The "Digital Resurrection" of Michael Jackson for the American Music Awards

As a fan, and as a person with knowledge of digital #animation & #VFX processes, I was fairly disappointed by the presentation of #MichaelJackson during the 2014 #Billboard #Music Awards.

Now, before I go into my humble opinion, which is worth no more than $0.02, it’s worth noting that, of course, I was not involved on this presentation, though I did stereoscopic work on the posthumously released film, “This is It.” I think back to that time, and consider how much further in style, presentation, and technology that had going for it, than what we got to see at the 2014 Billboard Music Awards.

By any measure, the 2014 Billboard Music Awards illusion of Michael Jackson singing “Slave to the Rythym,” was a daunting task to execute for the world to see in less than 6 months. I cannot possibly, knowing how most of this works, lay any blame at the feet of the VFX artists. They no doubt labored under insane deadlines to achieve what we all saw. No, the question of this presentation certainly goes up higher than that. It’s particularly a no-good portent of things-to-come, when one is only presented the next-to-final revision for the first time, a mere 8 days before final delivery.

What blows my mind is that the article claims this was only 6 months in the making. Really? After what #DigitalDomain did with #TupacShakur at #Coachella ? Michael has been dead for nearly six years now. They were thinking about doing this for Cirque du Soleil (no shortage of talent nor funding there) and its touring show on the Las Vegas Strip/the World for #Immortal which is now titled as #One
Then the first posthumous releases (thus far) by #Sony for #Michael and #Xscape – and they thought to start but 6 months ago? Kudos to the VFX companies, as this must have been both a nightmare from Hell, and also an incredible honor, under the most intense timelines and absurdist secrecy.

This could have, perhaps even should have been, the pinnacle of live presentation technology, at the entertainment capital of the world, for one of the largest events in music. Instead, what we were shown, was a mismatched presentation of a motion-captured impersonator (as of this post, most fingers point to Mr. Christopher Gaspar as the Mo-Cap body double:, and what looked like 2.5D projections onto a low-poly version of Michael Jackson’s visage, with the occasional (blink-and-miss-it) morph of his lips/eyes/face to synch to the track (so-so in final execution). The latter was no doubt the greatest problem, which they tried to hide a lot with hair, speed turns, blur, camera placement/moves, and his face turned back to the audience for extended lyric lines for which no footage existed (#WatermelonWatermelonBubbleGum – [#YouAreWelcome]).

Granted, anything showing Michael Jackson is going to have a ridiculous amount of scrutiny heaped upon it. Knowing this, it would not have been my personal selection to enter into the project with lifted performances of Michael Jackson strung together, because it’s going to look that way; no matter how well it was matted, rotoscoped, color graded, et al. The angles would never align, nor the dance movements from various performances strung together, despite tons of camera and object motion tracking – the image still ‘slid’ atop the impersonator’s body. Even with a pop-and-lock dancer like Michael, he never appeared herky-jerky, each performance was the result of months, if not years, of carefully calibrated decisions timed perfectly, and consciously, to his lyrics and his music.

One of the big questions is (steering clear of the moral rights issues of the artist, the estate, etc.):
Michael’s famous (infamous?) face had been sculpted, life-casted, and scanned by lasers for dozens of projects over the decades. Laser scans are perfect representations, down to a level of detail as fine as the “peach fuzz” that exists atop human skin (it captures not just the geometry, but the color of whatever is being scanned, like a photo). Why not use a 3D laser scan of one of the real life-casts of Michael Jackson, along with simultaneous motion capture of the impersonator’s face and dance choreography, and then transpose the facial mo-cap onto the body double? That would have yielded the most organic and realistic representation of Michael Jackson face, from perfect lip-synch, facial movements that matched the singing and emotion, a head that would not have appeared to be bobbing along to a body-double, down to the signature curls of hair that moved around his face.

The end result could have (IMHO: should have) then been made into a knock-out 4K (or higher) stereoscopic presentation that was projection mapped for the stage, and THAT should have blown people’s minds. The reaction should not made them sad (as could be seen in one audience reaction shot) from realizing that the low-rez representation was not Michael. Yes, we’d know that anyway, even if the presentation had been flawless. The difference would have been in the presentation’s execution being something that transported the audience into believing, if only for a moment, that he was alive on-stage, doing something NEW, and not something all-too-familiar and distracting us into thinking: how did they do that?

Lest we forget, ever-perfectionist Michael Jackson was going to be 50+ years-of-age when he was contracted to play the O2 Arena. Yet, he was going to deliver another ground-breaking 2-hour show, every night of the week, for nearly two months (parts of which I was fortunate to have worked upon at one time). Despite the fact that he was delving into performing his catalog of classics, he was determined not to repeat himself. Even in death, his rehearsals footage alone were enough to break $100 million at the box office, and earned an Oscar nomination. Yet, that’s what this illusion felt like, a re-tread of the familiar, not Michael re-inventing himself.

I remain convinced that the combination of a 3D scan and Mo-Cap approach would have yielded a smoother, realistic, and more cohesive performance. The digital quality would have also been superb, enabling the possibility of close-ups, instead of medium or far-away shots, intended to mask the current imperfections of what is essentially an updated 130+ year-old stage trick known as “Pepper’s Ghost” (Google it). Both this performance, and the breakthrough one at #Coachella with #TupacShakur were done essentially in the same manner. Neither was, in even the most remote interpretation of the term, a #Hologram, which by its definition, means a stereoscopic projection viewable from any angle. The technology does exist for such a representation (with or without stereoscopic glasses!), but it remains far too esoteric and expensive of a technology for presentation at this time (especially for a “one-off” kind of event, unless it were some type of semi-permanent installation).

The presentation at Billboard and Coachella can only be appreciated from the perspective of an audience, move beyond the 45 degree beam-splitting glass/mirror, or presentation screen, and the illusion is “broken” and seen for what it is: a 2D projection onto a pitch-black stage, providing for the illusion of depth and perspective. Even the Michael Jackson presentation was barely that, as one could see from the occasional flashes of light that illuminated the mid-stage-high presentation screen from behind (why?! #fail).

With so much money riding on Cique du Soleil’s #Immortal and #One plus #Sony and its releases #Michael and #Xscape plus the overall estate of MJJ, it just seems really awkward that they’d go with anything less than state-of-the-art and over-the-top, which is what Michael was known for doing. The shows & most recent album releases alone, in the past 6 years, have made over $1 Billion dollars. Why be cheap now on a man’s legacy extending into another century?

As the technologies change and come down in cost, no doubt we’ll continue to see more resurrected singers, actors, and other types of performers. Indeed, with #ArtificialIntelligence & various types of #BigData it is not inconceivable to ponder a proper hologram that could “interact” and “respond live” in much the same way as the deceased might have, given enough data to make it function properly within a set of parameters for the stage.

Until then, it’s perhaps best to honor humanity’s greatest creatives, and their extreme perfectionism, which made such a performer nothing short of brilliant and immortal, alone. Until we can truly capture and display such illusions with an equal amount of their originality and realism, then they remain nothing more than ghosts, pale imitations of another’s genius.

Billboard article:

VFX Studios that made the Michael Jackson illusion possible for the 2014 Billboard Awards:

YouTube Clip (most likely down by the time you read this for copyright issues, despite being a legitimate article): MICHAEL JACKSON BILLBOARD MUSIC AWARDS 2014 LIVE