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Nothing beats the adrenaline rush of seeing your favorite performer live in concert. The combo of blinding lights, a booming soundsystem, the heat of fellow fans crushed up against you in the pit and the moment when the artist tells you that your city is, hands down, the best town they’ve ever played is amazing.
OK, so most of that is part of the grand illusion of the pop and rock spectacle. Remove it and you’re left with the artist and their songs, which hopefully make for a charisma package that is unbeatable. Unless … that artist has passed. Then, all you’re left with is the die-hard fans who crave an endorphin blast they can never tap into again.
But just like our pockets contain phones thousands of times more powerful than computers that used to take up entire floors of office buildings, we how have the technology to bring back any artist that has ever lived to delight and entertain us once more. Thanks to a century-old illusion goosed by ever-evolving cutting-edge digital technology, over the past decade beyond-the-grave shows have graduated from one-off stunts to potentially lucrative tours that could change the way we experience concerts forever.
From the Tupac Shakur hologram that blew fans’ minds at Coachella in 2012 to the digital Ronnie James Dio that is slated to hit the road for a world tour later this year, death is no longer a deal breaker. In fact, death is a growth business, and pretty soon Katy Perry and Jay Z could be jockeying for stage time with an army of the faces and sounds of the past.
How did we get here?
It all started in 1858 when English engineer Henry Dircks realized that projecting an image off a sheet of glass propped at a 45-degree angle creates a ghostly effect he referred to as Dircksian Phantasmagoria. Fast forward four years to the moment when scientist/lecturer John Henry Pepper modified the illusion for an 1862 performance of Charles Dickens’ The Haunted Man, which turned into a worldwide sensation that has been used everywhere from Disney’s Haunted Mansion to an infamous scene in the 1971 James Bond thriller Diamonds Are Forever.
His so-called “Pepper’s Ghost” is, with a few digital tweaks, essentially the same technology that you’d see today when watching from-beyond sets from Whitney Houston, Elvis, Michael Jackson or Dio.
A brief history of the pop hologram:
2006: At the 48th annual Grammy Awards animated band Gorillaz (Blur’s Damon Albarn and company) confounded the crowd with a “live” performance of their hit “Feel Good Inc.” and a duet with Madonna on her song “Hung Up” thanks to Musion Eyeliner System. On TV the projection had a flat, listless feel until De La Soul came out to give it some energy and Madonna strutted on stage for “Hung Up,” initially as an illusion, then in the flesh, where she eventually gave the anime rockers the nod to go back into their hard drives.
2007: Celine Dion walks out onto the American Idol stage with what appears to be a white-suit-wearing Presley to sing a duet on “If I Can Dream.” The surprise trick blew minds, and according to reports took months and months to create at a cost of nearly $100,000. It reportedly involved a mix of shots of a Las Vegas Elvis tribute act whose body was shown in wide shots and a hologram featuring the face of Elvis from his 1968 comeback special.
2012: To the shock and amazement of Coachella fans, a life-size resurrected Tupac returned to the stage nearly 17 years after his death to rap alongside Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre in a performance that effectively set off the modern holographic gold rush. The trick from AV Concepts drew cheers and jeers, with some taking issue with the rapper yelling “What the f— is up, Coachella!?” something he could have never said in real life since he died three years before the festival was birthed. The creator of that illusion, Digital Domain Media Group, filed for bankruptcy a short time later.
2013: A decade after his death, Wu-Tang Clan rapper Ol‘ Dirty Bastard rejoined his crew for a Rock the Bells 10 performance that filled the hearts of hard-core fans but failed to match the dynamism of the late wild and wooly MC on runs through “Shame on a N-gga” and ODB’s 1995 solo hit “Shimmy Shimmy Ya.” That same 10th anniversary Rock the Bells show featured a comeback from long-dead N.W.A rapper Eazy-E, who rejoined his old pals in Bone Thugs-N-Harmony thanks to a hologram created by digital animator Chris Romero of 211 Decibels and Facebook game company Play Gig-It.
2014: If ever there was an artist who was born to be reborn as an undead avatar it’s Michael Jackson. Six years after Jackson’s death he moonwalked across the stage once again at the 2014 Billboard Music Awards in an appearance that captured his energy as he appeared to sit on a throne and bust his signature moves alongside a troupe of live dancers for a run through “Slave to the Rhythm.” Created by Pulse Evolution Corp., the MJ hologram is probably history’s most famous after Tupac.
2014: That same year Janelle Monae materialized alongside M.I.A. at a show in New York to collab on “Bad Girls.” They then switched places, with M.I.A. beaming across the country to Los Angeles to perform Monae’s “Q.U.E.E.N.” as part of a launch event for Audi’s A3 car. Like the other holograms, there were a twist on Pepper’s Ghost images, except these used integrated video mapping and 3D projection mapping to add a more layered depth of field to the animated graphical content.
Unlike previous efforts, though, the transcontinental duet dispensed with any attempt to make the guests look realistic, instead making them appear in ghostly triplicate, splitting and uniting in a digital frenzy.
2015: Controversial (and alive) rapper Chief Keef was slated to play a remote concert in Hammond, Indiana, in July via hologram, but the show was shut down by the cops just moments after it began.
2016: More than three decades after ABBA broke up, American Idol mastermind Simon Fuller announced last year that he was working on an “artificial intelligence” version of the Swedish group that would use virtual reality to stage a reunion of the band that has allegedly turned down billions to reform. There have been no updates on that plan, or his promises of other resurrected pop idols, at press time.
Since then, there’s been an announced rush of purported touring and resident projects involving everyone from Elvis to Tammy Wynette. In 2016, a much-vaunted diva summit between Christina Aguilera and a ghostly Whitney Houston that was slated for an episode of The Voice was announced to great fanfare. That hookup was canceled at the last minute when the Houston estate feared the technology wasn’t quite there yet. The estate has still teased plans to tour Houston in the future, but at press time the Whitney ‘gram remains under wraps.
2016: Like the Gorillaz, some artist need never have lived to get their hologram on, including J-Pop “vocaloid” singer Hatsune Miku, who toured the U.S. in 2016 to rave reviews and some scratched heads.
2016: “Querida socia” singer Jenni Rivera’s legacy was kept alive (for one song anyway) when she became the first Latin singer to have her own hologram at a Day of the Dead event in October at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, courtesy of Hologram USA.
2016: During a reunion tour by Puff Daddy & the Family, Puff teases that he is working on a Notorious B.I.G. hologram that could go out on a tour.
2017: Less than a year after beloved Mexican pop singer Juan Gabriel died at age 66 he was resurrected in February courtesy of, you guessed it, Hologram USA, the same company that got this whole things started with Tupac at Coachella. They’re also reportedly working on likenesses of Houston, Billie Holiday and Judy Garland, among others.
2017: Rapper O.T. Genasis, still very much alive, was slated to bank $20,000 for a club gig in February at the Heat Ultra Lounge in Orange County, though it was unclear at press time if the holographic show happened.
2017: Eyellusion Hologram Production debuted its digitally re-created Dio at the Wacken Festival in Germany in summer 2016, then showed it off for the music industry again at the Pollstar Awards in January. In conjunction with Dio’s widow, Wendy — who has given Eyellusion boss Jeff Pezzuti and his team access to every frame and note of music created by the diminutive rock god over more than five decades — Eyellusion was able to create a remarkably lifelike facsimile that can seemingly interact with crowds and rock stages with the help of Dio’s real-life backing band, Dio Disciples.
Current plans call for a Dio Returns tour of North America later this year, followed by a European jaunt and possible trips to South America and Asia. “We took our time building it because we wanted to pass on the legacy of his incredible music to people who might not have gotten a chance to see Ronnie during his lifetime,” said Pezzuti of the eight-month process of building the virtual Dio, who now lives on a portable hard drive.
In another nod to the potential upside of such deals, Pezzuti said the relatively simple gear needed to create the illusion fits in a standard box truck and only requires a few skilled technicians to set up.
A version of this story originally appeared on Billboard.com.
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