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Published: Friday, 4/20/2012

COMMENTARY

Tupac's reanimation raises eyebrows

BY KIRK BAIRD
CULTURE SHOCK
Tupac Shakur Tupac Shakur
ASSOCIATED PRESS Enlarge

Lazarus may have been the first person raised from the dead, but he's not the last.

Dr. Dre, with considerable help from Digital Domain Media Group Inc., a digital-effects company that won a Visual Effects Oscar for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, resurrected murdered rap star Tupac Shakur on Sunday night at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.

A life-size digital version of Tupac bounded and bounced across the front of the stage -- shirtless and ripped, he looked as young as when he died in 1996 at age 25 -- as the hologram broke into "Hail Mary." Then Snoop Dog joined the video spectre to trade verses on "2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted."

The sight of the digitized rapper stunned and quickly won over the crowd, but not everyone was impressed; a buddy of mine who was at the performance found virtual Tupac to be "incredibly disturbing" and "a terrible idea."

He seems to be in the minority as the publicity stunt managed to provide the fashionably cool music festival with even more attention and coverage than usual. It was such a success, the Wall Street Journal reported that Dre and Snoop are considering taking digital Tupac on the road for a concert tour.

"To create a completely synthetic human being is the most complicated thing that can be done," Digital Domain's chief creative officer, Ed Ulbrich, told the Wall Street Journal on Monday. "This is just the beginning. Dre has a massive vision for this."

And why not? We love our dead performers and the Tupac hologram -- it's technically not a hologram, but a mirror trick dating back to the 19th century -- is just the latest-greatest way to cash in on that phenomenon. We've come a long way from Disneyland's Hall of Presidents, an animatronic lineup of all our nation's leaders that has fascinated millions, including me as a kid in the 1970s.

And remember the Diet Coke commercials from late 1991 that teamed Elton John (living) on piano with the video image of Louis Armstrong (deceased), as Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney (also both deceased) looked on? The spot was so successful that the soft drink maker ran another TV ad that paired Paula Abdul dancing and interacting with Gene Kelly, Groucho Marx, and Cary Grant.

Both commercials relied on film clips of the actors taken out of context and surrounding and manipulated via computer, but at least the images looked natural. This wasn't the case with the creepy Volkswagen commercial that used Kelly in his famous Singin' in the Rain song-and-dance routine from the 1952 film, and digitally updated the actor with rubbery arms and legs to break dance through the city street. Yes, Kelly was break dancing.

There was a mild outrage with these commercials, as well as concern for what this resurrection technology meant for the rights of the famous -- deceased or not.

What if Kelly preferred Mercedes to Volkswagens. Or Grant was a Pepsi drinker? None of it mattered and apparently still doesn't. The trend in the high-tech realm is to do things because we can, and not because we should.

We've cloned sheep, dogs, cats, goats, pigs, mice, and a water buffalo. There's talk of cloning a woolly mammoth as well. Can a resurrected James Dean be far behind? And forget Michelle Williams' terrific performance in My Week With Marilyn; can anyone really wait to see a young, beautiful, and digital Marilyn Monroe in a new movie? Imagine the money to be made by pairing the three stages of Elvis -- young, 1968 comeback, and Las Vegas era -- on stage? And does anyone doubt we'll see a full Beatles reunion decades from now, even after the Fab Four are all dead.

Death is no longer the end of life, but the birth of a new career. Or, as the Kinks once sang, "Celluloid heroes never really die."

And for that we can all thank technology.

Contact Kirk Baird at kbaird@theblade.com or 419-724-6734.



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