The record crowd, 66,000 strong, screamed and shook the Houston Astrodome as the superstar appeared on a white, horse-drawn carriage. Selena, in her trademark purple, midriff-baring jumpsuit waved to the adoring fans before stepping onstage and breaking into “I Will Survive.”
It was February 26, 1995, the last televised performance for the Queen of Tejano Music before she was brutally murdered by her fan club president on March 31. Her legions of fans mourned a star cut down in her prime. The Astrodome concert, her final televised appearance, was later released as a DVD under the title “Live! The Last Concert.”
Now, Selena’s family hopes that her opening song in Houston proves prescient and the title of the DVD premature. In April, the Quintanilla family announced a partnership with a Southern California technology firm to develop a digital version of Selena, a groundbreaking hologram that will perform full-length concerts, collaborate with living artists and release new songs.
Selena was 23 when she was savagely shot in the back, and fans probably never imagined two decades of technological advances would make it possible for her to perform again as a hologram.
Despite her immense talent, Selena could be insecure. She would compulsively seek out her father after shows and ask, “How’d I do?” Her greatest fear, despite record-setting album sales and chart-topping hits, was that no one would watch her perform.
The living star proved to be a supernova, a bright light that drew a dedicated following before being coldly smothered. When it comes to hologram concerts though, the question remains: Will people turn out for a digital performer?
The performance that made producers, marketers and celebrity estates take notice was the digital resurrection of Tupac Shakur. On April 15, 2012, 90,000 fans at Coachella erupted when a hologram of ‘Pac materialized onstage with Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg.
“What the fuck is up Coachelllaaaaa!” the shirtless rapper bellowed to the crowd before breaking into a three-song set. It moved and sounded like the real-life Tupac, strutting around the stage, chest heaving with breath, as he spit rhymes and traded one-liners with his compatriots.
In 48 hours the performance was seen 15 million times on YouTube. In the weeks that followed, Tupac album sales skyrocketed 500 percent, and, for the first time in over a decade, his greatest hits album cracked the Billboard 200.
Previous digital performances, such as the Natalie Cole/Nat King Cole duet in 1991 and Celine Dion’s appearance on American Idol with hologram Elvis Presley in 2007, laid the groundwork for the Makaveli mirage.
After Tupac, more followed, especially from the hip-hop ranks. At the 2013 “Rock the Bells” concert event, a digital Old Dirty Bastard joined Wu-Tang Clan onstage, and a digital Eazy-E rocked it with Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. At the 2014 Billboard Music Awards, the technology took another step forward with a performances by digital Michael Jackson, in which the movements, facial features, eyes and other details all were more refined than the Tupac of two years prior.
Denver D’Rozario, a professor of marketing at Howard University who has studied the use of dead celebrities in new media and coined the term “delebs,” says there are myriad reasons why the deceased are attractive to production companies and marketers.
“Most of these celebrities have a loyal fan base that already exists,” he said. “They have established brand equity. It’s like drilling for oil in a place where you don’t know if there’s oil, as opposed to drilling in Saudi Arabia, where you know you’ll get oil everywhere.”
Dead celebrities also don’t get in trouble, torpedoing years of branding by a sponsor, and they come with a built-in image that is easily recognized and identifiable. “Ultimately there is a lot of money to be made using delebs, from endorsing new products to releasing new material — it’s very attractive to the companies involved,” D’Rozario said.
While it has become common to dub these digital performances “holograms,” the term is a misnomer. Technically, a hologram is a 3D recreation of an object that is visible from every vantage point. In practice, however, the digital performers unveiled so far are two-dimensional, can only be viewed from certain perspectives and are created with several light projectors and angled screens using a centuries-old illusion technique called Pepper’s Ghost.
Today’s digital performances marry computer graphics, animation and predictive algorithms with advanced projection technology. Previous projections only worked well in low-light, with dark backgrounds, but new technology has allowed for better viewing in daylight and more flexibility in staging.
In digital animation, a key breakthrough was crossing the “uncanny valley,” a concept first developed by Japanese engineer Masahiro Mori. Humans are naturally keen observers of other humans. When something approaches a human likeness but doesn’t quite get there, the brain feels like it is being tricked and the image is unsettling to the observer. Think of the close but somewhat off animated version of Tom Hanks in Polar Express.
The success of the film Benjamin Button, where audiences accepted a digitally-aged version of Brad Pitt, showed that a realistic digital human could be created that wasn’t creepy to audiences. “That was a big moment,” said John Textor, chairman of Pulse Evolution, the firm behind the Michael Jackson performance at the Billboard awards. Textor also was CEO of Digital Domain Media, the company that worked on Benjamin Button and the Tupac productions before going through a messy bankruptcy in 2012.
Not only did Benjamin Button win the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, it also won for Best Makeup even though the geriatric-looking Brad Pitt was entirely digital.
“Here was this digitally created face, and people thought it was makeup. They were fooled,” Textor said.
There were many failures before that, sometimes public ones. Early on, Textor’s team produced a version of Orville Redenbacher for a commercial that the public found zombie-esque and ridiculed as “Orville Deadenbacher.”
For the Michael Jackson performance the team used dancers equipped with motion capture sensors, film of the real King of Pop and lots of input from those who knew him to refine minute details.
While rehearsing the Billboard performance, Jackson’s family noticed digital Michael looking off to the right at the start of the song, Textor said. It was a nod toward realism — most people don’t stare ahead, unflinching. But, the family found it off. Michael was the consummate performer, they said, he would never break eye contact with the crowd like that.
Pulse Evolution is currently working on the next generation of digital MJ, one that is more realistic when viewed at close proximity, capturing pores on the skin, light reflected in the eyes and the texture of human hair with more detail and precision than ever before. With each new performance and advance in technology, more and more estates are starting to see the potential in resurrecting their own deceased celebrity.
The Selena project, Selena the One, is a partnership between the Quintanilla family and the technology firm Acrovirt, and promises advances in both projection and animation technology.
Acrovirt has teamed with researchers at the University of California San Diego to create, according to the press release, a “digital embodiment” of Selena that will “autonomously learn, act and react as its human donor would.”
“By no means is this something that’s creepy or weird,” Suzette Quintanilla, Selena’s sister, told Billboard about the announcement. “We think it’s something amazing. A lot of the new fans that did not get to experience what Selena was about hopefully will be able to get a sense of her with this new technology that’s going to be coming out.”
The Quintanilla family is providing Acrovirt with video, photos, and other materials, all of which will be used by a series of powerful computers to generate the digital likeness of Selena, including her movements, mannerisms and voice.
Digital Selena will start releasing new songs as early as next year. By 2018, legions of Selena’s devoted fans will be watching her perform live, singing along with hits like “Como La Flor” and “Baila Esta Cumbia” while the star shimmies her hips around the stage. In addition to releasing previously recorded Selena tracks, there are plans to use the digital version of Selena’s voice (built with the catalogue of her interviews and live performances) to record an entirely new song. There will also be a documentary film about the development of the digital Selena.
Additionally, the Selena the One project will include new technology to create a true 3D image, spokesman Abelardo Rodriguez said, but the company is not ready to elaborate on how that will be achieved. The previous digital performances, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to put together, were funded privately. Yet, in another new twist, Selena the One is seeking crowdfunding, $500,000, to help launch the project.
The Indiegogo initiative is a “flexible funding” campaign, so Selena the One will get whatever money is raised whether or not they reach the $500,000 mark. In the first 22 days of the campaign, 176 people pitched in $9,525, only 2 percent of the final goal.
“The project will cost millions of dollars, but the $500,000 will help expedite the process and help cover the costs of production,” Rodriguez said. “The Indiegogo campaign is an alternative to regular venture capital funding that resonates straight with the fan base.”
Fans that pitch in for the project are being offered early access to new tracks, the chance to have their voice inserted as background vocals on a Selena track and other incentives.
To date, every digital performance has been either a single song, or, at most, a handful of songs. In Japan, one of the most successful pop stars is the entirely computer-generated pop singer Hatsune Miku, who has 1.8 million Facebook followers and routinely sells out shows. Creating a whole concert around the digital likeness of a deceased artist, however, has never been attempted.
At Pulse Evolution, Textor and his team are working on an Elvis production, but they have been careful to bill it as a “show” rather than a “concert.”
“I think a concert is about the dumbest thing you could do,” Textor said. “Maybe that seems odd coming from one of the guys bringing this technology to people, but I think the novelty will wear off after two to three songs. You can’t just put digital Elvis out there on a stool with a guitar and expect him to hold the audience’s attention.”
Instead “The King” will be a show about Elvis’ life, incorporating a storyline and both living and holographic characters on stage with him. Those involved with putting on concerts and festivals say it remains to be seen if a hologram can draw a crowd for a 90-minute set or more.
“I think people think it’s cool and there is a novelty aspect to it, but at first blush it seems like something you would find more in a Las Vegas showroom than a concert venue,” said Allen Scott, executive vice president of Another Planet Entertainment, the company behind the Outside Lands and Treasure Island festivals.
“It feels somewhere in between watching a movie and a live show, and there’s something that doesn’t feel authentic about it. It may work for some artists and may not work for others depending on the audience.”
Yet, the chance to see someone like Selena, an artist whose career was cut short, may prove attractive for devoted fans. Ulises Lozano, keyboardist for the Mexican band Kinky, said he was intrigued by the concept.
“I’m a big fan of Selena as well and if you could have her, or say for example The Doors, in a hologram and be able to experience that… that’s a show I would attend,” Lozano said. “At least the people who really, really loved an artist would have the opportunity to see them.”
Michael Caldwell, co-founder of Acrovirt, said he agrees that current technology has run its course, because the images are “not interactive and have nothing new to share.”
The Selena digital embodiment will be interactive the creators say, and come closer to creating the connection with audiences that is essential to a compelling, emotionally moving “live” performance. “It’s part hologram, part avatar, part mystery,” said Rodriguez. “It will learn new dances and songs — it will be adaptive and continue to grow.”
Acrovirt sees digital concerts and performances as the future of entertainment, eclipsing modern, living musicians. A few weeks after launching the funding campaign for Selena the One, Acrovirt announced a partnership with the Jimi Hendrix Foundation to create a digital version of the guitar legend.
“We believe that the best musical artists have either passed away or they’re no longer creating new music,” Acrovirt Co-Founder Terry Kennedy says in a promotional video.
State, not federal, law governs the rights to someone’s likeness. So, while some states recognize a posthumous right to publicity and one’s own image, others don’t. If you die in New York, you cannot pass on your image as an asset, but if you die in California, you can.
“This is is going to continue to be a source of creative and commercial gain,” said Brian Wassom, an attorney specializing in intellectual property rights. “The uses of people’s likenesses will only be limited by the creator’s imaginations. There’s going to be a point where people recognize this needs to be better regulated or it will go too far and people won’t be happy with the results.”
As the technology becomes more prevalent, celebrities are becoming increasingly aware of the need to protect their lasting image. Most recently, Robin Williams included provisions in his will that barred the use of his likeness in films for at least 25 years, making it clear he did not want to be digitally inserted into Mrs. Doubtfire 2.
But artists such as Elvis, Marilyn Monroe or even Selena, who lived at a time when digitally recreating humans seemed liked pure science fiction, never had that opportunity. Recently, a digital Bruce Lee appeared in a commercial for Johnnie Walker Blue Label. Yet, as many people pointed out, the movie star and martial artist was a teetotaler.
“There are issues of authenticity, and the fans will walk away if they feel like this recreation is fake in some way,” said D’Rozario. “Where I see people start getting into shaky ground is when they create brand new material after the celebrity died, that has no ties to the original work or even unfinished work. It raises ethical issues when you essentially alter the persona of the deceased celebrity like in the case of Bruce Lee.”
Legal and ethical minefields aside, the advancements in projection and animation technology have media, production and marketing companies of every sort salivating at the potential applications.
The production companies are already talking about holding multiple concerts in different cities at the same time. Digital artists will collaborate across generations, and improvements in home entertainment could mean 3D performances are beamed straight into your living room.
The applications only begin with concerts. Duane Allman could teach a class on slide guitar. Jay Z could perform a show in London while his digital avatar films a new pitch for Tidal in Los Angeles. One day Bob Marley may pop out of your iPad and sing you a personalized version of “Three Little Birds” as your morning alarm.
“There have been a lot of fence sitters in terms of celebrity estates, but a lot of people were surprised at how little negative reaction there was to the Michael Jackson performance. There is less commentary that this is creepy or shouldn’t happen, and 90 percent or 95 percent of the general audience felt comfortable with it,” Textor said. “In a time where musicians are looking for new ways to survive and make a living off their creativity, their digital likeness is an asset that blows the lid off the ceiling of opportunity.”
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