They'll give rock and roll to you
Theme park vets help usher KISS into digital realm
My son, who is a huge KISS fan, just had to go see the legendary band perform for its “farewell tour.” So we shelled out big bucks for tickets. That was 23 years ago. Apparently unable to stay out of the spotlight, the glam rockers continued to perform until they embarked on their nearly five-year-long “The End of the Road” tour, which finally reached the end Saturday evening at Madison Square Garden in New York City. In a blaze of pyrotechnic glory, smashed guitars, and other rock and roll bombast, the band officially retired their ridiculously tall platform shoes 50 years after first lacing them up.
Or did they?
For its encore at the final show, KISS reemerged as avatars projected on a huge screen at the back of the stage and on translucent scrims hanging in the arena. A digitized Paul Stanley, founding member and frontman, proclaimed, “KISS Army, your power has made us immortal,” as the proxy e-band, figuratively and literally larger than life, broke into the hit, “God Gave Rock and Roll to You.” The spectacle, which heralded a transition into a new and wild virtual frontier for the band, was crafted in part by theme park veterans Johanna “Jojo” Atilano and Thierry Coup.
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I recently interviewed the duo for my column in Funworld magazine, and they hinted about the high-profile project but couldn’t reveal the details. It represents an auspicious start for JOCOUP Creative, the design studio the two formed after leaving Universal Creative earlier this year. One of the titans of the industry, Coup helped develop Universal’s incredible Spider-Man attraction, which ushered in a new era of E-Ticket rides and blurred the line between virtual and reality to an astonishing degree. He subsequently went on to help lead the creative teams behind other landmark park achievements, including the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and Super Nintendo World. Before they left Universal, Atilano and Coup were working on the upcoming Epic Universe theme park in Orlando.
Coup is leading the creative development of the KISS avatar presentations with Atilano serving as producer. Visual effects trailblazers, Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), created the digital representations of the band in partnership with Swedish entertainment company, Pophouse Entertainment Group. The two companies also worked together to develop the ABBA Voyage experience in London and pioneered the use of virtual avatars to bring the pop band to life. Since it debuted in 2022, upwards of 2 million people have seen the wildly popular show, which generates some $2 million a week. Clearly, if done correctly, audiences will flock to digital concerts such as these.
In a roundtable discussion that is captured on video, Stanley says to Coup, “I don’t think anybody’s done what you have done, in terms of fusing reality and a created reality, to play with people’s perception of what’s real and what’s not real.” The 71-year-old, starry-eyed guitarist, obviously a fan of Coup’s groundbreaking work at Universal, wistfully adds, “I think that’s what brought us to you. We can’t maintain this indefinitely. But you can.”
In order to create the avatars, the band members performed at an ILM soundstage and had their likenesses digitized using motion capture, or mo-cap, technology. Coup says that to make the digital band as authentic as possible, the process also included poring over and incorporating hours of archived concert footage. In contrast to ABBA Voyage, which features realistic (if younger) versions of the Swedish band members, the KISS avatars appear to take liberties with their superhero-esque personas. Also unlike the ABBA concerts, which present pre-programmed avatars giving the same exact performance nightly with live backing musicians, Coup notes that with evolving technology, virtual KISS would be able to incorporate spontaneity into its shows.
In the video, Gene Simmons, the band’s blood-spitting bass player and self-proclaimed god of thunder, says that bands “live by the energy that comes back from the audience.” While he and his musical mates might not physically be there, it would seem that the rush of a live crowd could still inspire the KISS facsimile.
“Using AI and real-time renderings, you can react to the audience,” Coup says to Stanley and Simmons. “When the audience says, ‘I love you Paul,’ you can actually respond, ‘I love you too.’ ”
That would represent a next-level leap for the nascent technology. No details were revealed about exactly what form the KISS avatar shows might take. As with the ABBA shows, they might be staged in a purpose-built theater. Or perhaps they could be presented in arenas on tour. Conceivably, there could be multiple KISS avatar concerts taking place at the same time. Immortality has its benefits.
As Stanley remarks to Coup, “I can’t wait to see what you’re creating.” Frankly, neither can I.
What do you think about digital KISS, or the concept of avatar bands in general? Are they “live” concerts? Does it matter? With spectacles such as the U2 residency at the Sphere in Las Vegas, the line between park attractions and live concerts is blurring; where might this trend be heading?