SXSW: Digital Domain's Ed Ulbrich Gives The Scoop Behind Coachella's Tupac 'Hologram'

Digital Domain's Ed Ulbrich explains the mechanics and aftermath of the company's Tupac "hologram" at Coachella 2012.

Dan Rys

SXSW Music kicked off Tuesday afternoon with a case study on one of the biggest and most enduring stories of the past twelve months: Tupac's "appearance" at last year's Coachella festival, colloquially referred to as "Holopac."

Digital Domain's Ed Ulbrich took the assembled crowd through the process by which the idea was proposed and executed, as well as the unexpected fallout from such an unexpected performance. "We knew -- working with Dr. Dre, working with Snoop -- that it would be big," he said. "We didn't know how big."

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For Digital Domain -- the company created by James Cameron in 1993 which has won numerous Academy Awards and digitally constructed such characters as Brad Pitt's elder phase in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" and Jeff Bridges' younger days in "TRON: Legacy" -- it was a departure from the usual practice of modeling their recreations on a living actor's face, and generally having more than a year to accomplish it; re-imagining Tupac was a much larger challenge, and the company had just ten weeks to get it done. "The movie business is all about creating immersive environments for fans to escape into," said Ulbrich. "[But] there's nothing more complicated than a human being and a human face."

The task was accomplished using not holograms, but rather an old illusion called "Pepper's Ghost"; essentially a smoke-and-mirrors trick with updated technology. While initially hesitant ("I was the one who told Dre, 'No, it can't be done,'" he said) Ulbrich and his team were able to overcome some of the illusion's toughest obstacles due to the special circumstances: the complications of human hair were erased because Tupac was bald, while lip-syncing was made easy because each time he spoke or rapped, "Holopac" had a microphone in front of his mouth. The issues of getting 'Pac to say things he had never said before -- after all, Coachella wasn't created until three years after his death in 1996 -- were handled by Dre's team, though Ulbrich declined to discuss how ("We're not here to disclose all the secrets," he laughed). Yet there were ethical issues to recreating the man as well.

"My worry was that if we attempted this, we'd have people in the audience throwing tomatoes," he said. "Even if we got it perfect, we'd have people saying, 'How could you?'"

Much was smoothed over by the involvement of Tupac's mother and estate, while the decision to keep the whole performance under wraps also helped ease the ethical burden. "We [weren't] using this to sell tickets," said Ulbrich. "No one made any money."

The fallout, of course, was immediate; Tupac's Greatest Hits returned to the Billboard 200 for the first time since 2000 with sales ballooning by 571% within a week, and Digital Domain's stock price rose 48% in the weeks after Coachella. The company granted three interviews -- to the Wall Street Journal, Ad Age, and Billboard -- which generated more than 40,000 stories in media outlets across the world. But it also opened the door to countless possibilities. "We had people calling from every major label, every estate," he said, noting that religious organizations called to ask about recreating religious figures, and the Republican National Convention inquired about having Ronald Reagan introduce Mitt Romney. "Our phone server logjammed, our web server crashed... there are some crazy people in the world."

Digital Domain eschewed opportunities to work with labels and brands in order to partner with families and estates; those that might have a personal or familial connection to the artists. Potential opportunities include artists with unreleased music whose estates may want performances of new songs, and artists (mostly actors, Ulbrich noted) looking to preserve their likeness and legacy after they die.

"I don't see a situation where there's going to be a two-hour Jimi Hendrix performance," Ulbrich said. "But people want to see it."