Roy Orbison, spotlight shining on his signature sunglasses, steps up to the microphone and starts singing, “Oh, Pretty Woman.” With this 1964 sexy, chart-topping hit, the Caruso of Rock, playing his flaming-red guitar and backed by a live orchestra, drives the audience wild. On another stage, legendary opera star Maria Callas is recreating a scene from her 1964 Paris performance in the title role of Carmen. Clad in a white gown and a flowing, floor-length, blood-red scarf, in Act III she consults the tarot cards to foretell the fate of her and her star-crossed lover. When they cast their death spell, she tosses them into the air, where they stay suspended for a second before floating down around her like weeping raindrops.
Orbison’s and Callas’ performances are exciting and nothing short of extraordinary given the fact that they have taken the stage from beyond the grave. Their fan-pleasing appearances have been made possible by a new kind of “live entertainment,” whose two-dimensional stars, produced with computer-generated imagery and holographic-like technology, interact with live performers.
“The shows are a visceral combination of special effects that tell a story,” says Alki David, founder and CEO of Hologram USA, which opened the first theater in Hollywood, California, dedicated to the genre in December 2017. “People get a sense of theater and movies combined.”
These tribute acts with a technological twist are paving the way for a medley of iconic revivals that have been relegated to recordings buried in history and the failing memories of aging fans.
“We have already replaced live musicians in many venues,” says Professor Todd Richmond, director of the mixed-reality lab at the USC Institute for Creative Technologies. “This is the next logical step—replacing the star.”
The idea may seem novel, but in the age of Alexa, where in-person communication has been shunted backstage by text messages and social media posts, and music is all about streaming and stagecraft, it’s becoming a big hit. No fan fantasy lineup, apparently, is too far-fetched to come to fruition. You never got to go to a Beatles live concert? No problem, the Fab Four can be reunited, even though John Lennon and George Harrison have been dead for decades. And they can be revived to play with their live mates, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, or with their two-dimensional likenesses.
Or what about Elvis Presley rocking the night away with Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry? Wouldn’t that be an awesome blast from the past! Or how about a Judy Garland-Michael Jackson duet, where they moonwalk together? This one’s a cinch—Jackson, who died in 2009, already made a stunning holographic appearance at the 2014 Billboard Music Awards, where he sang “Slave to the Rhythm” augmented with 16 live dancers. Frank Zappa, who performs with some of his real-life band mates, Black Sabbath front man Ronnie James Dio, soul singer Jackie Wilson, and four-time Grammy winner Billy Holiday are among the long-gone stars who have already made miraculous comebacks—and won over a new generations of fans.
Concerts are a prime venue for this technology, Richmond says, “because music is the low-hanging fruit—it is the common language.”
Although the shows are new, the technology they are based on has been around for centuries. Brian Becker, founder and CEO of BASE Entertainment and BASE Hologram, likens the shows’ cinematic techniques to the sleight of hand magicians use to create their illusions. The shows may look spontaneous, but they are precisely scripted—Orbison’s guitar has to be in sync with the live orchestra, and Callas’ cards have to fall on the right beat. And more importantly, the stars have to look, sound, and act like their real counterparts because, of course, that’s who audiences are paying to see.
Although these computer-generated characters typically are referred to as holograms, technically, they are not. Holograms, reproduced by light, are three-dimensional. Orbison, Callas, and the other revived stars, who exist in only two dimensions, are technically Pepper’s Ghosts, which are produced with angled glass. “The reflections make them look like they are floating in thin air,” Richmond says. “The current versions are high-end refinements.”
The images, which are generated on computer, are derived from real-life film footage and models. BASE, for example, hires actors and actresses to impersonate the stars, and based on their imitative movements, uses computer-generated imagery to create what it calls an “exact representation.” Eyellusion, another pioneering hologram entertaining company, uses computer models to create its hologram-like figures. “It takes thousands of hours of time and lots of reviews for it to feel like it’s authentic,” says Eyellusion CEO Jeff Pezzuti.
Of course, recreating the star is only one part of the process. Rights to use the image and recordings must be procured. The hologram shows are designed to complement conventional concerts, and some living stars, who are weary of world tours, already are expressing interest in having their holograms perform in their place. “It’s another form of entertainment,” Becker says. “It won’t replace live concerts just as TV didn’t replace movies.”
It’s also quite a bit less expensive than putting on a live concert, primarily because there’s no need to pay the star an enormous fee to appear on stage, and the form is adaptable to large and small venues. Touring can be done on a daily basis in cities simultaneously around the world. Hologram USA, which charges $29 for a 30-minute show and holds nine screenings a day in its 200-seat theater, is franchising the idea and has plans to open its shows in theaters around the world.
The ancient illusion used to create today’s up-to-date musical-revival “ghosts” is called, appropriately enough, Pepper’s Ghost. First described in 1584 by the Italian scientist Giambattista della Porta, it gets its ethereal name from John Henry Pepper, professor at the Royal Polytechnic Institute in London in the 19th century.
In 1862, he observed a demonstration in which inventor Henry Dircks conjured a ghost out of thin air. Pepper modified the technique to make it commercially viable for the theatre, where it had its debut in Charles Dickens’ The Haunted Man.
It’s not a particularly complicated trick, especially when you understand how it works. Two rooms—one in full view of onlookers and one hidden—are divided by a plate of glass, Plexiglas, or plastic film positioned at an angle, generally 45 degrees, so that it reflects the view of the hidden room toward the audience.
When the lights in the revealed room are bright and those in the hidden room dark, no reflected image may be seen.
But when the lighting is reversed and controlled with a dimmer-like switch, the reflection becomes visible, and the objects in the hidden room seem to float in the air like ghosts.
In some variations, two hidden rooms—one behind the glass and one to the side—are used. Each becomes visible or invisible by varying the lighting.
When the hidden room is a Mirror image of the main room, their reflected images match, making objects seem to appear or disappear or one person appear to morph into another.
When the hidden room is painted black and furnished with light objects, only the objects will be reflected in the light, producing ghostly images that look like they’re suspended in the air.
“We have 30-plus shows in production,” David says. “Our goal is to show the shows we produce and host live performers who can beam themselves to many venues, at once as we’ve done for Jimmy Kimmel and Jack Black.”
With holograms, there are no limits to what the star can do, which opens the door for cinematic spectacles never before seen on stage. “We intend to create incredible shows,” Pezzuti says. “There always will be a lot of ‘wow’ moments.”
Although the current shows, which feature legends primarily from the 1960s through the 1980s, are geared toward older audiences, millennials who are animated by the technology also are attending. They, after all, have grown up watching computer-generated imagery in their favorite Hollywood movies. The continuing Star Wars film franchise has made them familiar with Princess Leia’s apparitional appeal to Obi-Wan Kenobi in the 1977 original. And the miraculous resurrection of Carrie Fisher and British actor Peter Cushing in the 2016 Rogue One prequel enthralled an entirely new audience.
“This will become commonplace,” Richmond says, citing Paul Walker’s after-death appearance via scans and a body double in 2015’s Fast and Furious 7. “Actors’ faces and bodies already are being scanned for computer-generated imagery so films can be completed if something happens to them.”
Clearly, the live-entertainment shows are only the warm-up acts. Producers are already working on educational applications for museums and entertainment venues like cruise ships, and scientists envision surgical and other medical applications. Richmond’s lab recently helped create an interactive holographic exhibition for the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City that allows visitors to ask questions of Holocaust survivors in real time. And one of BASE’s new shows features dinosaur authority Jack Horner in a holographic adventure that immerses viewers in the prehistoric world.
The educational opportunities are endless. Imagine inviting Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, or Martin Luther King to give lectures to elementary schoolchildren. Perhaps Albert Einstein could stop by to give a science lesson, and Mark Twain could grade a few English essays. And as technology gets more sophisticated, it is inevitable that the captivating screen images will morph into true 3-D holograms. In fact, a team from Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah has developed a way to create these images using lasers. Right now, they are too small to project in theaters. Yet the music industry, which has a history of embracing change, is the perfect platform for holographic entertainment to get its foothold.
“Technology and music go hand in hand—think of eight tracks, then CDs, then music downloads,” Pezzuti says.
Eyellusion, which recently raised $2 million in funding, makes its models in 3-D and 5K resolution, although they are unsupported by current technology. But when imaging does catch up, “all we’ll have to do is plug and play,” Pezzuti says. By that time, it’s likely that individuals will be running the shows, entertaining themselves and their friends with private performances by their idols—wouldn’t it be cool to invite Taylor Swift to entertain at your daughter’s Sweet Sixteen, all with the tap of a smartphone app?