Andy Warhol’s greatest artwork was himself, as the saying goes. The pop culture artist not only dabbled in cinema, advertising and the mechanics of image production, but has featured in dozens of documentaries and film since his death, either peripherally or, as in this case, center stage.
The Andy Warhol Diaries is the new six-part documentary on Netflix leaning heavily on a memoir dictated by Warhol over the phone to journalist Pat Hackett beginning in 1976 up until Warhol’s death in 1987.
It’s written and directed by Andrew Rossi and produced by Ryan Murphy, whose primary goal, according to The Hollywood Reporter, “is to recontextualize Warhol as somebody who had loves and lovers.”
While there are countless interviews with those who knew him, or are admirers, there are also dramatic reconstructions. The meat of the episodes focus on the artist’s relationship with three lovers: Jed Johnson, Jon Gould and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
The first was a 12-year relationship following the events of Mary Harron’s 1996 film I Shot Andy Warhol, explains THR, the second a multi-year relationship that had to be kept somewhat secret because of Gould’s job as an executive at Paramount. The third, which has been central to narrative films, documentaries and even a current play in London, was not necessarily a sexual relationship, but an emotionally rich pairing used here to reveal Warhol’s attitudes toward class and race.
What has raised eyebrows is the use of narration recorded as if it were from Warhol. The project had an actor, Bill Irwin, record the lines, then used a text-to-speech algorithm that adopted Warhol’s Pittsburgh accent. The voices were then combined in an attempt to come as close as possible to the artist.
“Andy Warhol was famously guarded about his personal thoughts and opinions,” Rossi told Entertainment Weekly, “That’s one reason his Diaries are such a rare and fascinating window; he could be incredibly raw and emotional as he talked to his diarist over the phone. To fully appreciate the radical vulnerability that Andy shares in the Diaries, I felt that we needed to hear the words in Andy’s own voice.”
READ MORE: Hear an Andy Warhol A.I. voice narrate the trailer for new Netflix docuseries (Entertainment Weekly)
How the AI Voiceover Was Done
An article from Wired digs deeper into how it was done. The chief concern is an ethical one and also an audience reaction one, mindful of the bruhaha that greeted the “fake” voiceover accompanying Anthony Bourdain documentary Roadrunner.
READ MORE: Crossing the Line: How the “Roadrunner” Documentary Created an Ethics Firestorm (NAB Amplify)
Rossi had been in consultation with the Andy Warhol Foundation about the AI recreation, and the Bourdain doc inspired a disclaimer that appears a few minutes into The Andy Warhol Diaries stating that the voice was created with the Foundation’s permission.
“When Andrew shared the idea of using an AI voice, I thought, ‘Wow, this is as bold as it is smart,’” Michael Dayton Hermann, the foundation’s head of licensing, tells Wired.
By being upfront, Rossi’s documentary avoids one of the big issues Roadrunner faced. Viewers know from the start that what they’re hearing is computer-generated.
Warhol did once speak all the things the AI says in the doc — he told them to Hackett — but they weren’t recorded at the time. Does that make a difference?
“[Warhol’s] diaries are written in a really interesting way, almost like they’re meant to be read aloud. They’re in his voice,” says Zohaib Ahmed, the CEO of Resemble AI, which Rossi turned to for the project. “It’s almost like this was an extension of Andy’s work, so we weren’t creating something that was an ethical dilemma for us.”
There were challenges. Warhol voice is a monotone built from his Pittsburgh upbringing and years in the New York City art scene — he took pains to be deliberately un-emotive. Plus, there wasn’t a lot of original source material to work from.
When Resemble AI started, it only had about three minutes and 12 seconds of audio data — and needed to create a voice that could read about 30 pages of text.
To do that, explains Wired, Resemble’s AI engine used the phonemes of Warhol’s voice that were in that dataset to predict the phonemes that weren’t in order to create a fairly full voice. That voice was then loaded into the company’s web platform, where Rossi could type in what he wanted the voice to say and then ask the AI to make adjustments until it sounds the way they want it to.
“Being able to have that human involvement is really powerful,” Ahmed says. It even allowed Rossi to shift the emotion or have Warhol say words that required an accent — like, for example, the name of Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Ultimately, the AI didn’t do quite everything based on just those few minutes, necessitating Irwin’s voice recording. “We tried models combining 80 to 75 percent of the AI voices and 20 to 15 percent of Bill’s performance,” Rossi tells Wired. “In the end, Andy’s voice throughout the series presents a variation of ranges on this interpolated model.”
The Reviews Are In
Reviewers have been favorable. “It turns out, against all odds, that the novelty of it not only works but, in fact, becomes surprisingly moving as the series progresses,” says Art News.
For instance, at one point in episode two, Warhol speaks (via the simulated voice) of blushing when Jed Johnson’s parents paid a visit and thanked him for being so nice to their son.
“Warhol — a stoic cipher who tried to speak as little as he could — proves to be a special case, especially as much of the subject matter of the Diaries is highly emotional in ways that the artist himself never was in a clearly articulated way,” notes The Hollywood Reporter’sreview.
THR reviewer Daniel Fienberg thinks Warhol, ever a fan of robotics, would have been amused by the technique. “It never gives the illusion of hearing a real person, but offers a very Warhol-esque flat and ruminative counterpoint to the amusement, bemusement and passionate regard contributed by the interview subjects, who knew him, loved him or, in some cases, dedicated their lives to studying him.”
As for the series itself, Art News found it very powerful on the subject of AIDS — “it sets the epidemic well into the context of Warhol’s interest in religious art late in his life.”
READ MORE: Netflix’s ‘Andy Warhol Diaries’ Series Offers Intimate View of an Artist Known for Obfuscation (Art News)
When it comes to the big events in Warhol’s life, the entries are generally skeletal or entirely evasive, and Rossi and the assortment of talking heads from Warhol’s life and then his 30+ years of artistic afterlife fill in blanks or explain absences.
“The entries are most interesting, honestly, as expressions of mundane insecurities and celebrations of tiny pleasures, like Warhol’s love of a wide and occasionally strange assortment of very mainstream movies,” writes Fienberg.
“If you’ve ever wanted to “hear” Warhol talk about why he was moved by The NeverEnding Story, this is a documentary for you.”