Thank you for the visuals (Picture: Johan Persson)

Earlier this week, I was among the first, lucky few to watch the spotlit figures of Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson and Anni-Frid Lyngstad rise from the stage floor of the custom-built Abba Arena to rapturous applause.

What was easy to forget in the moment of the spectacle was that the Abba members I was staring at weren’t real. Of course, this is physically evident, given the famous four here resemble their much younger selves while dressed in ’70s sequinned ensembles.

Yet despite knowing the Swedish pop legends have been immortalised in avatar form, the realism is hard to ignore.

Little details, such as the convincing way the light glistens on sequins, the fluid hair movement and those signature simple dance moves up and down the stage, mean you have to keep reminding yourself that the famous four aren’t actually in the room.

The 90-minute show is both a futuristic marvel and a nostalgic time capsule for Abba fans both young and new. Their highly anticipated return not only kicks off a 196-show residency, it also shows off the latest technological advances in musical immortality and an incredible feat of visual effects.

But how is it all done?

Visual trickery

Hundreds of hours have been spent creating avatars that accurately recreate how the performers move

Despite what you might have read, these are not holograms. Instead, we’re told, they are three- dimensional avatars displayed on a flat screen.

The brains behind the Abba-tars, as they are more playfully known, are the folk at Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), the special effects company founded by Star Wars creator George Lucas, which has worked on projects including Jurassic Park and the Marvel films.

With about 1,000 visual effects artists working on the Abba show, the ILM team has spent months painstakingly creating digital versions of the band through cutting-edge motion-capture technology and performance techniques.

Hundreds of hours have been spent on each band member performing and being recorded by 200 cameras from dozens of angles, all while wearing motion-capture suits.

‘As you might imagine, creating realistic digital humans that can perform consistently for the duration of a concert is still a very complex and time-consuming process,’ says creative director Ben Morris.

‘First we build a very accurate static model of each “present-day” Abba’s face, based on 3D scan data. This model is then animated using ILM’s proprietary performance capture tool sets, many of which are developed in collaboration with our colleagues at Disney Research Studios in Zurich.

‘Following this initial procedural step, our global team of animators refines final details and ensures consistency over the entire duration of each song.’

It’s no secret that when you’re in your seventies you can’t dance around like you did when you were in your thirties. That explains why a highly trained group of younger performers were brought in to capture body performances and provide the more physically demanding and dynamic movements of the avatars.

Cameras filmed Abba’s motion-capture performance technique over five weeks and created these stunning models

‘Alongside these processes we started creating our younger digital Abba faces and bodies using every available piece of archival material we could find’, adds Morris.

‘The challenging part is when we start to transfer the moving face and body performances from our present-day performers to the younger digital Abba-tars. If we didn’t match the performance correspondences exactly, our Abba-tars would instantly fall off-model, something we aimed to avoid.’

To top things off, they’ve also created some of the most complex digital costumes ever put on screen. ‘Our digital costumers painstakingly recreated countless couture outfits that were all based on real outfits designed by a number of famous design houses specifically for this project,’ says Morris.

‘Every stitch and sequin was duplicated in exacting detail and then run through a series of computer simulations to ensure it reacted to body movement precisely as it would do on the live performer.’

The hard work has certainly paid off: the result is four very convincing life-size 3D images performing on stage, alongside a ten-piece live band, that absolutely appear as if they are Abba in the flesh.

Arena effects

About 1,000 visual effect artists worked on Abba’s pioneering show (Picture: Johan Persson)

It’s not just about watching Abba’s digital twins on stage, though. A very large kinetic system, for example, controls moving mirrors, lasers and lighting. The audio system completely envelops you with the auditorium’s 291 speakers.

With the essence of the show being to ultimately integrate the physical with the digital, the unique thing about the production is having to design the physicality of the shows (the lighting and the special effects) way in advance.

This is so ILM could film each individual instrument, take their colour temperatures and reproduce the actual light or laser source, or other effects, then subsequently create that in the digital world. The aim of that is to make one blend into the other so it appears as though the Abba-tars are performing in the same physicality.

More: Metro newspaper

‘It’s very unusual to have to design in detail every aspect of the show or the lighting and all the special effects, and integrate those before we’ve even gotten into a rehearsal situation,’ says technical director Nick Page.

Making the arena

The purpose-built Abba arena at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park will stun any attendee with its scale (Picture: Johan Persson)

Taking place inside a purpose-built 3,000-capacity venue at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London, the show was literally built from the ground up and ran in parallel as the production developed. The brains behind the hexagonal arena is British architecture company Stufish, which has installed shows for Beyoncé and the Rolling Stones.

‘It was a huge benefit, having the opportunity to design the venue,’ says Morris. ‘With so many complex creative technologies coming together to create the blend between virtual and real worlds, it was essential we could tailor the building to exactly fit our unique requirements.’

The mix of music and tech provides a realistic performance and means you’re immersed. You don’t have to be at a certain angle in the arena to enjoy it, either: the seating arrangements have been developed to give the best viewpoints wherever you’re sitting.

The goal on this project was ‘to achieve a shared human experience where the audience believes the arena and virtual space are one seamless real world space’. We can happily confirm that the team behind the show have achieved exactly that.

Tickets start at £21, from the Abba Voyage website.


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