How a Creative Studio Brought Elton John’s Career to Life in Virtual Reality

Spinifex Group explains the strategy behind his farewell tour kickoff

The Elton John experience played simultaneously in New York, Los Angeles and London. - Credit by Courtesy of Rocket Entertainment

It was a case of kismet that seemed almost magical. About the time that creative studio Spinifex Group had identified Elton John as someone who could really benefit from its more cutting-edge techniques, the artist’s company was looking for just the sort of thing that the digital experience agency offered.

While Rocketman, the movie about John released last week, was expected to put the pop star’s fame in overdrive, John and his team were looking for something more as they planned his final concert tour, which began last September. They were focused on the notion of engaging younger music lovers, not only for those performances, but solidifying his legacy in the future. And with Spinifex deep into the concept of recreating likenesses and performances from earlier years, iconic musicians like John, now in his 70s, were on its radar.

“When you really talk to [John], his biggest motivation is he wants his music to live on,” said Ben Casey, CEO of Spinifex. “As he stops touring, he needs to find new ways to connect to audiences.”

Spinifex reached out to John and the team at his company, Rocket, inviting them to come to the agency’s studio to show how audiences could experience concerts that happened decades before, with technology that would make them astoundingly vivid and memorable.

“That intrigued them, because, unbeknownst to us, they had been planning legacy-type projects,” related Casey. “It was one of those moments where a relatively random call delivered quite a relevant connection.”

At the heart of Spinifex’s work for John is a virtual reality “time machine” that took viewers back to John’s seminal 1970s shows using motion-capture, live-action and face-replacement techniques. The shared, synchronized virtual reality experience was viewed by the press and VIPs as John announced the tour, dubbed Farewell Yellow Brick Road. The production also used YouTube’s new 180-degree VR livestreaming technology so that consumers could experience a performance by John and a Q&A session with him as he made his announcement.

“It cross-pollinated music news with technology news. So he showed up in more areas,” explained Casey. As a result, 4,100 articles were published. And John’s advance concert ticket sales set a record with American Express.

Challenge

Recreate John’s iconic 1970s performances in virtual reality, even though there was very little video or photography available for some of them. Then, distribute the VR show around the world simultaneously to hundreds of headsets and also use YouTube’s VR livestreaming technology.

Goal

Attract John’s longtime fans to his final tour, but also garner the attention of younger concertgoers less familiar with his work. At the same time, the project aimed to rocket John’s legacy far off into the future.

Execution

There was the painstaking recreation of wardrobe and props and some 360 live-action shoots over eight months, including an Elton John body double. Worried about the Wi-Fi connection to the VR headsets, Spinifex incorporated a bit of coding from an oil pipeline management system called “Last Will and Testament” that could “trigger” the experience at the right moment in case the Wi-Fi started to fail.

Courtesy of Rocket Entertainment

Insights

Spinifex refers to its more bleeding-edge work, like its Elton John experience, as “moon projects,” which feed into its creative work for other brands that don’t test the limits. “They enable us to stretch our legs creatively and explore the possibilities of technology in a resource-rich environment that we can then translate into work for branded clients that are willing to take risks and expand their horizons,” said Casey.

Originally, Spinifex was interested in projects that would focus on performers who had passed away but whose likenesses were needed for the continuation of tentpoles, like Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, which is using archival footage of Carrie Fisher. But the team turned its attention to living legends, among them John. “There’s lots of ways you can turn back time and create things that are really mind-blowing,” said Casey.

This story first appeared in the June 3, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

Janet Stilson is a freelance writer for Adweek.
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