Among all the national pomp and ceremony that shone like gold during the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations last weekend, the virtual hologram of a 25-year-old majesty waving to the cheering crowd was perhaps -to be the most spectacular of the competition, and certainly the most innovative.
The computerized image, captured from archival footage of the monarch filmed at her coronation in 1953, gave the convincing impression that the Queen was not sitting at home, but inside the famous Gold State Coach used by the Royal Family at the coronation of every British monarch since George IV.
This time, however, it was the cunning of a modern digital display that projected Her Majesty as she appeared nearly seven decades ago onto car windows on Sunday afternoon. Flanked by mounted guards to complete the illusion, the CGI Queen was seen waving excitedly to the crowd as the 260-year-old carriage made its way through the Mall and through the busy streets of London.
Although the technology was intended as a precaution given the Jubilee Marching Band’s expected toll on the 96-year-old monarch, last week’s celebratory parade was not the first time HRH has been the subject of sophisticated digital manipulation. In 2012, Ontario artist Chris Levine created a holographic image in honor of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, based on her 2004 portrait. Equanimity.
Double The Diamond Queen (and including a recreation of the Queen’s diamond tiara first worn in 1953), Levine’s advanced 3D illuminated portrait featured an effect similar to Pepper’s Ghost – a magic trick devised by English scientist John Henry Pepper involving reflective plates of glass and light projection popularized in the spooky ghost stories of late 19th century Victorian theaters.
More recently, and as part of the exhibition marking 200 years since the birth of Queen Victoria in 2019, the ballroom at Buckingham Palace updated the principles of this same Victorian illusion technique, with a similar 3D hologram recreating a waltz from a ball marking the conclusion of the Crimean War in 1856.
The ability to evoke youthful – and even “posthumous” – appearances through sophisticated computer processing remains a widely used, albeit hotly contested, production technique in today’s multimedia landscape. The digital platinum jubilee display comes, of course, just a fortnight after the premiere of the highly anticipated Abba Voyage virtual concert tour. The 90-minute live show features 3D computer holograms (or “Abbatars”) created with motion capture techniques and performance doubles, all inspired by the Swedish band’s look during their 70s and 80s heyday.
We’ve seen this kind of CG illusion before. Through the intervention of arts and science, musicians Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, Tupac and Whitney Houston have all appeared posthumously in new “live” stage performances several years after their deaths (though plans to a new live tour with Amy Winehouse in 2019 were scrapped).
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Even TV commercials have stepped in, using infographics to feature everything from breakdancing Gene Kelly (used by Volkswagen for its Golf GTI ad campaign) to a 2013 Galaxy chocolate commercial starring 1950s Audrey Hepburn. In Hollywood , digital aging has become a growing trend within an industry known for its consumptiveness, with actors Robert De Niro, Robert Downey Jr, Will Smith and Michael Douglas all aided by the computer to simulate their younger selves.
Yet in a time when men are allowed to age both onscreen and regularly offered an array of digital beauty VFX, the gendered dimension of the virtual recreation of youth does nothing to mitigate the widespread view that it is female stars who have an insidious built-in obsolescence that severely limits their visibility after a certain age.
But what do these dancing queens and aging celebrities have to say about the power of nostalgia in a time when past glories carry such powerful political currency? While tech nips and tucks have been a common (though largely denied) feature of the fashion and advertising industries for years, the staged tech extravaganza that marked the Queen’s platinum celebrations confirms our wider fascination with the safety and security of our national past.
When the “good old days” of our current economic climate are placed on a collision course with technological wizardry, these haunting and bizarre CG appearances offer something close to comfort in freezing the image of the rich and famous at times of iconic perfection. After all, who better to signal our cultural urges to delay the passage of time than the stars of stage and screen?
From the sublime to the impeccable, the ethics of simulated youth and “posthumous” film performances are not without criticism. But with the potential for British royalty to now live in three dimensions beyond just one possible future, the multimedia prospects of this counterfeit technology suggest that the computer will come to tell many more ghost stories.