After the buzzworthy performance by the Tupac Shakur “hologram” at Coachella 2012, producers of the illusion frothed with speculation about and promises of the holo-zombie pop apocalypse to come. “This is just the beginning,” promised Ed Ulbrich, chief creative officer for the company that had designed the display. Dr. Dre, whose original idea it was to create the digital performance, began discussing plans to tour 2.0Pac, as well as using the same technology to resurrect other dead pop stars, including Jimi Hendrix and Marvin Gaye, and officials at Musion Systems, the London company that created the projection technology, voiced hopes in the press to create “hologram” versions of Kurt Cobain, Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston (who had just passed away two months prior to the 2.0Pac premiere), even pairing a digital Elvis Presley with (shudder) the real Justin Bieber.
Thankfully, frankly, little of that materialized, so to speak. The most we’ve gotten were last summer’s resurrections of two more dead rappers, Eazy-E and ODB, as a centerpiece of the Rock the Bells tour, plus occasional oddities, such as X-Japan’s Yoshiki using the tech this month to perform a piano duet with himself.
A lawsuit filed last week, however, has revived more Barnum-esque barking about death-defying concerts to come.
According to an exclusive report by The Hollywood Reporter, Musion has joined with Alki David — the billionaire behind FilmOn, a pre-Aereo TV streaming service — in a claim filed against Cirque du Soleil and MGM Resorts “for allegedly infringing patents to create a hologram used in the final scene of ‘Michael Jackson: One,’ the resident acrobatic production at Mandalay Bay Theatre in Las Vegas.” The report says David “recently bought the exclusive license to Musion’s patent and has started up a company called Hologram USA with a showroom at the FilmOn Studios on Canon Drive in Beverly Hills.” (A showroom, perhaps, but no website to be found.)
David claims to have already inked an agreement for a concert featuring Flo Rida with a holo-Amy Winehouse, and that “many other shows are coming,” as well as more lawsuits. (Amy Winehouse’s father, who controls the rights to the deceased singer’s likeness, quickly called b.s. on this.)
It’s a curious lawsuit in how it defines the infringement, allowing that Cirque and MGM can “employ the technology to create a three-dimensional hologram of Michael Jackson” but that they “do not possess a valid license to practice that technology.” Musion co-founder James Rock has explained before that, while Pepper patented his own technique back in the 19th century (Pepper’s ghost is an old theater illusion now updated with better, more transparent screens and brighter, more accurate projectors), Musion’s patents are “process patents” based on their method of sizing, arranging, and rigging the projection system.
My thesis research into this kind of digitally projected pop performance centered on interviews with some of the creators and designers of virtual pop stars, including Michel Lemieux, one of the artistic designers of the “Michael Jackson: One” holo-presentation. Lemieux has utilized the Pepper’s ghost technique in critically acclaimed productions, such as “NORMAN,” his 2007 tribute to Norman McLaren, and his 2005 interpretation of “The Tempest,” back to “Orfeo” (1998) and “Poles” (1996). He and partner Victor Pilon, at Lemieux.Pilon 4D Art, were called in to direct the illusion at the end of the Jackson show, which premiered in July 2013 at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas. During the performance, Jackson (who died in 2009) appears during a performance of his single “Man in the Mirror.”
What I found intriguing in Lemieux’s project here is the expanded artistry brought to the technology — allowing it to do something more than merely prop up a dead singer on stage again. Speaking with me a month after the show opened, Lemieux used this particular illusion to explain his mixed-reality mission statement:
We have a different approach. When they did Tupac, it was a very documentary way to do it: This is Tupac, he appears, and it’s like one long sequence. The way we do it is we kind of developed an artistic language using this kind of technology and, for example, Michael Jackson appears, but he disappears and reappears in other people, and there’s a definite artistic concept behind it.
... So it’s this idea that the spirit of Michael Jackson is in all of us. He appears with a magical touch, actually — not just making him appear. And I think Cirque du Soleil wanted something more than Tupac, which was really basic in appearance. It’s been the same thing with the Japanese pop stars. They appear — and that’s it. I think we developed a language really because, behind the trick, the illusion in itself is interesting, but if you create an emotion with it then it becomes much more interesting. People see Michael Jackson, but they are touched not just because he’s there but because he’s on stage with other people, with us.
Even with virtual pop stars created from the ground up, such as Hatsune Miku and the other Vocaloid idols in Japan, their appearance as embodied agents on stage is exciting up to a point. Where the thrill comes is when they do what only (simulated) holograms can do — when Miku sprouts wings, when she changes costumes in the blink of an eye, when twins Rin Kagamine and Len Kagamine appear on stage by simultaneously stepping out of the same physical space. It's not enough that they're human-ish; we know they're not (for now), so they must be a little more. Seeing Jackson again is a fleeting thrill, but crafting his embodied image into an artistic statement is something else entirely — a new level of human likeness as artistic medium.
However this new lawsuit pans out, here’s hoping the future of virtual performance is more art, less carnival sideshow.
I'm THOMAS CONNER, Ph.D. in Communication (Science Studies) and culture journalist.