2020 Grammys

Bringing the King of Pop Back to Life

About two weeks prior to the May 18 Billboard Music Awards (BBMAs), the company responsible for the virtual Michael Jackson performance had no show to deliver.

"It wasn't believable," says Frank Patterson, co-founder/CEO of Pulse Evolution, the visual illusion company that launched in October and took on Jackson as its first project. "We were tasked with something no one had ever done before: create a virtual person that everyone in the world recognizes and is emotionally connected to, and make him believable."

Pulse Evolution's team of 110 people, 35 of whom were strictly focused on Jackson, continued to tweak the artist's appearance so that his performance of "Slave to the Rhythm" at the BBMAs would be as real as any performer's.

"The hardest thing to do is deploy the technology, technique and talent to create a digital object that creates the essence of a human being," says Patterson. "The next-hardest thing is to make that human's intentions and movements match the song."

Work on the project, which cost more than $3 million, began in November. The Jackson estate hired former Jackson artistic associates Jamie King as creative director and Rich and Tone Talauega as choreographers at the beginning of the year. Dancers were then filmed on a soundstage to later be married with the backdrop that echoed artwork on Jackson's "Dangerous."

Using footage of Jackson from 1997, Pulse Evolution began constructing Virtual Michael, developing a look that went into every detail - hair, skin tone, the fluid in his eyes. "We created an emotional database of Michael Jackson," says Patterson.

Virtual Michael was built with polygons in a computer culled from hours of video and thousands of photographs. On the stage at the MGM Grand Arena, 12 projectors that hung from the ceiling beamed the images of Jackson and the set onto a rear projection screen that reflected the image onto foil.

The last high-profile virtual artist was Tupac Shakur's appearance with the real-life Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg at Coachella in 2012, which was created by Digital Domain, the company John Textor ran prior to starting Pulse Evolution with Patterson.

The Shakur illusion was "a fraction of the challenge" Jackson was, says Textor, owing in part to Shakur's bald head and the microphone shielding his mouth. Says Textor, "Neck, shoulders, every part of [Michael's] body is affected by the fact he is not holding a microphone."

Patterson says Pulse Evolution's core competency is animated human beings. While it is developing more entertainment projects, Patterson thinks there are important applications in medical research and military training, noting, "Those spaces are stuck in 1980s video-game technology."


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