Image from Blade Runner trailer

Inside the Shady World of the Musical Hologram

How do they work? What are the moral issues with dead performers? And does anyone still give a shit?

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06 December 2017, 10:32am

Image from Blade Runner trailer

For a three-hour dystopian adventure about a biogenetic android, Blade Runner 2049 is surprisingly moving. Of all the scenes in the film, few are as evocative as the one with a 3D Elvis Presley singing “Can’t Help Falling In Love” as he flickers in and out of life in his distinctive white jumpsuit. For me, it’s the most powerful moment in the film, skilfully bringing together abstraction and possibility, and perhaps foreshadowing our destiny with technology. The King of Rock and Roll can appear in your own living room, and yet you’re no less alone.

The utilisation of a sci-fi Elvis in Blade Runner made me think about the potential of holograms, something I’ve pondered over the past few weeks since a ten-date Roy Orbison In Dreams Hologram Tour was announced, coming to concert halls near you next April. In an event they’re calling “the first-of-its-kind”, the press release reads: “a holographic Roy Orbison will once again perform his biggest hits in top venues across the UK backed by the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra in this transformative live entertainment concert experience.”

Thing is: these reimaginings of icons past and present sit at a point of contention. On the one hand, there’s something too “uncanny valley” about a projection to generate any truthful ambience. On the other, technology is getting better all of the time, and future generations may get closer to experiencing the real Jimi Hendrix Experience than anyone could have dreamed possible. As time passes, and so too do legends of music, then the idea of seeing a hologram – or even a tribute act – of your favourite deceased artist or artists, could become the norm. And if the latter is the case, then we may see a whole cemetery of dead celebrities rise and start performing again like a scene out of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”.

Before we get into it however… a quick backstory: I worked promoting a music hologram a decade ago, and despite being one of the worst PRs ever to do it (I lasted three months) you’d assume it would sell itself. Not so in 2007. Bodyrox had had a big club crossover hit with “Yeah Yeah” featuring Luciana, and I came onboard for their follow up single “What Planet You On?”. For a month a digital simulacrum of Luciana would simultaneously appear as if by magic in a chain of clubs across the UK, with the aim of causing creatine-puffy clubbers to choke on their WKDs before downloading the single on their newly acquired smartphones while still in a state of bamboozlement. Needless to say it was a disaster. Somebody in the office secured a two-minute story on Five News but that was about it. The single limped in at number 54 in the UK charts, and I made a swift exit before I could be fired.

Since then however, holograms have started to garner attention and in some cases become newsworthy. In political life particularly their use has been significant – Narendra Modi was beamed to 130 different locations over 30 days across India, helping him get elected in 2014, and Julian Assange left the Ecuadorian Embassy and was beamed into the Nantucket Project in Massachusetts the same year. Musical holograms, such as Chief Keef at the Hammond music festival and Michael Jackson at the Billboard Music Awards, have been more gimmicky but still able to grab the headlines. Gorillaz too were able to overcome the problem of being a fictional cartoon band by beaming Murdoc et al onto the stage alongside Damon Albarn and his band. Then of course there was the Tupac projection at 2012’s Coachella – a landmark moment with nothing since generating quite as much chatter or column inches.

The company behind what appeared to be a living and breathing Tupac are called Digital Domain. Strangely, they’re also responsible for creating an entirely digital Brad Pitt for the film Benjamin Button, which ultimately won the Academy Award for Best Makeup in 2009. What was interesting about the Oscar win was the fact the Academy was fooled into believing it was actually Pitt on screen and not a pixelated simulacrum. With both Pitt and Tupac, a case could be made that Digital Domain crossed the uncanny valley. So how did they manage to do it?

“The reason the Tupac hologram was unique was because the digital human was a hyperrealistic animated character who had people wondering how he was singing," says former Digital Domain chairman and CEO John Textor, calling from Florida. "How did he say ‘what the fuck’s up, Coachella?’ I promise, had we put an old video replay of Tupac up in a holographic projection nobody would have cared. Just like Nat King Cole and his daughter, or Elvis Presley and Celine Dion, those did not have the same kind of excitement levels as Tupac because we created a digital human.”

As well as the recent announcement of “Roy Orbison’s” latest tour, there are a glut of holographic icons in the offing including Frank Zappa and Ronnie James Dio. And though it’s uncertain if this inchoate technology is soon to become the future of entertainment, there are certainly more holograms cropping up than ever before, making it feel as though we’re finally finally at the celebrity hologram tipping point. But how does it work? How exactly do the corpses of these dead celebrities rise from the grave and end up being projected onto a theatre stage?

Hologram USA owner and entrepreneur Alkiviades David (known as Alki) says “hologram” is a misnomer, but it has become the default noun for the technique simply because so many people use it. I’d assumed old footage was plundered, and I wondered how a singer who’d been dead for 58 years like Billie Holiday could be excavated from grainy old moving pictures. As it turns out, there’s far more illusion involved than I’d realised.

“We use different techniques,” says Alki on the phone from Los Angeles, “and the most complex is creating a 3D model from head-to-toe and digitally sculpting the character. We take that model and we have an actor who can impersonate the moves. We then capture the movement, whether it’s pre-recorded or live. Obviously if it’s pre-recorded it gives us time to go back in post-production and finesse the whole animation, but really, it’s building an animated character in a 3D environment.”

When it came to Tupac at Coachella, Digital Domain used a combination of voice acting and original lyrics. “For the new content, where he says ‘hello’ to Snoop and Dre on the stage, that was an actor. It was a head replacement on an actor body, and so you could use visual effects to augment the body and then build an animated head,” Textor explains. Not everyone was convinced, however. Spin’s Coachella reviewer complained that “it wasn’t so much a hologram (because those don’t exist yet) as it was a CGI-creepy recreation of Tupac with 90s Marvel Comics abs.”

When it comes to creepiness, there’s also a moral implication of bringing a celebrity back from the dead and making profit from their image. One suspects Michael Jackson may have been thrilled by his showstopping performance at the 2014 Billboard Music Awards – made by Pulse Evolution, the company Textor started with other facial animation team members from Digital Domain when the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. But what might Billie Holiday, who died in 1959, think about playing at noon everyday on the Hollywood Boulevard at $22-$32 a pop? Is the fact we can’t ask her – or Jackson – reason enough not to do it? And isn’t the whole thing a little macabre?

“Look, Billie Holiday or anyone of our deceased celebrities are performers, right?” says a slightly exasperated Alki, sounding like a man who’s heard this question more than a few times since he entered the burgeoning industry in 2012. “They lived for the limelight, so an ability to continue after death would be something they’d want.” So the thought never troubles him? “Personally, no. Does it create controversy with people? Sure it does. We embrace the controversy because it kickstarts the conversation and creates awareness.”

Alki’s rival isn’t so sure: “People say why isn’t this artform taking off? Look, because the people that did it, that brought it to market, don’t care much about it. I, John Textor, do not enjoy the dead celebrity thing much at all.” Textor says Pulse Evolution is the leader in the market and only works with true greats; Michael Jackson or Elvis, and new signings Abba, who are all still alive obviously. However he’s dismissive of the Orbison show, suggesting the Big O was always easier on the ears than the eyes anyway. He also asserts that Pulse Evolution is not just about holograms; they also create realistic digital humans in movies, similar to that of Pitt in Benjamin Button.

As well as the moral implication of bringing a celebrity back from the dead, there’s also the issue of litigation. Last year Christina Aguilera and the late Whitney Houston were supposed to perform together on the finale of The Voice, however when footage from the dress rehearsal leaked, Houston’s estate got cold feet. In one way or another though, virtual “Whitney” is now due to be back on board, performing daily at Hologram USA’s world-first dedicated hologram theatre on Hollywood Boulevard.

Alki believes the holographic industry is going through its “gold rush” moment right now, but whether or not holograms are the future of entertainment remains to be seen. We’re still in the early stages of what’s achievable, and putting back together The Beatles, for instance, would be a lengthy process involving two living artists and two estates coming to amicable agreement. The likelihood of it being equitable at this stage is slim, so The Fab Four may be a facsimile for the future. Besides, in 2050, perhaps the kids will be more into holograms of Drake or Kanye or Adele.

“As I see it, it’s certainly a new paradigm in entertainment,” Alki says. “It’s not the future of entertainment but it’s a new take on entertainment. It’ll certainly help revive the theatre business and the live entertainment business as we know it.” By theatre he means cinema, which saw international receipts decline for the first time in 12 years in 2016. Even Blade Runner 2049 this year failed to ignite at the box office despite universally great reviews. Perhaps people aren’t interesting in two dimensional anymore. They want to see Elvis reenter the building, although according to John Textor, only if he’s able to traverse the uncanny valley.

You can find Jeremy on Twitter.