Dead celebrities reincarnated as holograms are big business – and, for two startups looking for fame and fortune, a source of untapped millions
A black curtain raises, the sound of a helicopter rotor fades and there he is. Surrounded by body-painted dancers, wearing a gold jacket and sitting on a throne at the centre of an ornate tableau. A flash brings the scene to life before Michael Jackson, five years after his death, makes his way down the steps on to the Las Vegas stage and proceeds to sing and dance his way through a previously unreleased song called “Slave to the Rhythm”.
Lighting picks out the swish of his hair, the tape on his fingers. However momentarily, it’s not difficult to give yourself over to it. To believe that the King of Pop is really, truly back.
The performance, at the 2014 Billboard Music Awards, was the latest in a stream of holograms featuring deceased artists. Just as, two years earlier, Tupac Shakur had been beamed on to the stage at Coachella, here was another computer-generated resurrection to meet with a combination of awe and disquiet. But Jackson’s resurrection nearly didn’t happen that evening. Days before the ceremony, an emergency patent infringement lawsuit was filed against Pulse Evolution, the company behind the performance, accusing it of using technology it didn’t own. A request to cancel was denied by a judge, but in the weeks and months that followed, a heated disagreement erupted between the two firms. The promise of future resurrections – Whitney Houston and Elvis, Billie Holiday, Marilyn Monroe – was delayed as a chaotic power-grab engulfed the fledgling industry.
As “Slave to the Rhythm” ended and the excited crowd rose to its feet, Pulse founder John Textor and his team toasted their success. They had worked for months on a multi-million-dollar gamble and it had paid off.
Then, three days later, Textor turned on his television and saw the man who was trying to sue them telling CNN, and the world, exactly how his company had brought the King of Pop back to life.
Pepper’s Ghost, the joint invention of London-based engineer Henry Dircks and scientist John Henry Pepper, was first shown in an 1862 stage production of Charles Dickens’ The Haunted Man. The illusion is based on a simple but deft piece of visual trickery: an unseen figure in a darkened room is lit and reflected on to an angled pane of glass, to give the impression they are floating on the stage. It’s a low-tech piece of razzmatazz that has since been adapted for modern stage shows (Ghost the Musical) and theme-park attractions (Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion).
As proven by its use in bone-chilling plays and, in one instance, a French conjurer’s sham seances, Pepper’s Ghost provided a vehicle for the Victorian-era obsession with the supernatural. As Dircks himself described it, “Here, then, a means was at once at hand for producing the best possible illustrations of all descriptions of spectral phenomena.”
In the mid-90s, German inventor Uwe Maass patented a derivation of Pepper’s Ghost that replaced cumbersome glass with a tightly stretched translucent foil and a hidden performer with projected high-definition video. Maass established a company called Musion to commercialise the technology. By the mid-noughties, Musion had captured the music industry’s attention: their trickery enabled Madonna to perform alongside animated band Gorillaz at the 2006 Grammy Awards. But it took a modern ghost, in this case a hip-hop icon, to reveal the tech’s true potential.
“Pepper’s Ghost had been around for a long time,” says Textor. “What made that [Coachella performance] unique was Tupac saying, ‘What the fuck is up, Coachella?’ That moment told everybody this was something different. It was new content, not old video. I think that’s primarily responsible for what happened next.”
The Pepper’s Ghost illusion has been deployed on stage for more than 150 years
Blue-eyed and tanned with soft features and a high sweep of chestnut hair, Textor, 52, was once a college room-mate of film director Michael Bay. Despite harbouring dreams of being a dancer, he found his way into the dot-com bubble and, having amassed a sizeable fortune through software investment in the 90s, acquired James Cameron’s visual effects company Digital Domain in 2006. High-profile Hollywood victories followed, most notably Oscar-winning work on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Then, in early 2012, Digital Domain was asked to marshal the animation for Tupac.
For all the focus on the 3D effect of Musion’s projection, it only tells half the story of how the effect is achieved. The other half is the creation of a “digital human”, which involves a physically similar stand-in being filmed wearing motion-capture markers in front of a green screen. From here, visual artists combine data from the body double’s performance with archive live footage and, if available, 3D scans, to create a mutable, computer-generated likeness of the celebrity. Known as facial rigs, these involve meticulous toil – the Tupac team worked round the clock for two months in a room plastered with pictures of the rapper – but when complete, they supply the VFX team with an entire bank of facial movements and expressions to manipulate.
Finally this video is projected on to a mirror at the foot of the stage, then bounced back on to that angled, undetectably thin scrim of reflective material. This pushes the 2D footage into the audience’s field of vision with other elements such as musicians and dancers helping to sell the ruse.
The Tupac performance attracted universal acclaim; Digital Domain won the Titanium Award at the Cannes Lions that year. But the high preceded a sudden plummet in fortune. After years of debt and a disastrous agreement with aggressive creditors, Digital Domain filed for bankruptcy in September 2012. Textor fended off a lawsuit (later settled in his favour) accusing him of cheating taxpayers out of more than $80 million (£57m) in public grants. Meanwhile, Musion’s directors entered into a dispute over a lucrative $10 million contract with Narendra Modi, the prime minister of India.
Musion was placed into administration and put up for sale. Textor prepared a $1 million bid, but Maass wasn’t ready to let go of a valuable patent founded on his innovation. As a contract race was announced in late 2013, Maass sought help to prepare his own rival financial package. And, in a self-styled billionaire famed for a series of notorious pranks, he found his man.
The 4.5m-long mixing desk at The Dub Stage in Burbank, California, where Pulse syncs music to holograms
The sole heir to the Greek-Cypriot Leventis dynasty’s £1.9 billion Coca-Cola bottling fortune, Alkiviades David was born in Lagos, Nigeria in 1968. Ask him how he came to be born in West Africa and he will tell you, without missing a beat, that “[his] mother’s vagina was there”. David is squat with pronounced eyebrows, close-cropped silver-grey hair and arms thick with tattoos. His voice – a newscaster baritone that shuttles between British upper-class and unplaceable European — betrays his attendance of prestigious private schools in the UK (Stowe) and Switzerland (Le Rosey).
In the past, David produced films and worked as an actor. In 2006 he founded FilmOn, an internet TV provider that retransmits recognised channels online for free. He has also pumped money into a number of wheezes (offering $1 million to whoever could streak on camera in sight of then-president Barack Obama, and faking an assisted suicide on his Jackass-ish prank network BattleCam). All are part of what he calls his “master plan”: to affect consciousness.
“Uwe and [Musion director] Giovanni came to me because they didn’t want to sell to Digital Domain,” says David, amid the afternoon burble of the Berkeley Hotel in London. “So I went there, saw the Tupac that they had done and walked over the heads of the other executives to make a deal.”
David, Maass and Palma won the rights to Musion’s patent in September 2013 and soon formed a new company, Hologram USA. David boasts that he’s invested $25 million in it.
Ever the showman, David wasted no time in approaching celebrity estates and promising potential hologram hit shows with late stars such as Amy Winehouse and Liberace, Richard Pryor and Buddy Holly. There were tangible successes to match the bluster, too. Musion’s Modi broadcast – which saw the Indian premier simultaneously materialise in 53 villages to deliver a 2012 re-election campaign speech – made the Guinness Book of Records in 2013 and was repeated in 2014.
By this time, Textor had already established Pulse Evolution and recruited former facial animators from Digital Domain. They began quietly working on a digital performance involving Jackson. Then came the Billboard Music Awards performance, the ensuing court case and David’s audacious appearance on CNN.
While Textor and Pulse’s attorneys argued, among other things, that Pepper’s Ghost’s 19th-century origins planted it in the public domain, David held firm. “They took our patent and just turned it upside down,” he says, incredulously. “It was reverse engineering.”
Things got personal. Textor, in leaked correspondence, accused David of starting “world war three”. David made his anger public, posting a photo of Hitler on Instagram and tagging Textor, uploading gun-toting images captioned “Come at me bro”. Textor filed for a protection order, ultimately denied, in which he cited harassment and cyberstalking.
Pulse Evolution CEO Jordan Fiksenbaum (left) and founder John Textor
Today, both parties see the result of their court battle (Pulse reached a confidential settlement in March 2016) as a form of vindication. “We won the initial ruling [where] he tried to stop the show [without] any evidence,” says Textor, evenly. “But where [Hologram USA] ultimately won was that it looked like a case that might go for a century, so we decided to settle.”
“We caught them red-handed, they settled, we won,” says David with relish. “Pulse doesn’t do what we do. Apart from Michael Jackson, which was a fiasco, they haven’t produced a single fucking thing.” Equally, David dismisses the notion that the court battle may have had an adverse effect on Hologram USA’s planned rollout of shows.
Now, when David is not reeling off potential subjects for resurrection – “We’ve got Tammy Wynette, Patsy Cline, the Jackson 5, Bernie Mac. Hendrix I had to walk away from because the estate is a mess…” – he’s also talking up Hologram USA’s potential for expansion. “We’re rolling this technology and the shows we’re creating into 150 North American theatres right now,” he says. “We’ve got a couple of things in the works to open up with some large theatre chains as well. So it may go from 150 to 2,000 or 3,000 in a very short time.”
David appears unfazed by Pulse’s own agreements with high-profile acts – it is working on an Elvis Presley show and, as part of a deal with Simon Fuller, an ABBA hologram show set to tour in 2019. The reason soon becomes apparent. “John Textor got kicked out of his own company,” he tells me, with a smile. “He’s gone, he’s out.”
Hologram USA founder Alkiviades David at his LA home
Six weeks after David’s revelation, in summer 2017, I pin down Textor for another conversation. “I’m still a shareholder but I resigned,” he admits. It transpires that, in July 2017, Textor quietly stepped aside from his role as Pulse’s chairman, in part so Jordan Fiksenbaum, a former VP of marketing for Cirque du Soleil, could become Pulse’s CEO. “Since I’m a technology guy, it’s the right thing to bring in somebody who knows how to put butts on seats.” There may well be more to Textor’s departure than he’s willing to admit. But he still advises Pulse and is openly disparaging about Hologram USA’s Pepper’s Ghost-focused vision for the future of digital humans.
“Yeah, there’s that moment when you get that holographic feel of, OK, he’s floating in space, somebody is dancing in front and behind,” he says. “But after a couple of those gags? You can’t make a show out of that.”
Undeterred, there are plenty of other resurrectionists hoping that live performances by holograms can attract large audiences. Roy Orbison: In Dreams is touring the UK this month. Eyellusion, a rival Pepper’s Ghost startup headquartered a 20-minute drive from Hologram USA’s office, is planning a tour that will bring back Frank Zappa.
And, of course, there’s David, exploring new uses for his hard-won patent. And he is ready for a fight with anyone who encroaches on what he feels is his turf. “I’ve got seven years left on my patent and Pepper’s Ghost is not public fucking domain,” he says. “[They’re] going to get sued the moment [their] feet hit the ground.”
It’s September 2017, two months after our first meeting, and David steps from the interior of his company’s Hollywood theatre into the California sunshine. Striding quickly down the Walk of Fame, he barrels past an employee’s attempts to placate him and catches up with his target: a stage rigger called Kyle who he has just fired. Fingers are jabbed and words are traded but, ultimately, an agreement is reached. David rehires Kyle and the pair troop back underneath the throbbing screens of the video marquee, back into the darkness.
The venue is a 200-seater former adult cinema on Hollywood Boulevard that’s envisioned as the flagship for Hologram USA’s global chain. In just over 24 hours, David is due to host a gala opening. But they are behind schedule: huge boxed UHD screens clog the lobby, wires dangle from the ceiling and inside the seatless auditorium the buzz of power tools can still be heard.
When David re-emerges, he smiles and invites me to hop in his car so we can talk further. “Everything in my life is dust at the moment,” he jokes, brushing remnants of terracotta powder from the interior of his convertible Rolls-Royce.
“We don’t have an army of bodies, so I need to lead by example,” he adds. Plugging in his iPhone, he makes a series of calls relating to tomorrow’s planned premiere. “‘Try’ doesn’t mean anything to me,” he says to one worker. “What will it take to have this ready?”
The whole affair finally peaks as David threatens an underling with both a termination and a lawsuit, then stumbles upon a solution to the production conundrum they had been discussing, and eventually signs off the call with a cheery, “OK, brother.”
Hologram USA has created a 40-minute-long Billie Holiday concert
“There’s definitely a creep factor to Pepper’s Ghost,” says Jeff Jampol from behind the desk in his West Hollywood office, his 2011 Grammy Award for Best Music Film glinting on a nearby shelf. “Whenever you screw with nature and create something – whether it’s GMO food or talking sex dolls – you’re going to get a reaction.” He rocks his chair from side to side. “But we want a reaction.”
Two metres tall with tightly bundled curly hair, Jampol, 59, looked after punk bands in the late 70s, survived heroin addiction in the 80s, and went on to set up Jam Inc, his “legacy management” company, in the 90s. With a client list that includes The Doors, Janis Joplin, the Ramones and Otis Redding, Jampol is one of a number of handlers who have carved out a thriving sub-industry that uses licensing, social media, documentaries, exhibitions and more to boost the earning potential of dead celebrities. (Michael Jackson’s estate – the exemplar in this world – has made nearly $1 billion since his death in 2009.)
But, while Jampol looked after Tupac’s estate at the time of the Coachella performance and has met David, he has misgivings about holograms as an alternative to live performance.
“The potential that a digital human holds is fascinating,” he says. “But Pepper’s Ghost is what I consider to be the lowest iteration of the technology. You can’t move around it, it can’t interact with you other than from a distance. It’s the equivalent of a used VHS tape.”
Not all estate handlers share Jampol’s reservations. But, as long as deceased stars continue to be the focus of virtual shows, brand managers and their estates hold all the cards.
“We’re a hyper-realistic human animation company, which is why we have these relationships with Elvis, with Marilyn, with Michael Jackson,” says Textor. “There has only been one company that has demonstrated the ability to make major estates comfortable that they can protect the likeness of the celebrity. And Pulse is a company that does not talk about these shows until they happen.”
One example of how things can go wrong is Hologram USA’s widely publicised Whitney Houston global tour. Announced in 2015, the resurrection was scuppered after preview footage – a duet between Christina Aguilera and a revived Houston set to feature in the 2016 finale of The Voice – leaked.
“We hadn’t digitally composited the face yet and NBC freaked out,” says David, acknowledging the widely disseminated clip of Aguilera gamely performing alongside a projection of a somewhat fuzzy Houston lookalike. The clip faced widespread derision and prompted the late singer’s estate to pull the deal. Continuing the holography industry’s theme of near-constant litigation, Hologram USA issued the Houston estate with a breach of contract lawsuit in July 2017.
The ethics of posthumous recreations are, like a flickering hologram, fuzzy. In 2013, a Johnnie Walker advert starring a digitally recreated version of Bruce Lee – a lifelong teetotaller – showed how resurrections can distort the sense of who someone was. And the CGI-wary stipulations in a deed filed by Robin Williams before his 2015 death (his image cannot be inserted into a new film, used commercially or as a hologram, until 2039) perhaps show that more celebrities are considering the implications of this new immortality.
“It’s very complex,” says Tim Webber, Oscar-winning chief creative officer of Framestore, the British VFX house that created a CGI Audrey Hepburn for a 2013 commercial. “I certainly think that if I was an actor like Peter Cushing I’d like the chance to reappear in a global franchise after my death [a virtual Cushing appeared in 2016’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story]. But having said that, it all depends on the circumstances, how it’s executed and for what reason.”
“I have to be careful,” admits Jampol. “Janis [Joplin] and Jim [Morrison] aren’t here to speak for themselves, so I stand in their stead, with their families, and speak for them.” Textor says Pulse takes a case-by-case approach. “Jackson already had a 3D scan of his body so he was exploring his likeness in ways other celebrities weren’t,” he says. “We, and his estate, were comfortable that it was something he was trending towards. It’s always a delicate thing, done with the family. We’re not going to have, like, Elvis hawking marshmallows or something.”
Pulse Evolution’s Michael Jackson appearance at the 2015 Grammy Awards
Back in Los Angeles, it’s the night of Hologram USA’s ribbon-cutting. Everything is running at least an hour late and reality star Janice Dickinson is shivering by the hastily gaffer-taped red carpet, but the show is finally about to start. Invited guests, who will hopefully soon be replaced by customers paying $29.95 a ticket, spill out on to the street. Inside, the air is thick with the skunky scent of hemp-oil-topped vegan popcorn. Billy Zane, a friend of David’s, mills around the foyer, resplendent in flat cap, sailor stripes and a shoulder-draped sweater. The lights go down.
The short preview flits from the magical (a revived Jackie Wilson dancing; comedian Jon Lovitz shooting lasers from his fingers; eerily realistic puffs of smoke from a chain-smoking magician) and the baffling (a prolonged MMA fight broadcast from within an oval frame that kills the illusion).
There are unfortunate technical problems too, and it also appears that the revived performers – who lack the visible animation of Tupac or Michael Jackson – are VFX-free lookalikes. (When asked later to clarify this, David replied: “Our experts use all the tools at their disposal, including CGI, in our celebrity resurrection holograms.”) More than anything, it begs the question: why, beyond the initial novelty, people would stump up to see a projected image of a working stand-up comedian when a living, breathing comedian telling jokes is no more than a taxi ride away?
After the show, David lingers near the exit. Four hours earlier, he had seemed a man possessed as he barked orders into a walkie-talkie and even commandeered a scissor lift to install speakers himself. Now, he appears muted and wrung out by the adrenalin rush of the evening. There are curses aimed at malfunctioning equipment (“The satellite link-up didn’t work, we only had one projector so we couldn’t do Billie Holiday”) but there’s also optimism about the future.
And the mix of entertainment planned for Hologram USA’s first screenings, a 40-minute Billie Holiday performance augmented by live comedy and the burlesque-heavy Sexy Hollywood Freakshow, perhaps indicates that, through accident or design, David’s plan for the future has shifted. Many of the shows he has discussed – Bernie Mac, the Jackson 5, Liberace – are either billed as “coming soon” on Hologram USA’s website or completely absent.
“The lowest hanging fruit is resurrections,” he explained to me in London. “The controversy of bringing somebody back from the dead sparks conversation, but the future is Wimbledon live in Times Square, the latest greatest boxing match live at your local cinema.”
Textor, David’s old nemesis, also sees an application for holograms that isn’t tethered to the IP of a celebrity estate. “We used Michael Jackson to teach the world more about the utility of digital humans than I could do at a thousand trade shows,” he says. “Digital humans delivering information, a maths teacher that travels on a flash drive and never gets an answer wrong. Some really big things came out of that night.”
However, it’s the Jackson show that people talk about. Jackson, leaping from the frame of a shimmering picture. In the 19th century, Dircks and Pepper’s invention was applied to many things, but it was ghosts people wanted and ghosts they got. Their 15-month Pepper’s Ghost installation at the London Polytechnic made the modern-day equivalent of more than £1 million.
Whether it’s Pulse, Hologram USA or some other hologram startup that eventually prospers, the urge to bring people back has always predated the technology to do it.
Nostalgia is big business. But immortality? As Jeff Jampol said back in his office, where the late Rick James’s guitar sits propped up by his open door: “I don’t think this technology meets the test yet, but there’s an old Jim Morrison quote that I’ll leave you with,” he smiles and permits himself a showman’s pause, “‘Money beats soul, every time.’”