Beloved film critic Roger Ebert passed away yesterday at the age of 70. As the world mourns the loss of Ebert, who won a Pulitzer Prize for journalism in 1975, we recognize how much his highly regarded reviews helped us to see through the filmmaker’s lens more clearly: to celebrate and appreciate excellence, and to express outrage when talent and resources are wasted on bad films. Claimed Ebert, famously, “No good movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough.”
Because of Ebert’s long television career, his relatively recent use of AAC to communicate isn’t as closely identified with him as it is with Stephen Hawking, for example. Ebert lost his ability to speak after cancer treatment and reconstructive surgery complications in 2006. At that point he began to use computer generated speech to communicate. To find a voice with the best fit, he explored the range of commercially available choices. For a while he had a British accent that his wife, Chaz, named “Sir Lawrence,” but then switched to “Alex,” a better quality voice with an American accent. Though it was good, it wasn’t perfect and he continued to look for a solution that was closer to his natural voice.
A small Scottish company called CereProc, short for Cerebral Processing, held out hope for a voice that was not only closer to Ebert’s own, but actually was his own. Using audio tracks, available in quantity and quality because of his broadcast history, CereProc succeeded in “cloning” his voice using text-to-speech (TTS) technology. Programmers analyzed and digitized the recordings until they came up with a final voice pattern that was approved by Ebert. In a very funny and touching TED talk called “Roger Ebert: Re-making my voice,” he said that hearing this voice again – one that he, his family and his friends could recognize as his own – sent chills down his spine. He named the voice Roger Jr. or Roger 2.0.
In spite of this breakthrough, he found that Roger Jr. needed more tweaking before he’d be able or willing to adopt it for everyday use. His baseline? “If a computer voice can successfully tell a joke … then that’s the voice I want.”
In the same TED talk, Ebert revealed that the way he really had re-discovered his voice was through social media. Originally a Twitter skeptic, he came to the realization that social media gave him a “substitute for everyday conversation…online, everybody speaks at the same speed.”
Earlier this year, in his review of the post-apocalyptic zombie love story, “Warm Bodies,” Ebert wrote that the film was “unabashedly romantic and unapologetically optimistic.” From reading about his life, it seems to me that’s a pretty good description of the writer as well.
Note: Visit CereProc for demos of its TTS technology, with samples of synthesized voices in different languages and with a variety of accents.
Do you recall a favourite review or movie moment seen through Roger Ebert’s eyes? Please comment below – I’d love to hear from you!