Tupac's Return Resonates for Advertisers

Digital Domain Chief Creative Officer Ed Ulbrich on Bringing the Slain Rapper Back to Life for Coachella

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After 16 years of resting in peace, hip-hop icon Tupac Shakur was resurrected at this year's Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival with the help of his old friends Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg -- and a bit of magic from effects powerhouse Digital Domain. The two MCs tapped the creative direction of Chief Creative Officer Ed Ulbrich, along with director Philip Atwell of Geronimo Productions and Dylan Brown of The Yard Entertainment, to bring the rapper back to life for thousands of festival attendees (and another million or so, judging from the online video counts).

The hologram was a surprisingly strong and accurate portrayal of Tupac, who was murdered in September 1996. He not only performed two songs, but also seemed very aware of present day -- interacting with Snoop Dogg on the stage and even addressing the crowd with, "What the f--k is up, Coachella!"

Digital Domain was also behind the Oscar-winning interpretations of an 85- and 25-year-old Brad Pitt in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" and his less well-received predecessor, Orville Redenbacher, who the shop and director David Fincher re-created for a spot out of Crispin Porter & Bogusky.

Clearly technology has advanced a long way since then. On his way from the Coachella madness, Mr. Ulbrich spoke with Creativity about the interpretation of Tupac and how it affects advertisers, marketers and other creatives interesting in using this type of tech.

Creativity : Were you at the performance? What was the crowd's reaction when the hologram appeared?

Ed Ulbrich: The crowd went nuts. They went crazy. There was a little bit of a leak late last week, but no one was able to figure it out before the show. You could see people going "whoa." I don't think at first people realized it was a hologram. To watch that thing with that audience and see them respond in that way -- that made it for me.

Creativity : How did this idea come about?

Mr. Ulbrich: We've been in discussions with Dre and his team a little over a year now. He came to us, but it was for a different application. We were showing him the work we were doing in film, and they had clearly done their homework. [Dr. Dre] has a vision like you can't imagine. He had a vision for this type of production like nobody I've met.

Creativity : The Tupac hologram interacted with Snoop Dogg and addressed the crowd. How did you integrate it so well?

Mr. Ulbrich: This was not like any old footage of Tupac. This was completely and exclusively made just for Coachella. A synthetic Tupac -- this was a digital likeness of Tupac. We've been doing things like this for six or seven years now -- with "Benjamin Button" and "Tron." But he had to deliver a performance and interact with Snoop. There was no margin of error for him. It had to be him. We had to have him deliver a performance that felt authentic. If I go into the technical details, I don't think it would be as interesting, but I will say that we weren't using existing footage. The voice . . . that is the magic of Dr. Dre and Snoop. Dre and Snoop spent a long time on it. They were working on the voice and the music well before we got involved with this project for Coachella.

Creativity : What were some interesting challenges in producing this? How does this compare to your usual work?

Mr. Ulbrich: There was enormous sensitivity -- authenticity that the intention here is to present him at his peak, at his best. Because we know of him, we have historical image archive of him but we really had to rely on Dre and Snoop, [directors] Philip Atwell, and Dylan Brown. There were challenges of actually completing a synthetic likeness for an icon. The beginning of this process, I was worried -- unless we knew we were able to nail it, we weren't going to take the assignment. We finally got to a point where we felt we could pull it off. It was a little bit scary.

The difference was that there was no film schedule, and then you're not working with the actual actor. In this case, we didn't have Tupac. We had references, footages and video and Dre and Snoop guiding us. So it was even more difficult. Two years ago, we couldn't have done this. Not on this schedule.

Creativity : So what does this mean for future productions like this? What are the implications for marketers or advertisers looking to use this kind of technology?

Mr. Ulbrich: No one was talking about the fact that he looked computer-generated. It's built on technology we've invested years of R&D in. In many ways, it was finally feasible to try and pull something off like this. Until now, this technology has been elusive for advertisers because it's expensive and takes a long time, which advertisers just don't have. Now that we've crossed over with this technology, it's become available for marketers and that 's when things get interesting. It does not take a major motion-picture budget to make this happen. It's much more acceptable.

When we first started talking to Dre, it wasn't just about this Tupac project; it was about something much bigger, which I can't tell you about. You're getting a glimpse at what's to come -- where the lines between reality and virtual are completely blurred. Stay tuned, because this is just the beginning.

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