Earlier this week, Republican National Convention organizers left open a prime time speaking slot just before Mitt Romney’s acceptance speech Thursday night but didn’t say who would fill it. Speculation swirled. Fox News’s Trace Gallagher amplified one idea in particular: “Maybe a hologram of…Ronald Reagan. They can do it now with technology. And the word is, maybe they just put Ronald Reagan up on the screen using a little bit of media magic to have Ronald Reagan endorse.” But the chief creative officer from Digital Domain Productions, the company that “can do it now with technology,” the ones who projected the late Tupac Shakur on stage at this 2012’s Coachella festival rapping alongside the still-living Snoop Dogg, said no one from either political party had approached the company for such a feat. In reality, Thursday night surprise guest Clint Eastwood pretended to talk to President Barack Obama in an empty chair (in retrospect, a hologram seems saner).
It’s a good moment to catch up with Digital Domain’s Ed Ulbrich, one of Fast Company’s Most Creative People 2009, whose Oscar-winning work powered the reverse aging of Brad Pitt in 2008’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Here’s how the movie and the viral sensation of the Tupac feat has helped the company grow in unexpected ways.
FAST COMPANY: Since Tupac took the stage, what sorts of people have approached you for live hologram appearances?
ED ULBRICH: All the major talent agencies and estates of major performing artists, hotels and casinos, cruise lines, major sports franchises, real estate developers, churches.
This is not a new technology. It was Houdini who first did it, right?
No it was not Houdini, I’d actually get it wrong if I’d quote who did it. It’s an illusion called Pepper’s Ghost. It’s basically an old stage illusion we’re doing with modern, state-of-the-art technology, but the principles are effectively the same. We joke around about it being smoke and mirrors–well it is. Pop culture has just kind of grabbed onto this word hologram.
What was it about the Tupac appearance that resonated with people?
When Tupac came along, it was a seismic event in entertainment, a pop culture zeitgeist. Within a week, there were more than 15 million views of the performance on YouTube. Google Trends had Tupac Shakur trending higher than President Obama and Lady Gaga, and he’s been dead for 16 years. Elvis has been done using the same projection technology, with Celine Dion. Yet that didn’t explode like Tupac did. So why Tupac? What was so special?
You basically brought someone back to life?
He’s walking out on stage and performing a duet with Snoop. When I went to the first show, I was watching the audience, and it’s a pretty remarkable thing to see 100,000 people get their minds blown simultaneously. It literally boggles the mind. You see him on the Jumbotron and there’s no doubt that it’s him. This is clearly not an old clip, it’s him, I see him, he’s standing there talking to me.
What’s different when making a hologram for a movie and for making one for a live audience?
Oddly the core DNA of Tupac is actually Brad Pitt from The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The process of our work isn’t that different, except in the movies we’re doing a series of scenes. In the case of a live performance, a man walks out on the stage and performs a song. There’s no takes, there’s no cuts, there’s no scenes. That’s it. For us, the work is creating a synthetic digital human being, which, up until Benjamin Button, was deemed impossible. That was the holy grail of our industry. It was years of perpetual development and tens of millions of dollars of investment on our part to hone this technology before we could even contemplate doing Tupac Shakur at a concert. What took us years on Benjamin Button, took us a couple of months for Tupac.
What’s next in store for the technology?
The business impact that Tupac created, sales just jolted 500% and downloads shot up 1,500%, reinforced the interest across a broad spectrum of entertainment. After Tupac, we were initially learning how to create an immersive experience grounded in music, but now we’re extending that to sports and fashion. Our business is focused on a group of iconic superstar performers that we believe there are clearly audiences for and even an opportunity to introduce these artists to a whole new generation. This is a tribute.
Have you had any push back from families? Has anyone raised ethical concerns?
We’re basically paying tribute to these artists and treating them as if they were living, working closely with the estates and the families to produce programming and content. We’re now oddly in the talent agent business. Coachella was one artist appearing to do two songs in a greater show. Now imagine what you can do in a fixed venue—a hotel casino in Vegas, for example. Imagine if you can merge the best of Broadway, a concert, and a Cirque du Soleil experience while bringing history’s greatest superstars back to life?
If President Obama asked you to create a hologram of Reagan to endorse him at the DNC, could you do it?
We are able to replicate virtually any human being as long as there’s enough documentation and photo material to base our replication on. Would we do it? Right now our focus is apolitical.
[Image: Flickr user Randy Son Of Robert]