Thinking of this final blog post, my mind kept swirling around two topics that kind of bookended the start and end of this course for me, neither of which are pleasant topics: death and COVID. The former was with regard to a dear friend who died suddenly, accidentally in September and the latter was with regard to ME who came down with COVID in November, despite 20 months of trying to evade this insidious virus. I thought of looking at both of these events through the lens of digital transformation… but then our professor shared a final blog post from a previous student that leaned heavily on Daft Punk lyrics and then Parker is making pizza and I didn’t want to be a Debby Downer in this final post.
So instead, I’ll maintain my bookending framework by looking at how two bands that were massively popular decades ago have leveraged cutting edge digital tools to transform themselves for surprising releases in 2021.
The first example occurred at the inception of this course and is one of the first things I tweeted about for this course: the unexpected reappearance of 70’s Swedish superstars ABBA.
[I post the usual disclaimer that I was born in Sweden, moved back to Sweden in my 20s and have boundless enthusiasm for all things Swedish and Scandinavian!]
For those that don’t know, ABBA emerged in the early 1970’s with a bang when they one the Eurovision song contest in 1974 with their song Waterloo. They became one of the top pop groups of the 1970s and early 1980s, with hit after hit after hit. The two men and two women had been a pair of married couples, but those marriages ended and soon after the band called it a day. They continue to regain popularity over the years as new generations of fans discover them: in the 1990s it was the film Muriel’s Wedding that sparked a resurgence in popularity; more recently the film Mamma Mia!
Despite these waves of revived popularity, the foursome turned down lucrative offers to reunite which is why chatter of a reunion this past summer seemed unfathomable. And yet, in September the band revealed that they had indeed been reuniting in the studio and would soon be releasing a new album. But what was even more fascinating was the news that they were working on a live concert experience that would combine live musicians with digitally de-aged versions of themselves (which they brilliantly dubbed Abbatars) to perform in a specially constructed theater in London.
The original members of the band (now in their 70s) performed while decked out in motion capture garb like a quartet of Andy Serkises and then hundreds of digital artists and technicians– including some from ILM– are utilizing that to create this pseudo-live experience. A producer of the upcoming London based experience describes in this video that the end result as “a unique space to be in that is neither digital nor physical.”
The second band that has had a digitally assisted return is even bigger than ABBA and of course, I mean The Beatles. The digital de-aging that The Beatles have presented is a different type than ABBA but still rooted in our times and the digital tools at our disposal. The *new* Beatles offering is a three part Disney+ miniseries “Get Back” produced by New Zealand director Peter Jackson, no stranger to digital wizardry (and Andy Serkis) through his acclaimed Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films.
In January 1969 The Beatles embarked on a “back to basics” project that was to result in a new album performed in concert, which would have been their first live concert in three years. The results were not what they had hoped for and the project was shelved for the remainder of 1969. Indeed the band got together to record another album a few months later, the masterwork Abbey Road. Soon after, the band finally began to break up. The recordings from January 1969 were assembled into another album Let it Be, with a dour film of the same name directed by Michael Linsday-Hogg.
Jackson worked with over 60 hours of film footage and 150 hours of audio recordings from those January 1969 sessions and utilized pioneering digital restoration techniques to enhance both the visuals and audio. He utilized techniques he pioneered with his World War I restoration piece They Shall Not Grow Old. Open Culture noted:
Those who have seen both Linday-Hogg’s and Jackson’s documentaries will notice how much sharper, smoother, and more vivid the very same footage looks in the latter, despite the sixteen-millimeter film having languished for half a century.
The audio content also required some digital magic, especially the early January rehearsals that took place in the film studio Twickenham. Unlike the later sessions that were recorded in a multitrack studio setting, these informal rehearsals only had audio recording from the film cameras, which were single track mono recordings. But Jackson and his team utilized AI and machine learning to break out the recordings in those mono recordings, as he describes:
The vocals get drowned out, the guitars are loud, you can hardly ever hear Ringo – ’cause they weren’t recording proper performances, it was rehearsals
But we wanted it to sound a lot better, so we, uh, devised a technology that is called demixing. It’s an idea that’s been around for a while, but I’ve never really heard it used that well. But we got some really clever people down here at Park Road Post to build some software for us that is all AI-based machine learning. You teach the computer what a guitar sounds like, you teach them what a human voice sounds like, you teach it what a drum sounds like, you teach it what a bass sounds like.
And so then we can take a mono track of them in Twickenham performing and we can say, ‘Just give us the vocal track’. And the machine learning will render a vocal track only.
An example of this enhanced audio is in the widely circulated clip on social media that shows when Paul McCartney composes the classic song Get Back while waiting for John Lennon to arrive at rehearsals.
When Jackson began the project, he envisioned a theatrical release of a stand-alone 2 hour documentary. The emergence of COVID delayed things and afforded Jackson more time to work with his vision. He realized the scope of the story was bigger and so instead of a theatrical release, Disney+ offered him the environment to release Get Back as a three part, eight hour documentary. I’ve only seen part 1 so far, but it really is an amazing use of current technology to revive a 50 year old story.
So here we are at the close of Digital Transformation and I can indulge in the pure eye and ear candy of two pop bands that I’ve loved for years, newly transformed by the very concepts and means that we’ve explored in this class.