Deepfaking Anthony Bourdain’s Voice for “Roadrunner” Was a Mistake

Photo by Jonathan Velasquez on Unsplash

When I found out that they used an AI-constructed version of Anthony Bourdain’s voice for several lines of voiceover dialogue in Roadrunner — the new documentary about Bourdain’s life — I was upset. I didn’t want to hear a fake digital voice woven into a movie about a guy who seemed to be the very opposite of fake. I thought about getting a refund for the tickets I had already bought.

I decided to still see it, though, because I wanted to support the local movie theater that I hadn’t been able to visit in more than a year.

I had been looking forward to Roadrunner. When Bourdain died, I was shocked. I still haven’t brought myself to watch the last season of Parts Unknown.

I wanted the movie to be a fair look at a complicated person. I was hoping for a measure of closure, collective mourning, appreciation of his talents, and any insight into why he ended his life. I got those things from the documentary. I would have enjoyed it a lot more, though, if I didn’t have to wonder about and question every word of Bourdain’s voice that I heard.

Morgan Neville, the director of Roadrunner, has said that there were about three lines of voiceover in the movie voiced by an AI version of Bourdain’s voice. Neville used words that Bourdain wrote but never recorded.

Throughout the movie, every time Bourdain’s voiceover narration floated over the visuals, I wondered whether what I was hearing was real. I scoured my memory of his books and TV shows: “Okay, he’s talking about his first time eating oysters — I think that was from Medium Raw. Did he record an audiobook of it?” and “I remember this narration from the Beirut episode of No Reservations.”

It was a huge distraction.

Bourdain’s fans heard his voice many times over the years. It was a signature aspect of his TV shows. To memorialize him in a documentary but then present us with a fake version of his voice feels wrong.

A big part of Bourdain was authenticity and honesty. That’s one reason why so many people connected to him. Yes, we know that sometimes they reshot parts of his shows to get the right introductions or the right light. But the voice reading his thoughts about his travels and insights was always his.

Setting aside the voice issue, I could see that there was a lot of care and thought put into Roadrunner. Some of the footage of him and his daughter hasn’t ever been seen, and some of the interviews were with people, like his wife Ottavia Busia-Bourdain, who may not give another interview again. It was powerful to look back at the younger Bourdain, the chef, standing in the kitchen, getting the call that his new book Kitchen Confidential was a bestseller.

The documentary has an artistic flair, and it was valuable to hear from his friends and family members. They all seem to be still grappling with Bourdain’s loss.

Before I saw it, I wanted Roadrunner to be the definitive documentary about Bourdain. It may be, but the ethical questions around the use of the computer-generated version of Bourdain’s voice may overshadow the rest of what the film accomplishes.

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Movie nerd, nature enthusiast

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Vanessa Resler

Vanessa Resler

Movie nerd, nature enthusiast

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