ABBAtar arrival: Swedish supergroup reunites after 40-year wait in digital world first

Purpose-built 3,000-seater London arena to host ABBA Voyage concerts

The ABBAtar project will present the Swedish supergroup as they were during their heyday. AFP
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It has been a 40-year wait and, just like that, ABBA are back.

Thousands have tried to lure the Swedish pop quartet into a return to the limelight, but not even a billion-pound offer to reunite for the Millennium could not sway the super troupers, until now.

Eventually, it was the chance of performing to millions of fans without having to get up off the sofa that finally convinced the musical icons to take to the stage again.

As the stars enjoy their golden years, it had to be something special to persuade them to even contemplate a long-awaited reunion – and what is more alluring than a world first?

Now, for the first time, the supergroup will introduce the world to their ABBAtars when they launch the ABBA Voyage show at a purpose-built 3,000-seater venue in London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park this week.

The stars, Agnetha Faltskog, 71, Anni-Frid Lyngstad, 75, Bjorn Ulvaeus, 76, and Benny Andersson, 74, have been working with a production team to transform into high-tech digital dancing versions of themselves for their first concert since 1982.

Wearing black catsuits covered in sensors, the foursome re-recorded and performed all their hits in secret over a five-week period last year to create realistic avatars of themselves.

The project – which involved Andersson’s son, Ludvig – used motion capture technology to take the group members back to their 1970s heyday but with a modern twist.

Producer Ludvig said his team “stole ABBA’s souls” to make the avatars a reality.

“While the ABBAtars may look like ABBA did in the late '70s, they very much exist in 2022,” he told The National.

“It’s not a time capsule or a journey back to something, this is ABBA now, they just look different, but they are still infused with all the experience and time that has passed and now they are putting on this very contemporary modern show. It has nothing to do with nostalgia involved in this apart from the songs.

“This was created by ABBA with ABBA, and this is exactly what they wanted to do. This would not have happened unless they wanted to do it.

“That’s the fundamental reason this happened at all. They get 100 different requests and questions every week, and have been getting them for the past 40 years, and naturally they say no to most things, but this particular thing was something they all said ‘ah yes let’s have a look at this’. So we have been having a look at it now for the past couple of years and here we are.”

While the rest of the world has been eagerly awaiting an ABBA revival, it was even more poignant for Ludvig. Born after the group split, he was a last able to see his father perform live with the band for the first time.

“It’s not been weird in any way,” he said. “It’s like looking at photos of your parents or us looking at old videos of our parents from before.”

Dinner ladies dancing helped ABBA create their ABBAtars

Until now, only a group of dancing dinner ladies have seen the troupe’s comeback after the stars asked the women into the studio to watch them so they had an audience to perform for.

While fans will hear the quartet's real voices at the concert, the band will not be on stage.

Instead, the audience will see the ABBAtars projected as digital versions of themselves performing a 22-song set, looking like they did at the peak of their fame, dressed in their kitsch 1970s outfits and supported by a 10-piece live band.

The avatars were designed in partnership with special effects company, Industrial Light and Magic, founded by Star Wars creator George Lucas, which has worked on the Jurassic Park and Marvel films.

In one of the most long-awaited reunions in the history of music, Swedish pop legends ABBA return to the concert stage on Friday in London as avatars.  AFP

“They were lovingly created over two years by more than 1,000 people on three different continents and it all started with a process called motion capture, where we sucked the essence out of ABBA themselves, we stole their souls and built slightly younger versions out of the same material, digitally,” producer Svana Gisla, who has worked with Radiohead and Beyonce, told The National.

“It was one of the greatest, most fun things to do, to put ABBA in the now, this iconic band that you haven’t seen for 40 years coming on stage now. That’s fun to do that and we went with that completely. It’s hopefully very fresh, very now and very forward.

We have been looking at them in rehearsals for weeks and they are just people to us now. They do not feel like avatars, they feel like ABBA and they have their own personalities, weirdly, and dynamic mix and relationship with each other and us and the audience.”

The ABBAtars are more realistic than holograms, Ms Gisla said.

“Holograms are very limited, they cannot move around a space, they are confined in a glass pyramid and they are very limited in the angles you look at them and the lighting – you cannot light them. This is worlds away from holograms,” she said.

“I think people instantly go to holograms because that’s the time they saw someone being younger. That’s where the similarity ends. There is no relationship with a hologram here. It’s incredibly difficult to describe the feeling of sitting or standing in the arena and looking at the ABBAtars on stage. You kind of have to be there to believe it.

ABBA in the motion capture suits they wore to create realistic avatars of themselves. Photo: Baillie Walsh

“It only takes a few minutes to forget ABBA are actually not on stage and you just go with it.”

To make the avatars possible, Ludvig said the team created a bespoke ABBA Arena using 20 lighting rigs.

“This is most definitely the first time this has been done. The scale is definitely the first. There are other firsts, too, but the general scale of it has never been done before, for good reason, I guess,” he said.

“The ABBAtars are digital and exist in a digital world, but for the magic that created them we have used all kinds of different techniques to join the digital with the physical, which was part of the main challenge.

“Everything in this building is bespoke, built to enhance the experience of going to a concert with 10 live musicians and the four ABBAtars. There is not one part of it that’s key, it’s a whole.

“The technological advancements have enabled us to create these incredibly lifelike, probably the most lifelike digital humans ever made.”

Covid almost cancelled band's reunion

The venture began in 2018 and the journey to this week was almost derailed because of Covid-19.

“We actually started this at least two years before the pandemic,” Ms Gisla said.

“We did the motion capture shoot with ABBA in February 2020 as the door was slamming on open society and the lockdown was in March. We had no idea what was about to happen when we did this and for a short period of time during the pandemic we thought the whole thing was going to shut down.

ABBA Arena, a purpose-built 3,000-seater venue in London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Photo: Stufish Entertainment Architects

“The hardest part has been building the arena. It has taken two and a half years to build and it has been unbelievably hard ... Covid made things 10 times harder. The building has been the single most stressful thing out of all of it.”

For the opening night on Friday, the members of ABBA will appear in person next to their avatars.

"This is one of the most daring projects that anyone has done in the music industry ever," singer Ulvaeus has said.

“We put our hearts and souls into these avatars and they will take over now. How it will be received by the audience, I don't have a clue, but I think that the audience will feel an emotional pull from the avatars. They will see the avatars as real people."

For Benny, who ruled out the possibility of ABBA reforming in the future, his son’s avatar creations will continue the band’s legacy.

“It’s really magical what they have achieved,” he told ITV News.

Swedish musicians and members of band ABBA, Bjorn Ulvaeus, righ, and Benny Andersson. AFP

“We can be on stage at the same time as being at home walking the dog. But this is it now.”

Ludvig is hoping the avatars will take up the band’s baton in the future.

“We would love to take them around the world but that will obviously depend on whether the world wants to come and see it,” he said.

“So we start here in lovely London and if it becomes something as popular as we hope it is going to be, then of course, the idea is to travel.”

The show will run seven days a week until early October in the purpose-built ABBA Arena in east London.

Updated: May 26, 2022, 6:49 AM