In 2016, Whitney Houston was schedule to perform during the season 10 finale of The Voice—four years after her death. The stunt was supposed to be a duet with then-judge Christina Aguilera, but five days before the finale, Houston’s estate pulled the plug.
“We were looking to deliver a groundbreaking duet performance for the fans of both artists,” Pat Houston, executor of the estate and Houston’s sister-in-law, said in a statement at the time. “Holograms are new technology that take time to perfect, and we believe with artists of this iconic caliber, it must be perfect. Whitney’s legacy and her devoted fans deserve perfection. After closely viewing the performance, we decided the hologram was not ready to air.”
Fast-forward four years, and it would appear the technology is finally up to snuff for Houston, or some version of her, to hit the stage once again.
An Evening with Whitney kicked off this week featuring a hologram of Houston performing her greatest hits accompanied by a live band. Production company Base Hologram has a proven track record of bringing legacy acts back to life, with successful concert tours of Roy Orbison, Buddy Holly, and opera diva Maria Callas.
However, Houston’s tour is undoubtedly one of the bigger, and more controversial, concerts that Base has produced.
Once the oohs and aahs of Tupac’s 2012 Coachella hologram performance died down, the question of ethics immediately sprang up: Even with an estate’s blessing, is it okay for the likenesses of deceased artists to perform? What’s more, not that much time has passed since Houston’s death, which can make a tour like this feel like an unhealed wound being opened again. To that end, Base actually had a tour lined up featuring Amy Winehouse in 2019, but postponed it due to “unique sensitivities.”
Some argue these hologram concerts are nothing short of “ghost slavery,” while others counter that posthumous holograms are no less ethical than the now standard practice of pushing out unreleased music following an artist’s death or even surfacing clips online of past performances.
An Evening with Whitney director Fatima Robinson falls squarely in the latter category.
“I think Whitney’s presence was with us when we were shooting, and I think her knowing that I was involved and her family was there would have made her proud,” Robinson says when we spoke last year for a feature on Base and the hologram concert phenomenon. “To me, this is about remembering Whitney’s body of work, and it’s just like putting on a DVD of her performance and enjoying it—except with this you really feel like she’s back on that stage in front of you.”
Robinson, who began her career as a choreographer for the likes of Michael Jackson, Rihanna, and Aaliyah, has branched out over the years into directing music videos (Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass,” The Black Eyed Peas’ “My Humps”) and doing creative direction for live events including the Grammys, Super Bowl halftime shows, and the American Music Awards. She even choreographed Tupac’s Coachella performance. However, even though she wasn’t walking in completely blind to the experience, it was still unfamiliar terrain given how far Base’s technology has pushed hologram performances.
Instead of employing the old magician’s trick Pepper’s Ghost, à la Tupac, Base uses body doubles and CGI face mapping to create its stars. The image is then projected onto a screen using a military-grade digital laser. The result: The kind of technological advancement Houston’s estate was looking for back in 2016.
“I knew Whitney Houston and I loved her, so I wanted to be involved to make sure it was done right,” Robinson says. “We needed someone who had the essence of Whitney and her frame, that long body/ballet type. On top of that the person really had to embody Whitney’s elegance. It was tough, because we found performers who had some elements, but not all. It had to all click both creatively and conceptually.”
As advanced as Base’s technology is, there are still some limitations. For example, the projected image can move across the stage but can’t walk up stairs.
“There are also other obstacles like wardrobe. We would find these amazing outfits that reminded me of Whitney, and then we’d go to shoot and they wouldn’t work,” Robinson says. “Some would be see-through, so [they] wouldn’t appear right. In some cases everything worked but the beads and sequins. So many good outfits didn’t work on camera.”
Ultimately, Robinson believes she and Base have done Houston’s legacy proud. The conversation around “ghost slavery” does bear some valid points, but, in Robinson’s esteem, it comes down to the technology and creative vision matching the level of the artist in question in order for older generations to relive her artistry and newer generations to discover it for the first time in such an innovative format.
“There is a whole generation, including my son, who never had the chance to see Whitney perform, and it was important to me that they get that chance,” she says. “I think this is a great way to honor her work and let people fall in love with her again.”