CNN’s Anthony Bourdain Documentary Faces Backlash for ‘Deepfake’ Voiceover

CNN/Focus Features
CNN/Focus Features

A new documentary from CNN Films about Anthony Bourdain is causing a ruckus after it was revealed the filmmaker used artificial intelligence technology to mimic the voice of the late celebrity chef, leading some to voice ethical concerns over the use of deepfakes.

Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, which opened Friday in cinemas, uses AI to simulate the voice of Anthony Bourdain reading passages from an e-mail correspondence. Director Morgan Neville acknowledged the digital sleight of hand after The New Yorker’s Helen Rosner asked him how he found an audio recording of Bourdain reading from his own e-mail.

Neville told the magazine: “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.”

His seemingly unapologetic reply has elicited a backlash among journalists and other documentarians who are questioning the ethics of deepfake technology.

In a statement to Deadline, Neville claimed he received permission to recreate Bourdain’s voice.

“There were a few sentences that Tony wrote that he never spoke aloud. With the blessing of his estate and literary agent we used AI technology. It was a modern storytelling technique that I used in a few places where I thought it was important to make Tony’s words come alive.”

Ottavia Bourdain, the late chef’s ex-wife who reportedly serves as executor of his estate, has denied granting permission to the production to simulate the voice of Anthony Bourdain.

Deepfake videos have become commonplace online and on social media thanks to free deepfake software tools. But they have raised concern from politicians and celebrities who fear malicious videos could be created to damage careers. Some even fear deepfakes will be used by hostile countries to mislead American citizens and destabilize the U.S.

Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain was produced by CNN Films, which is a division of CNN. The documentary is set to stream on HBO Max later this year and will also air on CNN at an unspecified date.

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