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The strange legacy of Tupac’s ‘hologram’ lives on five years after its historic Coachella debut

On Dr. Dre’s order, an Academy Award-winning visual effects studio spent weeks designing a virtual Makaveli

Expect me, n—a, like you expect Jesus to come back / Expect me … I’m coming.

— Tupac Shakur on the “Outro” of his fourth posthumous album, Better Dayz (2002)

The mood and scene were one and the same out in that empty Southern California field. Dark and ominous. A wind blew furiously as night fell. Time was running out.

With just four days until the start of the 2012 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, there was no room for any more mistakes. Hip-hop impresario Andre “Dr. Dre” Young had a specific vision for his headlining performance with Snoop Dogg.

But the miscues were relentless: unanticipated flashes, rendering errors, plain old glitches, you name it. Nothing seemed to go right during rehearsal as Dr. Dre looked on with Eminem, who was a scheduled special guest for the show. The hood of Marshall Mathers’ jacket draped over his head as he watched in silence.

Oh, my God. We’re going to fail.

That’s what Janelle Croshaw, visual effects supervisor of Academy Award-winning studio Digital Domain, said she thought to herself in the moment. For six weeks, Croshaw, along with fellow supervisor Steve Preeg and their team, had worked tirelessly to make what seemed psychologically, and spiritually, unfathomable: They had to recreate Tupac Amaru Shakur.

And they did. Fifteen years, seven weeks and three days after he was pronounced dead as a result of internal bleeding from five gunshot wounds he sustained in a Las Vegas drive-by, Tupac performed again. It was April 15, 2012. During Dr. Dre and Snoop’s set, a shirtless figure emerged, with a “THUG LIFE” tattoo on his stomach, pinky rings on his hands, pants sagging and Timberlands on his feet. It was the perfect surprise for the final act of the night on the main stage — Dr. Dre and Snoop having already floated through nearly 20 tracks, though no moment would compare to what came next.

“What the f— is up, Coachellaaaaa!”

A computer-generated Tupac made this proclamation to the crowd of 80,000. It raised his arms to roars before he began to perform his posthumous 1998 single “Hail Mary” and 1996 hit collaboration with Snoop, “2 Of Amerikaz Most Wanted.” On this night, the “Tupac Hologram,” what many still call the virtual being, was born.

A holographic image of Tupac Shakur is seen performing with Snoop Dogg during day 3 of the 2012 Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival at the Empire Polo Field on April 15, 2012 in Indio, California.

Courtesy of Digital Domain

Technically? It wasn’t a hologram — which is defined as a light-beam-produced, three-dimensional image visible to the naked eye — but rather a two-dimensional projection that employed a theatrical technique first outlined more than 430 years ago.

Tupac made it to that stage because Andre “Dr. Dre” Young made sure of it.

“It really looked 3-D,” said Nick Smith, president of AV Concepts, the San Diego-based company that projected what he refers to as a “holographic effect.”

“It looked like there was really somebody onstage.”

There was something authentic and visceral about the projection of Tupac that Coachella attendees experienced. The Hall of Fame musical artist died at the age of 25, three years before Coachella debuted in 1999. But Tupac made it to that stage, because Dr. Dre made sure of it.

The technique is called “Pepper’s Ghost,” named after 19th-century British scientist John Henry Pepper, who adapted the method in 1862. The theater trick involves the projection of an image onto an angled piece of glass, which is reflected back onto the stage, providing the audience with the illusion of a ghostly presence.

Three hundred years before Pepper, 16th-century Italian scientist Giambattista della Porta was the first to conceptualize the illusion. In his 1558 Magia Naturalis (Natural Magic), Porta described what would ultimately take the form of the Pepper’s Ghost technique in a chapter he titled “How we may see in a Chamber things that are not.”

Tupac would have appreciated Porta’s work, given his affinity for Italian Renaissance literature during his nine-month prison sentence on sexual assault charges in 1995 (he denied the charges ever after). Most notably, he took a deep dive into Niccolo Machiavelli’s 1532 political treatise The Prince, finding solace in the words of the 16th-century Italian philosopher and political theorist, who in his work presented the idea of feigning death to exploit one’s enemies.

After his release from prison, ’Pac changed his stage name to “Makaveli,” and the final studio album he recorded before he was killed, The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory, was inspired by the legend that Machiavelli faked his death before reappearing seven days later to seek revenge upon his enemies. Tupac’s fascination, or borderline obsession, with Machiavelli in the final few years of his life remains at the heart of the rabbit-hole conspiracy theories surrounding what many still believe to be true: Tupac Shakur faked his death and is still alive.

And so in 2012, when Coachella had two of Tupac’s former Death Row Records labelmates in mind for the festival’s lineup, Dr. Dre toyed with this concept of ’Pac’s legend.

“It was Dre’s idea to bring Tupac back,” said Smith, whose company had been in previous talks with Dr. Dre about the possibility of the late artist performing again digitally. “He and his team had already seen the technology several times and were thinking about how to utilize it. So when Coachella asked them to perform there, that’s the idea he came up with.”

Dr. Dre and his production team were responsible for working with Tupac’s estate and handling the legal ramifications of using his likeness, which required the approval and blessing of his mother, Afeni Shakur (who died in 2016, four years after the Coachella performance). Smith and AV Concepts were responsible for bringing the projection technology to the United States. In place of the technique’s traditional use of glass, AV Concepts would use Mylar foil. And instead of a straightforward projected image, a bespoke computer-generated Tupac was envisioned for the performance.

“Some of the other team members didn’t quite understand. It was like, ‘Who’s Tu-PACK?’ ”

That’s where Digital Domain came in. The studio’s work on films such as X-Men: Days of Future Past, TRON: Legacy and 2008’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which won an Academy Award for best visual effects, all caught Dr. Dre’s attention. While working on a project in New York, Croshaw received a call regarding the assignment and rushed back to Los Angeles to start working. It was mid-February, and Digital Domain had to have virtual Tupac ready for an April 15 curtain call.

“It was a lot of pressure — more than any project I’ve ever done,” said Croshaw. “Some of the other team members didn’t quite understand. It was like, ‘Who’s Tu-PACK?’ There were people who weren’t quite familiar with him, but those of us who were, the pressure to not fail was probably the biggest motivation to get as far as we did in six weeks. We just couldn’t fail.”

Croshaw and Preeg established a team of 20 — small for a project like this, she said. Their skills spanned every digital effects department imaginable. There were rotoscoping and paint teams to warp and pull the design to make it look like Tupac’s body. There was someone in charge of lighting. There was a technician who figured out ways to automate certain tasks in composite work, which Croshaw headed.

Preeg served as an animation director, heavily involved in the rigging of Tupac’s skeleton. Under him were two animators: one handling the animation for “Hail Mary” and the other for “2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted.” And, last but certainly not least, there was a sculptor who worked down to the 11th hour to make sure Tupac’s face and mouth shapes illustrated his likenesses to a T.

A holographic image of Tupac Shakur is seen performing during day 3 of the 2012 Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival at the Empire Polo Field on April 15, 2012 in Indio, California.

Courtesy of Digital Domain

They all packed in one room, where every single inch of the wall was covered with pictures of ’Pac for inspiration and reference. They blasted his records so much that Croshaw’s mother pointed out how much more her daughter had begun cursing. “When you’re making any character in digital effects, you really have to become that character,” Croshaw said, “and never in my life have I transformed into a character more than Tupac.”

They had to make their version of Tupac essentially from scratch. “Because he passed away in the late ’90s, it’s not like these days where a lot of actors have scans done of them. … With Tupac, we didn’t have anything.” They ended up using footage of Tupac’s final live performance from July 4, 1996, at the House of Blues in Los Angeles, which was released on DVD in 2005. The last song ’Pac performs on the tape is “2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted.” So for one of the songs on virtual Tupac’s Coachella set list, there was a point of reference. For the other? Tupac never performed “Hail Mary,” which was released on The 7 Day Theory nearly two months after his death. Digital Domain possessed no footage to match to but had leeway in crafting his movements.

“We found that he has that smile, you know, that just lights up a room. That was something that we really wanted to embrace, so we spent a lot of time on the smile shape.”

“What makes him, him? What makes him have that spark? We found that he has that smile, you know, that just lights up a room. That was something that we really wanted to embrace, so we spent a lot of time on the smile shape,” Croshaw said. “Another one he has is this, like, kind of crooked sort of eyebrow raise, where one of his eyebrows goes up. These are two signature Tupac looks we really wanted to nail.”

Croshaw, who recalled the creation of Coachella’s digital Tupac via the phone while on maternity leave, didn’t sugarcoat the process. Creating a virtual human being is scary, she said, especially in the initial stages of the design. There was a moment early on when Dr. Dre got a glimpse of Tupac’s face — outside of old photographs and video clips — for the first time in years.

“They were just like, ‘That’s not Tupac. That’s not even close to Tupac,’ ” Croshaw recalled of the reactions of Dr. Dre and his partners for the performance, director Philip Atwell of Geronimo Productions and Dylan Brown of Yard Entertainment. “So there were a lot of moments when we had to reassure them, ‘It’s going to be fine.’ Even though we’re kind of going like, ‘Oh, s—. Is this going to be fine?”

The week of Coachella 2012, Croshaw began making daily 2 1/2-hour drives from Los Angeles to the festival site at the Empire Polo Club in Indio, California. She was hand-delivering hard drives containing 16,000 or so frames that would come together to form the digital being of one of the greatest rappers of all time. Yet the California desert wasn’t quite welcoming the virtual return of Makaveli.

“The effect itself is difficult to do. People think the hologram can just appear in thin air. It’s a very elaborate staging apparatus that has to be built to do this, and it has to be in the right conditions,” Smith said. “One of the challenges of doing this effect out at Coachella was you had everything working against you. You had heat, you had cold, you had rain, you had wind. It had to be dark. You had to control all of the lighting, including the moon, which is difficult to do. It’s a perfect effect for a theater, but it’s not the perfect effect for uncontrolled environments.”

A holographic image of Tupac Shakur is seen performing during day 3 of the 2012 Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival at the Empire Polo Field on April 15, 2012 in Indio, California.

Kevin Winter/Getty Images for Coachella

Sunday, the point of no return, finally arrived. At the end of the night, Dr. Dre and Snoop took to the stage. When it was time, AV Concepts crew members had about 90 seconds to calibrate their screen in the wind before all systems were a go.

In a matter of moments, Tupac Shakur rose from the floor of the stage and greeted his Death Row brethren.

“What up, Dre!”

“I’m chillin’! What’s up, Pac!”

“What up, Snoop!”

“What’s up my n—a!”

“What the f— is up, Coachellaaaaa! Throw up a m—-f——’ finger, yeah! Makaveli in this —”

The drop of “Hail Mary” cut him off before the eerily real digital figure bounced and swayed to the beat, dancing his way over to Snoop to perform “2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted” in perfect cadence — like they were at the House of Blues and it was 1996.

The performance, which was livestreamed worldwide on YouTube, ended with the virtual Makaveli returning to center stage, bowing his head and then disappearing in a burst of fragments. Croshaw remembers dead silence from the crowd, before a heartbeat appeared on the LED screens flanking the stage and Eminem came out to the sounds of cheers.

“Relief,” said Croshaw. “That’s what I remember the most. The happiness at the end. Kind of like childbirth, actually … the hardest, most painful thing ever, and then after you have the baby you forget about all the pain.”

“When you’re making any character in digital effects, you have to become that character … and never in my life have I transformed into a character more than Tupac.”

If creating a virtual human being is scary, watching one is, as well. Upon seeing the “Tupac Hologram” (which went on to win Digital Domain the prestigious Cannes Lions Titanium Award in June 2012, for the most groundbreaking work in the creative communications field), many people didn’t know what to make of it.

“That Pac Hologram haunted me in my sleep,” musician and author Questlove tweeted. UPROXX Editor-in-Chief Brett Michael Dykes reached out to his friend, who saw the performance live. “I thought I was seeing things. One of my friends who was really high got really upset that 2Pac was dead and why are we doing this. A few were confused and thought he might be alive now. I knew it was a hologram right off the bat but then it looked so real …, ” she responded.

Billboard music editor Jason Lipshutz even penned a column, titled “The Problem with the Tupac Hologram,” that summed up his thoughts in a question he poses at the end of the piece: “Why do we need to watch an imitation of Tupac when we have an incomparable plethora of his own art at our disposal?And, of course, former Death Row CEO Suge Knight had something to say, citing one fundamental problem with the recreation of Tupac’s being: “At the end of the day, how you gonna take the Death Row chain off Pac?” Tupac’s hologram wore a gold cross chain.

A holographic image of Tupac Shakur is seen performing during day 3 of the 2012 Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival at the Empire Polo Field on April 15, 2012 in Indio, California.

The debut performance sparked rumblings that Dr. Dre would be taking ’Pac on tour with him after the festival. But rumors were quickly squashed by the man himself. “It was strictly for Coachella — get it right,” Dr. Dre said in a video message to fans before taking the stage during the second weekend of the festival.

On that night, April 22, 2012, Dr. Dre and Snoop shared a stage with their virtual homie one more time. And, per Dr. Dre’s words, don’t expect them to do so again anytime soon. Tupac Shakur is dead. He’s not in Cuba, or working as a cashier at a Cluck-U Chicken on the campus of the University of Maryland. He was killed in 1996, and despite his bold lyrical professions, the closest he ever came to making a return to this earth was five years ago in digital form on the Coachella stage.

And if you’re looking for the hologram, you won’t find it at Digital Domain or AV Concepts. The digital asset that Digital Domain created has been archived. Only Tupac’s estate has access.

“Two weekends, two performances,” Janelle Croshaw says with the finality of accomplishment. “That was it.”

Aaron Dodson is a sports and culture writer at Andscape. He primarily writes on sneakers/apparel and hosts the platform’s Sneaker Box video series. During Michael Jordan’s two seasons playing for the Washington Wizards in the early 2000s, the “Flint” Air Jordan 9s sparked his passion for kicks.