'It's All About Ronnie': Inside The Dio Returns Hologram Show, Set For Late May Launch

Ronnie James Dio
PG Brunelli

Ronnie James Dio

Dio Disciples play alongside virtual image of late metal legend

The era of hologram tours is upon us. The concept was first teased to the public with a virtual Tupac Shakur at Coachella in 2012. Now, Los Angeles-based Eyellusion is elevating the tribute concept with Dio Returns, which will bring famed metal singer Ronnie James Dio, who passed away in 2010 at the age of 67, back to the stage alongside Dio Disciples for a show that combines virtual and live performances.

A 21-date U.S. trek (with more TBA) will kick off at the Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall in Fort Myers, Fla., on May 31. The show was road-tested with a surprise premiere song at the tail end of the set by Dio Disciples — who since 2011 have performed Dio classics in America and Europe — at the Wacken Open Air metal festival in August 2016, then with a longer set during a short European tour in 2017. Dio Disciples includes former Dio band members Craig Goldy (guitars), Simon Wright (drums), and Scott Warren (keyboards), along with bassist Bjorn Englen and singers Tim “Ripper” Owens and Oni Logan.

The 17-song set consists of seven tunes sung by the Dio hologram — the rest feature Owens and Logan separately or together — and encompasses material from Dio’s lengthy career, including his earlier days in Rainbow and Black Sabbath. “We’re trying to keep it as interesting and exciting as we can for people,” says Wright.

Eyellusion director of creative development Chad Finnerty previously worked as an animation supervisor for Pixomondo on projects ranging from a theme-park ride to Star Trek Into Darkness. He joined Eyellusion — which is also behind the hologram show The Bizarre World of Frank Zappa — after he started working on a Dio hologram promo with Eyellusion CEO/founder Jeff Pezzuti over three years ago. It took them six months to create the short promo for Wacken in 2016.

“We debuted it there, and then showed it again at the Pollstar Awards here in L.A. and got a fair bit of interest there,” recalls Finnerty. That spawned the idea of a tour as opposed to one-off shows.

The company then assembled a show that toured Europe in the fall of 2017 and included five different songs with holograms. Finnerty says it was mainly an experiment to see how audiences would react, and if it was a viable touring model. “At that point, it was still a sales pitch to other artists to get interested in,” he says. “We were the first ones to actually tour the hologram, and then shortly after that, other companies start popping up. Obviously, we got a lot of interest from that tour.”

To create its holograms, Eyellusion uses a variety of techniques, such as motion capture for body performance, facial capture and traditional computer animation. “Then they speed up the performance,” explains Finnerty. He points out that his team’s animators spent hours watching Dio performances to discover what made him unique. “We have to base our animation off something, but the idea is that you’re able to generate motion-capture data that will assist your animators. Ultimately, the animators are the ones that are going to be cleaning it up and adding their own performance touches based off a lot of reference video of the performer.”

This tour iteration, which they call Dio 3.0, involves animators like digital hair stylists, hair-simulation artists, and lighting artists to ensure that the lights on the virtual singer match the stage design. Many hours are involved in the process, plus even more are spent waiting on computer calculations and rendering time. It can take two to ten days to achieve the results of larger adjustments.

“I’ve got another effects artist that basically creates transitions in and out of the songs,” continues Finnerty. “I’ve got digital sculptors. We use computer software to digitally sculpt the likeness, and once we get approval on likeness, then we move into all the other phases of the animation. I’ve got a team of animators to do one song’s animation start to finish using motion capture and facial capture. They spend at least a good month per song just to get the animation right before we can then go into all the other departments.”

There is no stage banter between songs at the show, although there are interactive moments. At past gigs, the virtual Dio occasionally has held up the banner of whatever festival the show was playing. The Dio team hopes to add more moments of interaction in the future.

The show is an intense experience for Wright. A groove-oriented drummer who played with AC/DC in the ’80s, he has to perform to a click track (a metronomic series of pulses musicians listen to to keep strict time) for all of the songs involving the hologram, and stay locked in so the vocals continuously match the live music.

“I’ve gotten used to the click,” he says. “Obviously, with Pro Tools, I’ve used it [in the studio], but it’s just a whole different thing live because you’re sweating a lot more and you’re putting your all into it. The headphones start filling up with sweat. You go through a few sets of headphones.”

Finnerty recalls the first couple of years of working on the Dio project being stressful because of the goal of suspending an audience’s disbelief, as well as wanting Dio’s widow, Wendy, to be pleased. At the first show, Finnerty operated the hologram; now a two-man crew handles that task. A video playback operator plays and syncs up the holographic content and handles the other playback for the LED wall behind the band. The hologram technician does the setup for the hologram screen to align it properly and make sure it’s running correctly before the show starts.

The hologram’s unveiling “was pretty nerve-wracking,” admits Wright. “It was a little strange at first to see it, but you got used to it. When we play live, I’m off to one side, so I can’t really see it, which is probably a good thing. I’m playing to a click [for the numbers with Dio], so I’ve got to really concentrate on what I’m doing.”

For now, Eyellusion’s Dio show and other hologram tours are rendered pre-show. “The computing power isn’t quite there, or if it is, it’s super, super expensive to do it all in real time,” says Finnerty. They are utilizing the same software used on major Hollywood productions like Avengers: Endgame. “One day, it will all be photo-real, and that’ll be pretty amazing. We’ll be able to light it all interactively at the same time as the band is getting lit.”

He also observes, “For years, you’ve had tribute shows, but you’re seeing the band members that originally performed with Ronnie and getting a special treat as well. A lot of labor and love has gone into the creation of the hologram. That’s the one thing that differentiates our team. We’re a team of artists paying tribute to an artist. I’ve got 15 or 20 artists that have all gone to school to learn how to create digital artwork, and they’re using those talents to bring Ronnie back onstage in digital form. That’s pretty cool.”

However, Wright stresses that no one is “trying to resurrect the dead here. It’s just basically a screen with an image on it. It’s not voodoo.” He says of fans who feel weird about the hologram concept, “All I can say is, just come and have a look. If you like it, you like it. And if you don’t, you don’t. There’s a lot of work gone into this, and it’s done with respect and love and care. A lot of people never got the chance to meet Ronnie or see him play live, and this is a good way to see him. It’s not him live obviously, but it’s a good show, and it’s all about Ronnie.”

Check out more information about the tour dates here.