If you asked me to list the ways I thought Elton John might one day announce his retirement, “a splashy, CGI-filled VR retrospective” would have been nowhere near the top. Maybe in the low teens. Maybe. Yet, that’s exactly what he did earlier today—but a few a weeks before that, it’s exactly what I’m experiencing in a small, dark room outside LA.
That’s where I am in corporeal form, at least. Inside the VR headset I’m wearing, I’m in a different small, dark room in southern California: West Hollywood’s iconic Troubadour nightclub in 1970, peering into the bespectacled, CGI-ed face of a 23-year-old Elton John while he sings “Your Song.” It’s a recreation of his first US concert, the one that catapulted him to global fame, and as I glide weightlessly around his piano, thousands of golden specks—metaphorical stardust, presumably—fall from the ceiling, swirling around the demure young man at the piano.
Then the scene changes, and so does Elton John. Now I’m onstage in front of a packed Dodgers Stadium during one of the musician’s two 1975 shows, and a very sequiny John is pinballing around the stage screaming out “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting.” It is, I admit, a little overwhelming. At one point his face swings so close, and has such believable dimension, that I take a big step backward—right into a bundle of what I assume are some very important cords.
“Let me get you a chair for this part,” says Ben Casey, founder and CEO of Spinifex Group, the creative studio/digital agency/production company behind this extravaganza. I take a set, and just in time—the ground falls away and I zoom into outer space, float around in Elton John’s cocaine party of a private jet and some lava-lamp looking nebulas, and traverse a whirling yellow brick road back down to Earth. All the while, images from The Lion King and Gnomeo and Juliet flash by, along with other visions of John throughout his career.
When the intergalactic acid trip ends and I emerge from my headset—a little dizzy, completely overstimulated, with “Rocket Man” firmly stuck in my head—that little corner of Spinifex’s offices seems even darker and smaller and grayer. Clearly, I was wrong: Turns out a VR experience like Farewell Yellow Brick Road: The Legacy is the most Elton John retirement announcement anybody could have hoped for.
The Elton Factor
And of course it is. The very existence of this event—the VR experience that was just simul-blasted to headset-wearing audiences at events in New York, Los Angeles, and London, followed by a concert and Q&A livestreamed by YouTube to fans around the world, all to announce his upcoming retirement tour—is a testament to the creative clout and staggering influence wielded by John and his team. “Working with these guys felt very much like talking to rulers of the Emirates or officials in China,” Casey says. (Both are things he’s actually done.) “There’s this assumption that they’re going to do the next big thing.”
Once Spinifex sold John’s team on their vision, that vision became the watchword—naysayers be damned. Imagine being told by Google, as Team Elton was, that what you were asking for was technically impossible. Then imagine convincing Google they were wrong about the limitations of their own technology, pretty much just because you say so. This is the world Elton John lives in.
And once the collaborators determined how audiences would be watching, there was the whole question of what, exactly, they’d be looking at. And how, exactly, they could make it look good. “We have all these darlings of the VFX world in, people who’ve done Deadpool and other big, cutting-edge visual effects productions,” Casey says. “And they genuinely reached a point in this process where all they could say is ‘That hasn’t been thought about yet.’”
The novel challenges were these: In order to chart the arc of his career, they had to create believable versions of Elton John at various different ages and recreate scenes from the 1970s with extremely limited (and lo-res) reference materials. Both of which require a good bit of help from a very busy and somewhat cantankerous musical icon.
Capturing John’s present-day incarnation is easy, because that guy exists. But the Elton John who played at the Troubadour? Five grainy images are seemingly the only document that exists. So Spinifex had to sculpt their recreations of young Elton based on the scant resources they had—as well as a CGI-youthified face they modeled off scans of the 70-year-old star. Fortunately, John’s signature oversized glasses make that task a bit easier.
But there’s more to a classic Elton John experience than a digitally de-aged face. Spinifex couldn’t just create a generic CGI doppleganger: the character had to perform and play like Elton John. Asking the singer to reprise his 1970s antics—running around stages, kicking his foot up on top of a piano and strumming his thigh like a guitar—seemed a bit much. “When we realized we were going to need a body double, Elton just said ‘Well obviously you’d use Justin Timberlake,’” says Casey, laughing. They ended up hiring Russ Anderson, a professional Elton John impersonator, for the high-energy sequences, and replacing his face after the fact with a de-aged version of John’s actual face.
But when it came to recreating John’s signature style of piano playing, they were determined to capture the genuine article. Spinifex brought in motion-capture pros from nearby animation studio House of Moves, and John squeezed into a mo-cap suit and took a seat behind the electric keyboard amidst a forest of cameras. There was even a specialist “Dot Doctor” charged with positioning (and repositioning) motion-capture tracking markers on John’s fingers. The day went smoothly—mostly. “He’d been playing ‘Tiny Dancer’ and kept hitting this note and stopping,” Casey says. “And he’d be like ‘Can you fucking hear that? It’s ghosting! Look at all this technology around us, and it’s a keyboard that isn’t working.’ No one else could even hear it.” Things got a lot better when they rolled out a real piano.
Getting fans immersed in the magical-realist world of Elton John also takes a whole lot of bleeding-edge tech. For the last six months, Spinifex has had to cobble together wildly disparate pieces of technology—much of it uncomfortably new—to have even a prayer of pulling it off. Making things look seamless in VR is hard enough. Doing it while also creating live-action sequences … that need to look like they’re set in the past … in stereoscopic 360? That’s almost ridiculously complex.
To keep the experience stable and comfortable for viewers, and to make sure the Elton stand-in’s replaced face didn’t go all Exorcist, Spinifex commissioned a bespoke head for a motion-control rig—itself a fancy piece of tech used in the filming of Thor: Ragnarok. And to make sure VR Elton stays in focus, the studio used Facebook’s “cube map” format to concentrate what spare pixels they have on a single hot spot—in this case, Elton. It’s a similar idea to Google’s recently-announced VR180 cameras, which captured the just-completed live event that followed Spinifex’s VR experience is over.
“We breathed a sigh of relief when we realized would have them ready. Otherwise we wouldn’t have been able to broadcast this,” says Matt Apfel, Google’s VR video programming head. “Pixels aren’t wasted being wrapped all the way around, and 180 eliminates audience confusion about where they should be looking. We didn’t want that feeling of FOMO.”
In fact, despite all the technical and VR hurdles—face replacement, mo-cap wonkiness, resolution hurdles—the biggest technical challenge turned out to be the logistics of the live event. To be effective, Spinifex’s VR piece had to begin simultaneously for the hundreds of people actually attending Elton’s event (and, to a lesser extent, the onlookers at home), with all those VR headsets somehow triggering within a hundredth of a millisecond without crashing the WiFi network. “Gladly, and nervously, no one has ever done this at this scale,” says Shea Clayton, Spinifex’s head of interactive. Since off-the-shelf triggers were out of the question, they borrowed a technique for equalizing traffic across a network of phones from the gaming world, and in case of emergency, send what Clayton calls a “last will and testament”: If my connection drops out, trigger this content at this specific time. And, bizarrely, the scrap of code they’re using to make sure those messages get sent and received was invented for an oil pipeline. “Borrowing bits and bobs from other things is really what makes it work,” Clayton says.
Did it all come together? At the moment I write this, I have no idea. It worked in Spinifex’s offices, where I watched about 100 phones pulse in unison and start blasting Elton John. But a better question for a piece that’s meant to sum up an icon’s career is, is it effective? And for those closest to John, the answer seems to be yes. “When I saw everything finally, fully finished, I couldn’t stop crying,” says David Furnish, Elton John’s husband and CEO of Rocket Entertainment. “I know I’m a sample of one. But while my closeness to the subject means I’m easily moved, it also mean that the bar is super high.”
And while its conceit—incomparably influential artist goes out with a futuristic bang—could have come off as contrived, the idea that Elton John is an artist capable of moving at the speed of culture doesn’t seem as far-fetched as it might for other musicians of his era. He’s built a career on invention and reinvention. And now that his likeness, his performances, and his music have been captured in various high-fidelity formats, there’s no reason that the music has to stop just because the touring does. “He wouldn’t want a computer to write a song, but anything that respectfully keeps his songs and catalogue alive, to new audiences and different audiences, that surprises and delights and entertains them?” says Furnish. “Elton is one hundred percent in favor of that.”
Today, it’s a VR experience. Tomorrow, you might be rubbing elbows at the piano with a holographic Elton John.