ethics panel about it later."

One of the AI lines in the movie comes at the end of the second act. Bourdain's friend, David Choe, reads an email he received from Bourdain, and partway through it mixes into Bourdain's voice. "You are successful, and I am successful, and I'm wondering: Are you happy?" the email says.

It's presented in Bourdain's voice, and this was one of the lines read by the AI machine. You can hear this for yourself in the trailer above at around 1:30--it does sound a little off.

Neville spoke to GQ about this as well, and he explained that Bourdain's widow and literary executor signed off.

"We fed more than ten hours of Tony's voice into an AI model," he said. "The bigger the quantity, the better the result. We worked with four companies before settling on the best. We also had to figure out the best tone of Tony's voice: His speaking voice versus his 'narrator' voice, which itself changed dramatically of over the years. The narrator voice got very performative and sing-songy in the No Reservation years. I checked, you know, with his widow and his literary executor, just to make sure people were cool with that. And they were like, Tony would have been cool with that. I wasn't putting words into his mouth. I was just trying to make them come alive."

Bourdain's ex-wife, Ottavia Busia, said on Twitter that she did not sign off on digitally recreating Bourdain's voice for the documentary.

Neville previously won the Best Documentary Oscar for Twenty Feet From Stardom, a documentary about backup singers. He also directed the Fred Rogers documentary, Won't You Be My Neighbor?

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