The dead celebrity hologram has been a posthumous ethical conundrum for some time now. Should we be projecting hologram performances of people who are now dead without having obtained their express consent while they were alive?
The debate will no doubt continue to rage on and will take on new dimensions, literally and figuratively, with the evolution of technologies like deepfake, extremely lifelike VFX, and even wearables.
But how doe these holograms work, and are they really holograms? We take a look below, alongside a list of some of the most prominent names that have been brought back in hologram form.
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How do these "holograms" work?
Technically speaking, the holograms of Michael Jackson, Tupac, and others that you have likely heard of are not really holograms. The definition of a hologram is a three-dimensional projection of diffracted light that retains the depth of the original physical source it is displaying.
The "holograms" that are allowing dead celebrities to perform on stage today are derived from a 200-year-old parlor trick called Pepper's Ghost.
Pepper's Ghost technique uses a reflective pane of glass that is angled towards a booth underneath the stage. Thanks to the glass, the image of actors in the booth are projected on stage with a ghostly translucent quality.
The technique is really a 2D projection that gives the illusion of being a 3D hologram due to the way it is perceived by the audience — go any closer and the image will be squished, much like advertising for TV cameras in football grounds.
For simplicity's sake, and because every company that deals in these illusions calls them holograms, we will also call them holograms for the remainder of the article.
Here are 13 examples of famous people that have been projected in hologram form using an adapted version of the Pepper's Ghost technique, which we will explain below.
Tupac was brought back to life in hologram form largely thanks to the incredible Digital Domain-produced VFX techniques used to age Brad Pitt's character in the film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
As John Textor — CEO of Facebank Group, a company that creates and stores the digital likenesses of celebrities — told the Washington Post, “There would be no Tupac [hologram] unless Dr. Dre ... hadn’t seen ‘Benjamin Button’ and decided he wanted to rap with his friend.”
Digital Domain was brought on board to animate the Tupac hologram that went viral in 2012. Using an actor and body double, they created animations for a lifelike digital likeness of Tupac. Then came Musion Eyline Projections with their adaptation of Pepper's Ghost to project Tupac as a hologram on stage — more on them below.
2. Michael Jackson
The hologram technique conceived by Musion Eyeliner Projections is a modernized version of the Pepper's Ghost technique — which was first shown to the public in 1862 in a stage adaptation of Charles Dickens' The Haunted Man.
Instead of using secret booths, actors, and a glass pane to project images onto a stage, the Musion Eyeliner trick simply utilizes a projector and a thin sheet of mylar to project digital likenesses of real people. So essentially, the hologram technique we know today is a combination of VFX special effects and Pepper's Ghost.
The Musion Eyeliner Projections technology was used in 2014 to project Michael Jackson onstage, allowing him to moonwalk to a track from his posthumously released Xscape album.
3. Roy Orbison
Base Hologram, another company in the hologram business, has progressed the technology even further. While Tupac's and Michael Jackson's reanimations were impressive, the technology behind them wasn't efficient for a touring schedule.
As FastCompany reports, the technology used by Base Hologram is a significant upgrade from Tupac’s Coachella cameo while also being more easily transportable and less bulky, meaning it is ideal for the rigors of an aggressive touring schedule.
That's how the company has started tour schedules for the likes of classic rock'n'roll artists like Roy Orbison.
4. Frank Zappa
Iconoclastic guitar hero Frank Zappa is another one of the famous figures to be revived in hologram form in a tour titled The Bizarre World of Frank Zappa that started last year.
Though he might not be as instantly recognizable as some of the other names on the list, his psychedelic brand of guitar music lends itself surprisingly well to a trippy hologram show.
5. Elvis Presley
Before Tupac's breakout hologram rap duet with Dr. Dre, there came another iconic duet only possible thanks to the modernized Pepper's Ghost technique.
In 2017, Celine Dion wowed audiences of American Idol with a duet of "If I Can Dream" alongside a hologram of Elvis Presley.
6. Amy Winehouse
The planned, and eventually postponed, Amy Winehouse hologram tour highlighted some of the ethical and technical issues surrounding posthumous hologram concerts.
Base Hologram, who had worked on a hologram of the famous London singer, said in a statement that it had encountered “some unique challenges and sensitivities” on the path to “remembering Amy Winehouse and her legacy in the most celebratory and respectful way possible”. The company also cited the challenge of crossing a live band with Winehouse's performing likeness.
Discussions on the ethics of bringing a singer back to the stage who died as recently as 2011 are still taking place.
7. Classical pianist Glenn Gould
Another hologram creation — or abomination depending on who you ask — this time by Eyellusion Productions, who also produced the Frank Zappa hologram tour.
Glenn Gould is largely credited with changing the way LPs were recorded and perceived by the public. By focusing his attention on recording his music rather than performing his visionary interpretations of Bach and other classical maestros in concert, he helped change the perception of LPs — they became considered an art form unto themselves rather than a mere recording of a performance.
Glenn Gould's artistic choices — namely, moving away from concert performances in real-life — arguably makes him an odd choice to resurrect for posthumous live concerts.
8. Maria Callas
Another Base Holograms production, opera star Maria Callas, who passed away in 1977, took to the stage once more as a hologram in 2018.
As the New York Times describes it, Callas makes "the most sense of any of the musical holograms produced so far," because, "more than rock or hip-hop fans — and even more, you could say, than fans of instrumental classical music — opera lovers dwell in the past" and have an "obsessive devotion to dead divas and old recordings."
9. Buddy Holly
Yet another Base Hologram production and another rock'n'roll icon in the — holographic — form of Buddy Holly.
Base Hologram's Martin Tudor further explains the challenges behind taking the Ghost Pepper technique on tour:
“There’s a lot of tension on the screen, like 1,200-pounds-per-inch kind of tension,” Tudor explained to FastCompany. “So you have to set up an enormous structure around that to be able to deal with the tension on the screen. To do a full stage-size screen is doable. It’s just a big undertaking.”
10. Whitney Houston
What helped Base Hologram to improve on the tech and make it tour-ready was the work of a UK-based company that develops a proprietary mesh screen that allows for the setting up and breaking down of the set to be much faster. That's precisely what allowed the company to set up tours rather than one-off gigs.
Perhaps the biggest coup for Base Hologram was the acquiring of the rights to project famed singer Whitney Houston into filled auditoriums. The Whitney Houston tour sees its US premiere on April 14, though the spread of the coronavirus may affect these plans.
11. Ronnie James Dio
Eyellusion developer Chad Finnerty, who made the hologram of heavy metal singer Ronnie James Dio, told Blabbermouth that the "whole process" involved "a lot of computer animation and a lot of hours. We build a digital likeness of the person we're trying to put on stage. Just like you'd have a sculptor working with clay, we have a digital sculptor working with Ronnie."
The process, Finnerty explains, involves styling "his hair digitally — many hours went into making his hair right. We had all the skin details that we had to paint on the computer using programs like Photoshop. A lot of hours went into that. Every bit of stubble on his face. There's a lot of detail, and that's only the beginning. Then we have to animate the whole set."
12. Marylin Monroe
Back in 2012, a concert that featured a hologram of Marilyn Monroe was threatened with legal action by the iconic deceased actress's estate.
As the Hollywood Reporter wrote at the time, Digicon Media, who held copyright on "Virtual Marilyn" and planned to feature the blond actress singing alongside live music stars were being closely monitored by the Monroe estate. If the show took place, the estate was preparing a big lawsuit. It never did take place. We likely won't be seeing a Marilyn Monroe hologram tour any time soon.
13. Ronald Reagan
In October 2018, President Ronald Reagan returned to life at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum as a hologram. The museum worked with Hollywood special effects experts and Hologram USA to bring the holographic presidential museum exhibition to life.
As a statement by the Reagan foundation pointed out, "our Hologram of President Reagan is the first time a Hologram has been created where visitors sit only 12-feet away from the image, creating the need for the Hologram to be photo-realistic."
What do you think about the impending barrage of hologram tours? Is it a fascinating step towards immortalizing some of our most iconic stars, or is it a Frankenstein-style abomination that should be confined to the past? Either way, hologram live-concerts are coming, whether we like it or not.