Bringing Swedish pop sensations ABBA back to the stage is no easy feat. Especially when you're not bringing them in person at all, but crafting a visually dazzling experience featuring life-sized digital avatars of the music legends, backed by a live band and a series of short films and other narrative concepts. Yet orchestrating it all is director Baillie Walsh, who took on the task and now tells Empire how and why he went about it.
The 95 minute concert features ABBA re-imagined as 21st-century pop stars, with costumes designed by B Åkerlund in collaboration with designers Dolce & Gabbana, Manish Arora, Erevos Aether and Michael Schmidt. Alongside some of their greatest hits (picked by the group themselves) the concert includes songs from Voyage, the band’s first album in 40 years, released last year to critical acclaim and wide success. The show takes place at the purpose-built, 3,000 seat ABBA Arena located in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford, East London.
Walsh is a filmmaker and music video director whose CV is full of work for musicians such as Oasis, Kylie Minogue, Massive Attack New Order, INXS, and Spiritualized, feature films including Flashbacks Of A Fool and one of the best behind-the-scenes documentaries in recent years, Being James Bond, about Daniel Craig's tenure in the role.
When he first got the call about the idea, Walsh knew he'd make a great fit for the concert. "I'm more than a fan, he says. They're part of my DNA, really. They've been part of my life forever. I saw them winning the Eurovision Song Contest, They've always been there."
Approached by producers Ludvig Andersson and Svana Gisla (the latter of whom Walsh had worked with in the past) to see if he was interested, Walsh sparked to the idea, which quickly led to contact with the group. "Svana set up a Zoom call with Benny and Bjorn, and they said yes on that call which is quite amazing," Walsh recalls. "I must've said something that they liked!"
I wanted this to be an emotional experience
The band's original pitch was more of a basic film idea, but Walsh had a vision for something much grander, especially since the band hadn't shared a stage in four decades. "It was the start of something," he says. "It was kind of a road map which is very useful and it kind of gave me the springboard. I felt that the possibilities were really big and we could try something very daring, something that hasn't been seen before. I thought, 'what would I want to see? What would what do? What would the experience be that I wanted to be part of?' So that was the big question and then I then I just sat down and worked out what I did want to see."
Walsh's concept was essentially the concert experience with the life-size digital versions of ABBA – Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson and Anni-Frid Lyngstad – brought to life through motion capture a digital doubles. Five weeks of filming with the band in Sweden wearing motion capture suits gave the basic footage for a variety of actions, while younger performers (under the supervision of choreographer Wayne McGregor) provided more movement. The two levels of performance were then blended by the tech wizards at Industrial Light & Magic.
Even with their vast experience, there were challenges to be ironed out. Getting the likenesses right with a massive challenge," admits Walsh. "That was always taking two steps forward and one step back and you think you'd found the likeness, but then in movement it didn't seem to work. And the funny thing about that was that it kept changing. So at one moment Agnetha would be very difficult to find, and then we'd we'd find her, but suddenly, Benny, who we thought we'd got, suddenly he'd go backwards."
For Walsh though, the biggest challenge was authenticity. "I didn't want this to be a technological wonderland. I wanted this to be an emotional experience and a concert. And so the technology should not be that visible, so that was that was that was a constant balancing act."
Walsh brought everything he'd done in his career before now into play for the show – combining filmmaking, music videos and more. "I couldn't have done this 20 years ago. I probably couldn't have done it 10 years ago. I used everything I had in this show."
ABBA Voyage is now playing at the ABBA Arena. For tickets and more information, see the official site.