Ronald Reagan is back — as a digital hologram


Before he became the 40th president of the United States, Ronald Reagan first rose to fame as a Hollywood actor, starring in numerous movies and later on TV shows.

Now, once again thanks to Hollywood magic, the Gipper is back, this time as a 3-D digital hologram.

A holographic version of Reagan is the latest exhibition at the Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, where he will greet visitors starting Thursday in a series of three vignettes that portray the commander in chief at different points of his presidency.


One vignette shows Reagan campaigning during his Whistlestop Train Tour for the 1984 presidential election. The second scene portrays the president relaxing at Rancho del Cielo, his California home outside Santa Barbara. The final scene shows Reagan in the Oval Office.

The Reagan hologram was created by the Los Angeles visual effects studio Digital Frontier FX, which normally works on big Hollywood titles such as “Wonder Woman” and “The Walking Dead” series. To bring the Republican politician back to life, the studio spent a year creating a life-size digital version, first by capturing a body-double actor’s movements and then digitally superimposing an animated head on the body.

Reagan’s head was first modeled as a silicone bust, complete with the president’s trademark brown hair. The bust was then digitally scanned for a complex animation process that combined the facial movement capture of an actor, skin texturing and shading. Even the hairs on his head were animated.

“You can’t scan hair, so each individual hair had to be worked on,” said Chad Finnerty, co-founder and owner of Digital Frontier FX.

The hologram’s facial expressions were matched to existing audio recordings of Reagan. Each scene in the exhibition took about three months to complete.

Silicone busts were scanned to create the Reagan hologram.
(David Ng / Los Angeles Times)

The finished exhibition cost close to $1.5 million, all of which the nonprofit museum raised privately. Museum officials wanted the hologram to be as lifelike as possible and to use recordings of Reagan’s real voice.

“We wanted to let Reagan be Reagan,” said John Heubusch, executive director of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute.

The Reagan hologram is the latest digital resurrection of a notable historic figure in what has become something of a high-tech fad. A holographic Tupac Shakur bowed on stage in 2012 at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. More recently, a hologram of Roy Orbison performed Oct. 2 on stage at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles.

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Illinois features a digital replica of Lincoln using the proprietary technology known as Holavision that creates a ghost-like image. But the Reagan replica is believed to be the first true hologram of a U.S. president.

The digital Reagan features subtle details that most casual visitors will likely miss. The Oval Office scene includes a shadow that follows the hologram around. The shadow was entirely digitally created to match the hologram’s movements, according to David Nussbaum, a senior vice president for Hologram USA, the L.A.-based company that helped produce the exhibit.

The president, who died in 2004, was a media-savvy politician who loved the TV camera and the latest in communication technology.

“We think he would have liked holograms,” said Nussbaum. “Reagan would have gotten this.”

Twitter: @DavidNgLAT