The fervent Ronnie James Dio fans who gathered to watch a group of the late singer's former bandmates close out Germany's mega-sized heavy-metal festival Wacken Open Air Saturday night got a big surprise: a theatrical performance by Dio in hologram form. It bellowed "We Rock," the singer's gritty 1984 anthem and go-to encore song, and raised its hands in the singer's trademark devil horns. But the company that created it hopes it will be the first of many shows.
The Dio hologram has been over a year in the making; it involved a team of people from across the music and tech industries working together to create a digital version of the frontman that could tour with Dio Disciples, a band that formed to keep the singer's music alive after his death of stomach cancer in 2010. When they tell Rolling Stone about what it took to get it to Wacken, from conception to the musicians' choreography, they each marvel individually at what they created.
"I cried the first time I saw it," says the singer's widow, Wendy Dio, who oversees his legacy. "It was quite, quite scary. Our crew, when they first saw it at rehearsal, they were in tears. It's absolutely amazing."
Dio Disciples guitarist Craig Goldy, who joined Dio's eponymous band in 1986 and was a member off and on for the next two decades, first saw the hologram at a band rehearsal. "It was very surreal," he says. "I could see him – he was moving and singing – but I couldn't touch him. It was surreal almost to have him here again."
Jeff Pezzuti – the CEO of Eyellusion, the company that made the hologram – was first inspired to get into the business of music holograms after seeing a Michael Jackson hologram moonwalk on the Billboard Music Awards in May 2014. He felt he could do something that would focus more on the concert experience, rather than the spectacle. "As the music industry has changed, touring has become the primary revenue generator for artists," he says. "When I started Eyellusion, I realized we should focus only on the live music market."
He began meeting with managers who represented artists across genres and formed an instant connection with Wendy, who was immediately receptive. It worked out for him, too, since he says Dio was "probably my first choice" for an artist to work on. He'd seen Dio on the Sacred Heart tour in 1985, and, in his words, "I was never the same again."
"I knew about the Tupac hologram and everything, but what appealed to me was that this would be the first time with a live band; Ronnie's band," Wendy says. "So that was exciting."
Together, they worked to make a hologram experience that would be authentic. They used a live recording, isolating Ronnie's vocal track, and collected thousands of photos and videos of the singer to capture a look that wasn't tied to any specific era, though Pezzuti was generally aiming for Dio's late-Eighties look. "We're celebrating Ronnie in his prime," he says. "It's the closest we are going to get to the real Dio and I think that's really what it's about."
"I cried the first time I saw it. It was quite, quite scary" - Wendy Dio
"When I first learned that a Dio hologram was in the works, I thought, 'How is this even possible?'" Wacken festival founder Thomas Jensen says, prior to the performance. "We've all heard of holograms, but what Eyellusion and Dio Disciples were talking about was something different."
Jensen realized that the hologram could generate buzz and decided it should close the fest, which has attracted as many as 75,000 headbangers in recent years. "We have a loyal audience and they loved Ronnie," he says. "We're fans of Dio Disciples and are always happy when we can have them, but the new element definitely raised our interest. It made sense to give them a prime spot so our entire audience could experience the Ronnie James Dio hologram."
The idea of the Dio hologram also tilted the scales when it came to the release of a box set this year. The record label Rhino Entertainment, which creates archival releases for Warner Music Group, had planned on creating a Dio box set after earning two Grammy nominations and one win for its tribute compilation, Ronnie James Dio – This Is Your Life, in 2014. But when Wendy informed them that there was a Dio hologram in the works for Wacken, they rethought their release schedule. Subsequently, the release of A Decade of Dio: 1983 – 1993, which collects remastered editions of Dio's studio LPs from Holy Diver to Strange Highways, was delayed until just before Wacken.
"It was very surreal. I could see him ... but I couldn't touch him" - Dio Disciples' Craig Goldy
"Just putting out A Decade of Dio with remastered versions was enough of a sales driver for hardcore fans," Rhino President Mark Pinkus tells Rolling Stone. "I can't wait to see what happens next week after the big event this weekend."
Pezzuti says he can't compare the hologram to the Michael Jackson iteration. He credits Chad Finnerty at Digital Frontier FX, which worked on the look of it, with creating a Ronnie that was "incredibly fluid" and "looks amazing." They shot the performance in 4K, which is about 17,000 frames. "The file does get big," he says with a laugh. Staging the hologram at Wacken, Pezzuti says, was simple and could be set up easily in the 30-minute set changeover.
"We've worked hard on the performance," Goldy says. "There are certain things that we have to get right, like playing to the click track for the beat. The hologram is synced with the audio of his voice from a particular performance, and that performance needs to be duplicated. I feel bad for [drummer] Simon [Wright] because he needs to listen to the click in his headphones the whole time. And we can't all stand in one place; it needs to look like a performance so we're going to choreograph some of the interaction."
As for the song, "We Rock," Wendy says it was between that, "Rainbow in the Dark" and Black Sabbath's "Neon Knights." "'Rainbow in the Dark' was our first choice and we did shoot that, but 'We Rock' is the song that he always used to finish the show with," she says. "I just felt like it was the right song to do. And, of course, then Ronnie can pick a banner up that says 'You rock.'"
In the future, "Ronnie" may be singing more songs, with the Wacken performance a teaser for Eyllusion and Dio Disciples' future plans. Wendy thinks they can make six to 12 songs into performances. Pezzuti is hoping for 14 so they can have a rotating set list featuring songs from throughout Dio's catalogue, including his turns fronting Rainbow and Black Sabbath. "It's not about touring a hologram," he says. "To me, it's about touring a concert." They hope to launch the Dio tour in 2017.
To get a foot in the door with the touring industry, Eyellusion has partnered with some music-industry vets. Wendy introduced him to Todd Singerman, manager for Motörhead and Anthrax, and they connected with drummer Kenny Aronoff, who has played with John Mellancamp and John Fogerty, among others. They're currently in talks about producing holograms for other artists. (When Rolling Stone asks whether a Lemmy hologram is in the works, given Singerman's involvement, Pezzuti says, "Well, we'll see. Nothing official to announce there yet, but I see you do your research.")
Pezzuti hopes to expand the hologram touring model to younger, living, breathing bands, too, by giving them the option to broadcast performances via hologram to any place where they've installed an Eyellusion setup.
Pinkus and Rhino are also excited about the future, with regard to the tour. "There's so many terrific firsts," he says. "It's the first live band to use a hologram, first rock band to use a hologram. If this could be the first tour with a hologram, I think Dio fans are going to go nuts about it."