Top Gun (1986) was one of the definitive movies of my childhood era. A film about the US Air Force’s fighter pilots. Fearless daredevils who risked it all. Heroes with catchy nicknames like Wolf Man and Ice. They wore leather jackets, rode motorcycles and were popular with the ladies. A cast that looked like the coolest men on the planet. People are still wearing Aviator shades and bomber jackets to this day.
Top Gun’s story is centred around a training academy that produces the very best pilots. Tom Cruise plays the ambitious main protagonist (Maverick) who wanted to be number one and Top Gun shows us the rivalry Tom’s character has with the current number 1 (Ice) played by Val Kilmer. Tragedy, coming of age, romance and action, with a cracking 80’s soundtrack. I found that Top Gun is still an entertaining watch as an adult.
Val Kilmer plays the confrontational Ice Man. The rival to Tom Cruise’s Maverick. The American actor later starred in Heat (1995), Batman Forever (1995) and worked with Top Gun Director Tony Scott again on True Romance (1993) and Deja Vu (2006).
In his interview with the New York Times Kilmer revealed he had developed a tumour. It was 2014 when a doctor diagnosed him with throat cancer. The treatments that followed involved chemotherapy and a tracheostomy. The Batman beat Cancer, but was left in a debilitating condition. His ailment meant that he now has to eat through a tube and use an electric voice box in order to speak. Kilmer featured in the autobiographical documentary Val (2021) after his recovery. You can hear how the actor sounds post throat cancer towards the end of the trailer.
Remarkably, despite his unfortunate circumstances, Val is still able to work. How could an actor who uses an electrolarynx be able to work? Through the power of technology.
John Flynn and Zeena Quereshi founded Sonantic in 2018. Their aim was to improve upon the common and robotic-sounding text-to-speech solutions that convert written text into spoken words. They achieve a hyper-realistic outcome by creating a model of an actor’s voice using the power of Artificial Intelligence (AI). In 2020 Sonantic created Faith, who they claim is the first AI that can cry. Check out this demonstration of the emotion their algorithm is capable of conveying.
Return of the Ice Man
The Washington Post reported that Sonantic were approached by Val Kilmer’s representatives to make a custom AI voice model for him. The usual process involves having actors record a script and feeding the recorded audio into their Voice Engine (VE). The VE then trains the AI model. But because Val couldn’t record, Sonantic had to research and implement new algorithms. This resulted in more than 40 different voice models, so Sonantic selected the best one to use for Val. After the model is chosen, it can be fine-tuned in Sonantic’s desktop application. You can read more about the full process here and check out a clip of Val’s voice model below.
Sonantic developed desktop software with a beautiful UI (User Interface) that resembles DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) tooling. Operators have options to choose what kind of emotion the audio is delivered in and choices range from anger to happiness. One could opt for a shouting style and even configure the intensity. Perhaps a director wants the actor to convey a high amount of fear in a scene? Well, there’s an option you can toggle to make the voice sound like it is extremely fearful. A custom dictionary allows one to add new words to the model. Editors can adjust the pitch, the pacing and alter the emphasis too. One can even batch process multiple voices at once. It sounds powerful, doesn’t it? Check out the video demonstration to see this all in action.
Is an AI Voice Model Ethical?
Kilmer felt confident enough in his audio doppelgänger to pitch an idea to Top Gun Maverick Director Joseph Kosinski. The voice model and accompanying software offer filmmakers unparalleled control over an actor’s voice. But this leap forward in voice technology raises ethical questions. What if the actor is deceased? Should the model still be used? What if the software is misused in combination with deep fake technology? Could the actor be impersonated? Sonantic addresses these valid concerns in an article sharing their guidelines and principles.
The AI audio pioneers offered their assurances to actors worried machines are coming for their jobs. Sonantic’s mission is to empower actors, not to replace them. A synthetic voice can be used on multiple projects simultaneously. This could drastically increase earning potential and give actors a passive income. Film production budgets will be able to retain funds that would otherwise be used to cater for actors on site. Maybe the benefits outweigh the drawbacks?
I previously wrote about A Space Odessey 2001. A movie which featured the computer AI – HAL 9000. Back in 1968, the fictional precursor to Siri and Alexa was voiced by an actor. But in 2022 the actor could be at home while his voice model went to work for him. Synthesised voices do carry concerns about potential misuse and some may be wary of their potential to replace actors. But Val Kilmer’s story is a shining example of the good that voice tech can do to empower actors. Hopefully, fans of the original Top Gun movie will be glad that Sonantic’s Photoshop for voice exists. After all, you wouldn’t be able to bring back the Ice Man without it.