‘The Death of the Artist’ by Michael Nguyen-Huynh
‘The Death of the Artist’ by student Michael Nguyen-Huynh was developed in Freelance Writing for the Media in 2022.
The immortal ghost of Tupac levitates above a shifting landscape. What future can he see in the horizon?
All eyez on me
It’s been a long decade since Tupac surprised revellers with his appearance at Coachella. Topless, with a golden crucifix dangling around his neck, the American rap icon had been dead for over fifteen years. His digital spectre rose above the festival stage, shimmering in the moonlight beneath a cloudless night sky. ‘What the f*** is up Coachell-aaaa!’ he shouted to a bewildered audience, before launching into ‘Hail Mary’ with Snoop Dogg by his side.
Of course, Tupac was not really Tupac (though Snoop Dogg seems to have been the real deal). The audience had instead witnessed a lifelike digital recreation designed by the Academy Award-winning visual effects company Digital Domain, projected onto the stage by the multimedia group AV Concepts. The team at Digital Domain had painstakingly brought the rapper to life through a combination of motion-capture technology and digital sculpting. Lacking any modern-day reference material, they relied on archival footage of interviews and live performances to construct their model.
Their efforts culminated in two performances over two weeks, streamed live across the internet. To date, the ghost of Tupac has not made any further public appearances.
Responses were mixed. Beyond the initial wave of incredulity came questions concerning digital Tupac’s moral implications. In an opinion piece penned by Jason Lipshutz in the days following Tupac’s appearance, the Billboard editor pondered, ‘If Tupac can make an appearance with Dre and Snoop at Coachella, why can’t John Lennon stop by a Paul McCartney show, or Kurt Cobain perform on a *shudder* Hologram Nirvana tour?’
The answer to Lipshutz’s question is both time and money. In an interview with MTV, Nick Smith, the president of AV Concepts, mentioned that it had taken four months to create the digital Tupac, and several months of planning before that to even get them to that point. While the actual cost of the project remains a secret, Smith went on to mention that ‘a comparable creation could cost anywhere from $100,000 to more than $400,000 to pull off’. All those resources for two songs, performed over the course of four minutes.
Still, Lipshutz’s question draws attention to an ethical conundrum that continues to itch. Does this use of technology disrespect the legacies of those who are no longer with us? It’s impossible to say whether Tupac, alongside other fallen artists, would have consented to his likeness being used in such a manner.
On the other hand, is Tupac’s digital revival simply a natural extension of the touring cover band, or the biopic after biopic that Hollywood continues to churn out, and that we wholeheartedly consume. After all, what good is legacy to dirt and dust?
The force awakens
In the decade following Tupac’s Coachella appearances, developments in artificial intelligence technology have seemingly levelled the playing field. In late September this year, it was reported by Vanity Fair that James Earl Jones had retired from voicing Darth Vader in the Star Wars franchise—a role, and a voice, he had made uniquely his since 1977. The show would go on, however, with Jones signing over the rights to archival recordings of his voice to tech company Respeecher for an undisclosed amount.
Founded in 2018, the Ukrainian start-up specialises in the reconstruction of voices through artificial intelligence. Given enough recordings of a person’s voice, Respeecher’s software can mimic that individual’s vocal ‘fingerprint’—allowing users to generate speech in the style of anyone for whom they have an adequate vocal database.
Respeecher had previously worked with Disney in the season two finale of The Mandalorian, where they reconstructed the voice of a young Luke Skywalker. Mark Hamill himself was just 24 when he first appeared in the original Star Wars, and 69 by the time of The Mandalorian’s season finale. Using audio pulled from the original trilogy, as well as from Star Wars radio plays and audiobooks, Respeecher were able to provide Disney with an uncanny recreation of Hamill’s voice from a lifetime ago.
For titans of industry like Disney, emergent technologies such as Respeecher represent a solution to an increasingly salient problem: the ageing franchise. Star Wars itself has spawned not just twelve feature films but seven television shows and a seemingly endless amount of content bubbling in the pipeline. Similarly, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, another of Disney’s crown jewels, prides itself on an interconnected media tapestry. Characters weave in and out of each other’s individual properties, and narrative arcs span decades.
The idea of the ‘endless franchise’ seems inherently antithetical to its own longevity. How do you keep a well-oiled machine running in the face of maturing actors, expiring contracts and, unfortunately, untimely deaths?
The answer, according to Disney at least, is to remove the human element entirely. It’s a lot easier to keep telling stories about the heroic exploits of Luke Skywalker and the terrifying villainy of Darth Vader when these characters can be generated at the click of a button. No more delays born from cast unavailability; no more ADR to compensate for wind-streaked audio; just pure, reliable product.
But is this tenable? Do we, as an audience, have the stomach for post-live-action storytelling, or will we struggle to see the medium as nothing more than digital smoke and mirrors?
This year, Japan celebrates the 15th anniversary of one of the nation’s most beloved pop stars, Hatsune Miku.
Since 2007, her turquoise twintails and effervescent voice have dazzled audiences in Japan and across the globe. She has toured with Lady Gaga, performed on the Late Show with David Letterman and has featured in several best-selling video games. It’s easier to write about her feats than it is to write about her personality, and there’s a good reason for that: Hatsune Miku doesn’t exist.
Rather, Miku is a continuously updated piece of software known as a Vocaloid, developed by the Japanese company Crypton Future Media. Her name means ‘the first sound of the future’, and her turquoise and grey colour scheme mimics that of the Yamaha DX7 synthesiser.
Like Respeecher, the Vocaloid software grants users the ability to generate speech, or in this case, vocals, drawn from a catalogue of sounds known as a voicebank. However, Hatsune Miku’s voicebank is derived from one individual: the Japanese voice actress Saki Fujita.
Fujita herself boasts a career that spans three decades and continues to this day, lending her voice to dozens of beloved anime and video game franchises. While listeners may hear glimmers of Miku in Fujita’s speech, the two have grown distinctly apart over the years.
In 2012, Crypton Future Media bestowed upon Miku a Creative Commons license, allowing creators a greater platform to share their own works made with the Vocaloid software. In that moment, Miku was able to transcend the barrier constructed by both Saki Fujita and her corporate progenitors. She became a true pop star of the digital age—floating freely in cyberspace.
In an interview with the website Natalie, Fujita reflects on the fans that bring the Vocaloid to life.
‘There’s an excitement at [the concerts] that only people who have attended understand. It’s not just virtual, Hatsune Miku is really there. With the crowd’s thoughts and cheers, Hatsune Miku becomes real. It’s a truly miraculous thing, and watching the concerts, I feel like it couldn’t be what it is if even one attendee’s energy was missing. Like if even one person were to just give up, she’d vanish in a moment.’
The ghost in the shell
What is it that connects Tupac, Darth Vader and Hatsune Miku? Behind all three hides a human pulling the levers, like the Wizard of Oz himself. For the time being, the advent of cutting-edge technologies does not signal the death of the artist. Rather, it heralds the arrival of a new set of tools, a pathway for further creation, and a reminder that the greatest resource of all is human imagination.
Consider a world where Star Wars fans aren’t just treated to never-ending adventures in the galaxy far, far away, but themselves are behind the camera and in the sound studio—unseating George Lucas as the visionary auteur.
While Saki Fujita may one day transcend the mortal plane, her unwavering voice will soar without her towards an unknown future.
And in the meantime, Tupac continues to gather dust on a hard drive in the offices of Digital Domain, perhaps eager for the moment when he can once more return to the roaring stage.
Writer bio: Michael Nguyen-Huynh is a Vietnamese-Australian writer and artist living in Bulleke-bek. His work is centred on the disruptive relationships that humans have with their habitats and their technology. He has been printed in Voiceworks and featured on All The Best — a nationally-syndicated radio program showcasing emerging Australian storytellers.
Photo credit: “Tupac Hologram at Coachella 2012” by evsmitty is licensed under CC BY 2.0.