Watch: Tupac hologram at Coachella -- you've seen the footage. Here's how it was done

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By now you've seen Tupac's performance with Snoop Dogg last night at Coachella. The legendary rapper was brought back to life by Dr. Dre's production company, in collaboration with Digital Domain, James Cameron's digital production company, and AV Concepts, a company based in Tempe, Arizona, using a Musion Eyeyliner projection systems. The late rapper was brought back to life employing a theatrical illusion known as Pepper's Ghost.

Update (4/16/12): The Wall Street Journal has shed a little bit more light on the process. In a piece posted this afternoon, Digital Domain's Chief Creative Officer, Ed Ulbrich, revealed: "This is not found footage. This is not archival footage. This is an illusion." Among other insights to be gleaned from Ulbrich's chat with WSJ: There's reportedly potential for a tour, and Dr. Dre evidently first approached Digital Domain about year ago about working together.

In essence, the process involves taking high-def images and projecting them onto Mylar film that is positioned at a 45 degree angle to create images that appear to be three-dimensional: "You're driving down the freeway, and you have a pack of cigarettes laying on the dash of your car," explains Nick Smith, AV Concept's co-founder, "reflects up and it looks like the cigarettes are floating above your hood in front of you. It's a light technology with a reflective technology. The light reflects the image back into something that makes it look like it's standing up. Your windshield raised at an angle like that creates that same effect."

In 2005, Gorillaz teamed up with comic book artist Jamie Hewlett, who created the band's graphic alter-egos, and Passion Pictures, to become one of the first (if not the first) musical acts to use the technology at that year's MTV Europe Awards, before making another appearance the following year at the Grammys, which also featured a virtual Madonna.

While last night's resurrection of Tupac is the first posthumous performance many folks have seen, in 2006, the U.K.-based company SquareZero Ltd., who itself first started working with the technology in 2006, similarly brought Frank Sinatra back to life to perform as a gift for Simon Cowell on his 50th birthday, in addition to breathing life back into the late Paul Arden at Cannes in 2010, and animating Christina Aguilera in February of last year for a fragrance line.

This morning, we caught up with Smith, who co-founded AV Concepts in 1987 with Fred Mandrick, to find out more about the process of bringing Tupac back to life last night, how the whole thing came together and what AV Concept's involvement was in the project. While there were some specifics he simply couldn't divulge, he did give us some great insights. Page down to see what he had to say.

Westword: My understanding is that Dr. Dre's production company commissioned AV Concepts to produce the Tupac performance piece for Coachella. Is that the case, and if so, how did the whole thing come together?

Nick Smith: Well, our relationship with Dre, some of that is confidential. We can't talk about it. But actually, Dr. Dre's production company produced the event, and we executed the technology.

How long did the process take from conception to rendering, like how many man hours would you estimate that it took?

Given that there were several different entities involved with the production on it, I couldn't speak to how many man hours total it was, because Dre's team of production people, and he obviously utilized Digital Domain and the groups that he works with. So our man hours, we probably have about three months of time into this project.

When did you guys get commissioned to oversee the project?

Probably about three months ago.

What was your involvement with the process, like what was your [role]? Was it rendering, or, like, what was your involvement in the project?

Our involvement was we helped with the technical specifications and the design and the usage of the technology.

So were you actually involved in the animation and that sort of thing, or was it kind of a partnership?

Uh, no, the content, like I say, that was Dr. Dre's production company that created the content, and we consulted with them on usage of it and how to utilize the content in this production.

So you acted more in a consultant type role?

We were consult for the use of the material, and then we actually designed and executed the physical set-up and made it work.

Well, now, you guys have the Musion Theater there in San Diego, right?

Yes, we do.

And the technology that was used -- my understanding -- is the Musion Eyeliner technology - is that correct?

Yes, Musion Eyeliner, and it was utilized on a staged and several other stages that we... We do a lot of corporate work and entertainment work, and we've utilized it in many different applications. This is the first time it's been utilized in a large outdoor event.

You guys have also done indoor events. For example, you've reanimated and done this sort of thing before on a - in a situation where you had four members performing at once, but that was indoor, correct?

That was indoor, correct.

You had one person that was onstage in Orlando and one that was, like, real time in London, is that correct?

Yeah, on our website is where you may have seen that or it might've been out somewhere, but we describe the technology on our website, and that application that you're talking about, that's the example that we use.

Is it similar to that, in terms of how this was executed at Coachella?


So the process itself -- any of the creative portions of it, like the footage and that sort of thing, was it archived footage for the performance? Was it archived performance footage of Tupac [as opposed to being re-created with a body-double] that was utilized for the performance?

Here again, that's proprietary information that you'd have to talk to Dr. Dre on that, to see if he'd like to release that.

Okay. How did you come to work with Digital Domain, and what exactly was there involvement in the process?

Dr. Dre's production company utilizes them, and I believe that they consulted with them on the creation of the material.

So they helped with the creation of the actual performance footage, then, I would imagine?

Right. And we consulted with them in how to create and utilize this technology. So it was a collaborative effort. They did the production work on it, and we collaborated with them to let them know how to do it.

So did they use your facilitates in San Diego to put the whole thing together then?

Yes, that's where we tested everything.

Was it over the course of several months that this happened, or did they bring a completed project to you?

No, it happened over several months.

What were the logistics? Were you guys on site at Coachella?

Yes, our team was on site.

What were the logistics of setting up the projection and mylar film at Coachella, and how did you keep it concealed during the other performances and protected from being damaged otherwise?

It had to be utilized obviously on a stage with other acts. So that's where the custom rigging system had to be deployed, so it would fly in and fly out to accommodate all the other bands.

Was it in place all afternoon, or did you guys set it up in between bands?

It had to be deployed prior to the act.

So, just prior to them taking the stage?

Yes, prior to the actual image itself. So during the act, it was deployed.

How many folks did you guys have on site?

Our company had eight people on site.

Eight people to make sure everything was going according to the specifications?

Right, but there were also -- through the company that actually did all of the staging for Coachella, various production companies...I couldn't even begin to tell you how many people were involved with the project on site, but our team had eight people to execute the actual technology on site.

Were you, yourself, on site at Coachella for the production?

No, I was going to, but it was such a zoo trying to get in and out of there, that I elected to stay back and watch it on YouTube myself.

So what did you think when you saw it online?

Actually, I'm glad I did, because I wanted to see what it looked like online. You know, because it's different when you see the technology in person, to seeing it on TV. When you see it on television or streamed, it looks like you're just watching another performer on stage, even when Wolf did the CNN holographic piece, where they utilized that.

When you watch things on television, to me, it looks like it could always be a CG type of effect, or just a special effect. But when you see it live, it's incredible, because it's so life-like.

So what was your reaction upon seeing it on the Internet? Were you like, 'Wow! That's awesome!'?

Well, knowing how the technology works and knowing everything about it, I was just hoping that it would look like he was on stage like everybody else was, and yeah, I was definitely blown away with how good it recorded and played back to the television audience.

You mentioned Wolf Blitzer. That's kind of the biggest, high profile holographic imagery that's been used. Were you guys involved with that, as well?

No, totally different technology. And honestly, I'm not...when you utilize it for television like that, I'm not sure the effect comes through.

Everybody today is calling it a hologram - the Tupac hologram - but it's not actually a hologram from what I understand. It's 3-D, holographic-looking imagery. Would you say that's accurate: That it's not actually a hologram? And what's the difference?

It's absolutely clear: It's not a hologram. It's a holographic illusion.

What's the difference?

The illusion would be similar to what Disney has done for years at the Haunted Mansion, where you've got a ghost floating there, and it looks like it's really like a ghost. It's an old theatrical trick called Peppers Ghost. Probably the best way to describe it: It's the same effect that a presidential teleprompter has, where you have a monitor below and you have a piece of glass at an angle that it reflects on. You've seen a teleprompter like that, correct?

Or probably for people that can appreciate it more: You're driving down the freeway, and you have a pack of cigarettes laying on the dash of your car," explains Nick Smith, AV Concept co-founder, "reflects up and it looks like the cigarettes are floating above your hood in front of you.

It's a light technology with a reflective technology. The light reflects the image back into something that makes it look like it's standing up. Your windshield raised at an angle like that creates that same effect.

Page down to see some other projects by various companies that utilized Musion Eyeliner:

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