So it turns out that Kim Kardashian whisking her friends and family off to a private island in the middle of a pandemic was only the second craziest thing about her 40th birthday celebration. On Thursday, Kardashian revealed that her husband, Kanye West, got her the birthday gift at the top of every woman’s wish list: her very own hologram. And not just any hologram: It was a so-called holographic resurrection of her late father, Robert Kardashian, who died in 2003. Kaleida, a “multimedia hologram company,” published a page to its website taking credit for the creation (Kardashian and West have not yet confirmed the hologram’s origins). Reached by Slate, Kaleida director and producer Daniel Reynolds declined to discuss any specifics of the Kardashian hologram, but agreed to speak about the company and its technology more generally. How exactly do you order a hologram of a late relative? Sadly, our conversation, which has been condensed and edited, took place hologramlessly on the plain old telephone.
Heather Schwedel: How did you get into the hologram biz?
Daniel Reynolds: We as a company started six years ago to produce a fully holographic show that we toured around Europe. After producing that show, we started getting a lot of commercial inquiries, and we’ve kind of grown from there. The first few years we were really just investing in the technology, R&D–ing, you know, seeing what’s possible, experimenting. Over the last two-and-a-half years, things have really started to take off. A lot more people are interested in holographic technology and its uses. We’ve done quite a few quite famous people. Now, especially in COVID times, we’re getting different sorts of inquiries, holograms as a communication tool primarily, and then obviously projects like the Robert Kardashian hologram. Prior to COVID, we were starting to do a lot more large-scale event holograms, not just for in-person experiences, also for live-streaming for TV broadcasts, for press campaigns and the like.
Have you done a lot of these holograms where you bring someone’s loved one back to life?
We’ve only done these in the last year and a half, and we’ve done five. It’s not necessarily always a loved one, but it is a re-creation of somebody who’s no longer with us.
What do you mean?
We did a hologram of a political leader delivering a very famous speech. I can’t really give that name. That was actually the current prime minister’s father, but it was done for a country. And so a loved one, but not as intimate as one as the one we’ve just done. It can be a musical performer that someone wants resurrected, which, depending on rights, would be private or for public consumption.
How much does something like this cost?
The technology is becoming more accessible, so you can do this on a small scale for tens of thousands, but if you want to do it properly, you’re looking at hundreds of thousands.
Can you tell me how the process works?
The strange thing is it’s not necessarily high-tech. The crucial elements are your traditional sort of filming and performance development. So it is a combination of visual effects, machine learning algorithms, but also physical choreography, and a bit of sound synthesis. But the key element to the production is really the performance. It’s very much a human element, delivering a physical performance rather than just relying on VFX.
The way we approach a project like this is first casting the right person, so that person has to have physical similarity to the person you’re resurrecting. The next part is obviously understanding that person, their behaviors, their tics, their movements, how they express themselves, and kind of learning that so you can deliver that performance when we’re filming.
Is it similar to hiring a stunt double?
I wouldn’t describe it as a body double. I mean, technically, that’s what it is, but you’re hiring someone to deliver a performance. You can have the best hologram in the world, but if that performance is not right, it’s just going to fall flat. I mean, obviously it depends on the context as well. If it’s a holographic resurrection of someone’s loved one, then you really have to get the performance right. The physicality is super important.
How is filming a hologram different than shooting a movie or TV show?
Filming a hologram requires a very specific lighting setup to create dimensionality. It uses the same tools as a normal film shoot. It’s just that the arrangement is very, very specific. So you need to have a very, very good [director of photography]. As holograms become more accessible, you’ll see a lot of different holograms online. A lot of them are very low-quality. They look very flat. The reason they look flat is they haven’t got a very good DP.
What comes after filming?
Once we capture the footage, that’s when the VFX artist gets to work. You have the machine learning algorithm, which is learning—the person you are resurrecting as a hologram, it needs to learn how they express themselves, how they speak, their facial movements. There are different programs out there. People call it different things online. Deepfake becomes the kind of catch-all term, but really what the algorithm is doing is trying to match as many facial similarities between the subject and between the person you’re creating as a hologram. It’s studying all of those similarities.
The quality that you get is dependent on the quality of data that is available: videos, images, et cetera. The better data you have, the better end result you have. So that can oftentimes present something of a challenge. If there just isn’t good high-quality video assets, or there isn’t good vocal recordings, you’re going to run into problems, but that’s really kind of the easy part. The next part is in traditional VFX skills. Let’s say the footage you’re using was filmed in the 1980s, very different look, different kind of feel to that. You can’t just replicate that and present it as a human being in front of you, because you’ve got all that grain, the noise, the distortions, the colors, they’re all different because of the nature of the cameras at the time.
So that’s where having a very, very good compositor comes in, turning that algorithm-generated face into the person you want it to be. That’s bringing up the hairline, making sure the color tone is right, that it matches with the other parts of the hands and neck. It’s quite a lot of work to get something that looks realistic.
Does it work about the same with re-creating a voice?
For voice, the AI will work very similarly. Again, it’s really dependent on amount of data and quality of data. What it’s going to generate is going to be a very flat, sort of unemotional version of that person’s voice. The sound engineer will be playing around with that, distorting it and creating the range that you need. It’s pretty labor-intensive.
What else do you need to do to display the hologram?
The next element is the staging side. Now you have your content—how are you going to create that hologram in a location? There’s a lot of traditional staging elements to the showmanship. So when you enter the room where the hologram is being played, you need to have the right lighting setup, you need to create a sense of expectation, and you need to present the hologram in the right way. In this project, we used a technology called Holonet, which is a holographic gauze. It used to be that a lot of holograms were made on Pepper’s Ghost, the projection onto a 45-degree reflective surface. That is quite time-consuming to set up. It’s very inflexible in terms of where and how it works. You have to be viewing straight on; if you move too far to the left or too far to the right, the image will disappear. Whereas with Holonet, it’s very transportable, portable, it’s very bright, and it gives you a wide range in terms of viewing capability.
Is this how all the hologram companies do it?
The technology we’re now using I don’t think has been used in this context by anyone else. There are other ways that people create holograms of deceased people that might be using a lookalike, or it might be, using VFX tools and creating a 3-D model like the Tupac hologram. Or it might be that you will VFX the subject’s face onto the body of an actor. Each has their own problems in delivering that lifelike form. Using machine learning algorithms is relatively new. It does deliver a much more realistic hologram.
The words or message that a hologram delivers—would they typically be coming from the person who’s paying for the hologram … i.e. did Kanye write what this hologram said?
Could be or could not be, it depends. As a creative house, we might be tasked with creating the text. Each project is different.
You mentioning performers and rights earlier made me wonder, if I came to you and asked you to do something like re-create a dead musician’s performance for my private use, would you be allowed to do that?
Probably not. No.
So you have an ethics policy or certain things you wouldn’t do?
We do. It’s not written down; we don’t have a constitution. Whether it’s a question of who we work for, whether that’s governments, countries, etcetera, also companies, if the key people in the company are not comfortable with something, for whatever reason, we might say no. I’m aware of these discussions that are in the public domain about holographic resurrections. There are obviously people with strong feelings. It’s a legit conversation, but as a company, we’re kind of in a lucky position where we can act with a conscience and decline work if we want.
What sorts of occasions have other holograms you’ve done been for?
Anniversaries, dates of historical importance, or just because they could, no real date in mind. You have people who’ve been looking at this for years and years, maybe they’ve seen different holograms and thought, “Is the technology where I want it to be?” What they’ve been asking for hasn’t been possible previously. Before the techniques we’re using today, it just wasn’t going to produce a high-quality result and therefore, there was no point to do it.
One trend that we see at the moment is a lot of actors and musicians wanting themselves documented as holograms before they actually die. By documenting themselves before they’re deceased, they’ll have high-quality hologram data available should they need to use it in the future. We’ve been working on this one big project in the Middle East where this is the goal. When you’re bringing back deceased pop stars, you often face the same challenges, like what data do we have available, how well known were they, do the public have a very clear memory of what they looked like? You have stars from before we had HD cameras where you can’t really bring them back. That’s bad, because there is demand for that.
At the end of the Kardashian hologram, there was sort of a dissolve into glitter. Do all your holograms end that way?
It depends how you want to present the hologram. It’s not just at the end; you might want to do it at the beginning, like have the person beamed in. The question is who is the audience, and what are their expectations, and what are you really trying to present? You have hologram shows where people are buying live tickets to a performance and they’re going there because they want to feel that that person was really alive and was really there. That has to be complete fidelity. You’re not really producing a hologram; you’re trying to produce a live performance, enabling the audience to pretend that it’s real, even though they know it’s not. The moment that you start dissolving or flickering is the moment that you’re saying this is not really real.
In different contexts, you can present a hologram and you can present it in a very stylized way, kind of like the Princess Leia way. You kind of say to your audience, “We know you know this isn’t real; we’re not trying to pull wool over your eyes.” So it being beamed in, it’s got that glitter, that glitchy aspect to it, you’re bringing people in at the start rather than present something as being real that obviously isn’t.
It’s all about the context. In this instance, it’s a loved one. At the end, you don’t need to do a walk-off. You need to end the content somehow. We’re going to dissolve into stardust, glitter particles, what have you. It just kind of makes sense from an audience perspective.