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ABBA Is Back

Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! Another album after 40 years

January 16, 2022


“We will never appear on stage again. There is simply no motivation to re-group. Money is not a factor and we would like people to remember us as we were. Young, exuberant, full of energy and ambition.” – Björn Ulvaeus, singer-songwriter of ABBA, 2008.

An offer of a billion dollars from an American consortium was not enough for ABBA to release their jaws on retirement, but 13 years later, virtual avatars of the group members a good 40 years younger (coined ABBAtars) apparently are.

If you don’t know ABBA, chances are, you actually do. From homecoming dances to frat parties to weddings, you’ll find people all around the world screaming out the chorus to Dancing Queen and the like. Reportedly, Queen Elizabeth herself has found herself on the dance floor upon hearing the song. (“I always try to dance when this song comes on because I am the Queen and I like to dance.”) Even Junji Ito, renowned Japanese horror artist, listens to ABBA while working.

ABBA (an acronym for the member’s first names) first took off with their breakout song, “Waterloo”, which gained popularity after winning Eurovision in 1974. From there, hits just like “Dancing Queen” riddle their career: from “Mamma Mia”, “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!”, and “The Winner Takes it All”, ABBA is one of the best-selling artists of all time. And now, they’re back with their album “Voyage”, released on November 5th, 2021.

I spoke to ABBA Voyage co-producers Svana Gisla (On the Run Tour: Beyoncé and Jay Z, David Bowie: Lazarus) and Ludvig Andersson (Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, The Circle) about the process of creating the Voyage concert via Zoom.

Ludvig Andersson, co-producer and son of ABBA member Benny Andersson, explained the creative process and inception of the concert.

“In this case, [what started it all] was an idea. Someone came to us five years ago, and said that they had just come from San Francisco and met a guy who could create lifelike holographic material. And they really wanted to try doing this with ABBA.” However, as things progressed, it became clear that holograms were not the path they wanted to take.

“Quite early on, we discovered that [these] holograms, as we want them to exist, do not exist. Like the idea, the way we all perceive holograms isn’t really a thing. So we left the idea of holograms early on, but kept working with the idea of creating digital copies of ABBA.” explained Ludvig.

Ludvig continued, “[Holograms aren’t] necessarily even a three dimensional thing. They cannot be lit in any way, you have to see them from a certain angle. So [hologram] concerts become something that [were] not even in the same universe as what we’re doing.”

Instead, they spoke to ILM (Industrial Light & Magic), the company behind the visual effects in blockbusters like Star Wars and Marvel.

For the ABBAtars themselves, work has been extremely complex creating them. Using around 160 motion-capture cameras to capture ABBA’s movements to the smallest twitch, and with the help of just under 1,000 ILM VFX artists over 3 studios, ILM was able to create extremely realistic 3D models of the ABBA members.

Both producers were impressed by ILM’s work. “[Industrial Light & Magic] have literally performed industrial magic. Their work, it’s astonishing. They have created lifelike characters here that have never been seen before. This is the biggest project they’ve ever done. And they do Star Wars… I mean, no one has made better digital copies of human beings ever. So they’re incredible,” marveled Ludvig.

A picture of ABBA in 1974

“They’re not VFX operators, they’re artists. And that’s what’s so special about this. They’re not just rendering shots to a storyboard that has been given to them by a film company. They are part of our creative team,” Svana added. “You’re not putting heads on physical bodies like the Irishman, you’re actually creating a performing real being that is ABBA. So you’re taking ABBA’s body, [their] DNA, their movement DNA, the DNA that [is] the physical signature that makes you who you are… You know the way Agneta raises her eyebrows, you know the way Frida smiles, you know that they’re all very, very unique to them.”

Those models, along with that “DNA” of ABBA, became the foundation for body doubles to dance to, with the help of renown British choreographer Wayne McGregor, CBE.

Svana explained, “[Wayne McGregor] took those performances and he extended them into younger bodies. So we then had body doubles… that rehearsed with him for months… to take on that physical DNA. And it’s done to the nearest finger movement… It’s very, very thought through and then we did the whole thing again, with those bodies, and then we put the two together. So it’s ABBA’s DNA. It’s ABBA’s movement. It is ABBA, but it’s extended into the younger bodies, because obviously, they’re physically performing on stage. And as fantastic as Frida and Agneta are, they’re still between 70 and 75 years old, they can’t run around the stage anymore. And we needed them to do that. So they borrowed body doubles to help them do that.”

However, Ludvig made it clear that while the technology and choreography was absolutely top notch, the underlying focus of the concert was not simply the ABBAtars.

[Industrial Light & Magic] have literally performed industrial magic. Their work, it’s astonishing. They have created lifelike characters here that have never been seen before. This is the biggest project they’ve ever done. And they do Star Wars… I mean, no one has made better digital copies of human beings ever.”

— Ludvig Andersson

“If you come to our concert and leave feeling like ‘Wow, that was cool technology’, then we will have failed. …It has to be about emotion, it has to be about the audience feeling something like you do when you listen to music that you like. …It’s about coming into a space where you feel something for two hours, where you get transported, transcend– something that music can do. And we’re doing everything we can to enhance that experience. So yeah, we have really cool avatars, and they are completely lifelike, and they’re incredible, but they’re only a vehicle. It’s not about them. It’s not about how cool they are. It’s about the whole experience.”

Ludvig explained further, “The unique challenge is that we’re creating a concert with a band that isn’t there… and we still don’t know if we have risen to that challenge. We don’t know if it’s going to work. But we know we have a very good idea. And we know that we’re doing everything we can to make this experience a beautiful one.”

And that wasn’t the only challenge. From Covid to Brexit, there have been many, many challenges, especially those that came with exploring the uncharted territory.

Svana didn’t even know where to begin with the amount of challenges they faced. “I mean, the base level of doing something like this, [something] that hasn’t been done before is the amount of research and development that you have to do. And the resilience that you have to have to carry on when you go down the wrong road and something doesn’t work out? Well, you try something 10,000 times and you can’t make it work, you know, you’ve got to constantly evolve and change and adapt. That was… difficult because it takes such a long time. It’s taken four years to do this, because it’s the first time it’s been done. Next time, if I ever want to do it again, I could probably do it in 18 months, because we know now how to do it.”

That “unlimited, never ending stream of catastrophe”, as coined by Ludvig, included figuring out the set list. “We probably had about 60 different versions of a setlist. It took a long time to whittle down the catalog into these 22 songs,” Svana revealed.

From organizing toilets in the London arena to discerning between lights to answering questions for the 10 piece live band (created by James Righton of the Klaxons), Svana and Ludvig have been very busy. Ludvig recounts, “It’s been a very long and complex process. But again, it’s fun almost all the time. Because… again, like all kinds of creative processes, or any kind of art or music or cinema… there are no rules. So that’s both really daunting, but also liberating, and lovely, because you can do whatever you want. And that’s scary. But it’s also fun.”

One of Svana’s favorite moments were the 5 weeks filming in Stockholm, where ABBA and ILM employees went to actually capture ABBA on camera.

“Filming them was joyful… I’ll never forget those weeks. I mean, …one day, it might be ‘Oh, today we’re going to do Winner Takes It All and Chiquitita’, let’s say, and you spend all day watching ABBA perform Winner Takes It All and Chiquitita. And, you know, it’s just fun. It’s just lovely. And then you have lunch, and you come back after lunch. And you know, you do it again, it was really relaxed. It was really joyful. It was really emotional.”

“We also tried to make each and every day different, because what we needed from their performances, instead of looking at the same …cameras, essentially, and people behind laptops. [It’s] like being in the NASA Space studio trying to perform a song, I mean, you can imagine a worse atmosphere for a musician. Terrible. So we tried to make it really, really fun. We did different themes every day. So every day we do something completely different. We [would] dress the green rooms, we [would] wear different clothes, we’d have Swedish day, we’d have Eurovision day, we’d have, you know, Dancing Queen day. And then… we tried to get everybody to be in front of them and dance to give them some energy, some adrenaline and some fun. We [were bringing] in the ladies that were making the dinner, we were bringing in the people that were cleaning the studio, we were bringing in anybody that we could find, to come and enjoy. We were just dancing for five weeks, and it was great. And that… I will never forget.”

We tried to make it really, really fun. We did different themes every day. So every day we do something completely different. We [would] dress the green rooms, we [would] wear different clothes, we’d have Swedish day, we’d have Eurovision day, we’d have, you know, Dancing Queen day.”

— Svana Gisla

As for one of Ludvig’s favorite moments? As it turns out, the ABBA members had to shave their beards in order for the motion capture suits to work. “They said, “We’re not going to shave our beards.” And we had like, 100 people for ILM sitting next door waiting to start to shoot. They said, “No, we’re not doing it.” And then we said, “Well, then we can’t do it. Then we have to shut the whole thing down.” They were like, “Yeah. And that’s what has to be.” But of course, they’re reasonable. So in the end, they agreed, but it took a lot of convincing and explaining why we had to do it. That was the highlight of that shoot.”

In the end, money still was not a big factor to ABBA rejoining and rerecording– in fact, the work on the show brought them to create another album, not the other way around.

“Benny and Björn went together into the studio and said, right, if we’re going to do this concert, we’re going to have to write some new songs. So they wrote ‘Don’t Shut Me Down’ and ‘I Still Have Faith in You’ and a couple of others in that initial session that they had in the studio… Then they listened back and they were pretty happy and they had fun in the studio. The studio has always been great fun for them. And then they went, Well, why don’t we just do a few more, why don’t we just do an app. And that was the motivation. And it didn’t take much. I mean, none of us persuaded them to do anything… They loved being back together again. And it was just fun.”

Overall, Ludvig recounts the experience as a joyful reunion as well.

“They get to be back on the stage, but look like they did in 1979. I think they like the idea. They like that it hadn’t been done before. They like the adventure of it. They like the sort of unknown territory aspect of it… They had a great time. I mean, they’re used to it. They’re professionals. But I think they enjoyed the process and still do.”

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