With the advent of the technology to create walking, talking, and singing images of deceased celebrities—should we even create these apparitions for commercial exploitation?
Amy Winehouse is setting out on tour. Or at least a hologram of the deceased Grammy award singer will be going on a North American tour. Winehouse’s father, Mitch Winehouse, has been working with the hologram studio Base Entertainment, to ensure the accuracy of her hologram. Reuters reports that profits from the show will go to the Amy Winehouse Foundation, a charity that provides rehabilitation facilities for people who can’t afford them on their own.
Holograms of dead celebrities first became a spectacle when Tupac Shakur came on stage at Coachella alongside Snoop Dog and Dr. Dre in 2012. The rapper had been dead for 12 years, and though his appearance technically wasn’t a hologram as much as a trick of the light employed by glass and reflection, its affect on the audience was essentially the same, with videos of Tupac’s performance turning viral, circulating the world. 6 years later, the question remains whether the dead celebrity hologram industry is the future of entertainment, or if its just an unsustainable, novel and problematic fad.
The history of the dead celebrity hologram is shaky. Though Digital Domain, the company that made Tupac, won a special award at Cannes Lions for the Tupac hologram, it filed for bankruptcy three months later. In the U.S, there are now two big hologram companies: Hologram USA and Pulse Evolution. Hologram USA was planning a Whitney Houston hologram tour in 2016, but it was shut down by the deceased singer’s family in a spat that resulted in a breach of contract lawsuit filed against the family in 2017. According to Vox, Hologram USA owns the exclusive rights to recreate Patsy Cline, Billie Holiday, and Jackie Wilson. Pulse Evolution, made up of the leftovers of Digital Domain, owns the exclusive rights to resurrect Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, and Selena. In March 2016, predating what would have been a performance of Michael Jackson at the 2014 Billboard Music Awards, Hologram USA sued Pulse for patent violation. A settlement was reached in March 2016.
Base Hologram, the company that is doing the Amy Winehouse tour, is just a minor player in the dead celerity hologram game. It only launched a hologram division in January of this year, but it has plans to start more nationwide tours, as well as create permanent theatrical residences. On a technical level, generating these holograms might be tedious, but it shouldn’t necessarily be difficult. Base Hologram’s executive producer Marty Tutor told Vox in order to make Amy Winehouse’s hologram, the company would have to start off by hiring an actress who resembled her physically. Base would then use video recording to create a bank of movements. Unless Winehouse ever had a 3D scan taken of her face, the company would then have to go through a process to make a digital recreation of it. The capacity to make digital recreations of dead celebrities is, for companies who specialize in it, an increasingly accessible technological novelty. But does that mean that it should be done?
The obtention of materials needed to make a dead celebrity hologram invokes a whole host of legal issues, and the technicality of the process is still messy. To create a hologram of a dead musician, a company has to license the artist’s music and videos as well as any images of the celebrity that need to be used to create the hologram. But it gets even more complicated. Living celebrities have a “right to publicity,” which means that they have a right to make money off of theirselves, their voices, faces, and even expressions. In 23 states, the right to publicity transcends death, with time frames varying from 10 to 100 years across the country.
With a postmortem right to publicity, the deceased celebrity’s family and estate often makes profits to last them years. If negotiated to their advantage, the holograms could make them even more money. But it isn’t just about the profits. There is something inherently eery about turning the body of a dead person into a puppet for commercial use. It’s one thing to exploit a legacy. But to recreate a walking, talking, singing image of a dead person is essentially to create a ghost. There’s also the question of relevance and sustainability. The success of the celebrity hologram is after all largely dependent on novelty. Once the excitement of virtual intimacy wears off and this sort of resurrection ceases to feel like magic, will anyone pay to see a trick of light?