Artist Marco Brambilla’s New A.I.-Generated Ode to Elvis Is Inaugurating Las Vegas’s Immersive Entertainment Venue, the Sphere
The video installation is on view as part of a new limited concert by the band U2.
The artist and filmmaker Marco Brambilla has used A.I. to make the highest resolution video collage of all time dedicated to rockstar Elvis Presley. The work debuts at the Sphere, a new venue for immersive entertainment in Las Vegas, as part of a new limited concert by the band U2.
KING SIZE looks at the King of Rock’s life and legend as a window onto the birth of Las Vegas, the failed American dream, and today’s culture of excess. Its A.I.-generated, CGI-modified reincarnation of Elvis is used to tell his life story across one large video installation that scrolls-upward, just like so much of the media that we consume today via phone.
“The storyline is really the gradual growth and collapse of an icon and also how Las Vegas went from being a desert to a glamorous destination to a mega Disneyland,” Brambilla told Artnet News. “Those two hyperboles seemed very well connected to me.”
Aptly named for its spherical shape, The Sphere in Paradise Nevada, right by Las Vegas, is described by Brambilla as “the most audacious venue.” He said its 16K by 16K LED screens—the highest resolution ever attempted—create the same effect as “if all 15,000 people sitting there were wearing V.R. googles, but they’re not. You can’t see the pixels so it’s like you’re looking out the window.” The 580,000-square-foot LED “exosphere,” or exterior, can be seen from space.
“Conceptually and technically, the rich tapestry of it speaks to this idea of epic exaggeration that is so relevant today,” said Brambilla. “Everything is more is more is more, and what better way of expressing that than by channelling it through Elvis’s spirit.”
Aesthetically, the energy of Las Vegas is evoked by an abundance of dazzling neon signs and dancing starlets inspired by the 1927 movie Metropolis. In amongst the noise, viewers will be able to follow Elvis’s journey from child prodigy to idol to, finally, a caricature of himself. “Then he almost becomes as excessive as the city itself,” said Brambilla.
Brambilla, who is Italian but based between London and Paris, has been a long time pioneer of video, digital imaging, V.R. and other emerging technologies. These projects have often been characterized by their wry satirization of capitalism, our image-saturated world, and the frenzied obsession with celebrity.
This latest immersive project employs an A.I. model based on the popular Stable Diffusion tool but trained on a handmade dataset of over 12,000 found film samples featuring Elvis. Once it had learnt the singer’s movements, the model was able to bring him to life in super high-resolution. The result is a kaleidoscopic collage of recontextualized vignettes. “I’ve always been inspired by Breughel and Bosch and this idea of multiple storylines existing in the same frame, but with video,” said Brambilla.
By the end, Elvis is represented by a monument that towers over the video’s frenetic activity. “It’s almost like we’re in Elvis’s head,” is how Brambilla imagined it. “It’s his own memory of Vegas, of how it started. It’s a very subjective point of view so it’s all the neurons firing and everything coming together.”
The use of A.I. generative tools for art production was, last year, much hyped but has since become more controversial, in part due to the possibility of reproducing another artist’s style or subject. While the direct outputs of Midjourney or Stable Diffusion usually fall flat as creative expressions, Brambilla’s mix-and-match montage application seems to forge one possible path for their adoption by established artists.
“We started using the beta version of DALL-E [another tool by OpenAI] about a year and a half ago, but this was an opportunity to use it as a sketching tool,” he said. A.I. made the process of stitching together moving images much less time-consuming, which provided a preliminary architecture for the artist and his CGI team to touch up. Another popular generative A.I. tool, Midjourney, was used to produce was Brambilla described as “Vegasafied” guitars and microphones that were embedded as motifs throughout the collage.
“What it does really well is it allows you to do many things simultaneously and speeds up the process of ideation,” said Brambilla. “What it doesn’t do well is make an output that’s really specific. It fights backs, so you never quite get the exact result but you get options. What I chose to do is take these imaginations and use them as a sketch for CGI artist to modify.”
“With Elvis’s head, we let A.I. imagine it and it has all these dynamic textures,” he added. While in most cases the A.I. was confined to a strict dataset limited to archival footage of Elvis, for his head Brambilla let the model scrape Google for its own reference points. The final image has echoes of the Statue of Liberty and the Noguchi plaque sculpture on the Rockefeller Center in New York. “A.I. was unleashed on the head but it was controlled for the objects that populated the collage itself.”
“A.I. is a blunt instrument that helps you get references and inspirations, but it doesn’t really create intention,” said Brambilla. “That’s still our department. For now.”
The Sphere will be inaugurated today with U2’s limited concert series “U2: UV Achtung Baby,” on view through December 16. Other artists producing new works for the performance include Brian Eno and Es Devlin.
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