The (Human) Man Behind The ‘ABBA Voyage’ ABBAtars

EXCLUSIVE: Baillie Walsh (Being James Bond:The Daniel Craig Story) is the man who helped put pop stars ABBA back in the concert arena for the first time in 42 years.

The British-born filmmaker behind a string of James Bond videos, music videos and feature film (Flashbacks of A Fool) clarifies that Agnetha Faltskog, Bjorn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson and Anni-Frid Reuss aren’t actually on stage live performing in ABBA Voyage at the purpose-built, 3,000 seat ABBA Arena located in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford, East London.

“They’re ABBAtars,” he says.

The capacity crowd at the ABBA Theatre didn’t care. They were lost in their own ABBA state of mind, a few climbing onto seats to gyrate along to the ABBAtars performing Mamma Mia! and Dancing Queen on stage.

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The show is a creative phenomenon, one that involves producers Ludwig Andersson and Svana Gisla; director Walsh, movement director and choreographer Wayne McGregor; concept artists Johan Renck and Martin Renck; a 1000-strong technical team from Industrial Light and Magic plus musicians, a backing group and countless other production technicians.

The participation of the ABBA performers themselves was key. “Once I decided the show was going to be a live concert with life-size avatars of Agnatha, Bjorn, Benny and Anni-Frid, I wanted the real world and the digital world to blend, seamlessly,” Baillie explains.

That meant bringing ABBA into a studio for weeks of motion capture sessions. ”We filmed them for five weeks, and then we worked with body doubles to create younger versions of themselves,” says Walsh.

Walsh has mapped out, in clear detail, every second of the 90-minute concert show. He dictated the lighting cues and transitions two years ago.

Can he alter them at the flick of a switch? “Basically, I can’t,” Walsh responds. “I had to imagine this show two years before I saw it. A flick of the switch now would cost an awful lot of money!” 

Once he had the ABBA group in the studio, Walsh says “I could brief Wayne (McGregor) and say, in this scene I want them very still. Then in this scene I want movement here and here. Then I would go away and edit like a film and I’d give that to ILM to work with. That was my storyboard to them.”

ABBA created the show’s 20-song setlist “which changed a number of times,” adds Walsh, who says he “didn’t want to interfere with that because they knew their songs better than anyone, and you have to be really respectful.”

Walsh knew the songs inside out, too. He reckons that he listened to tracks hundreds, if not thousands, of times. ”The process of making that concert a series of great visuals and stories, was a long but exciting process,” he sighs.

Every speech by the ABBA foursome used in ABBA Voyage, often conversations that are seemingly off the cuff, were recorded during the five weeks Walsh and his team spent with the band more than two years ago, before the pandemic. One of the group even makes mention of the Dockland Light Railway’s Pudding Mill Lane station located opposite the venue. Another instance has the stage go dark while Benny does a costume change.

“All of those timings were guess work,” Walsh explains.

He adds: “The speeches were written by the group members and Benny in the dark changing? I wrote that line and Benny recorded it two years ago.”

Walsh argues that the reason he feels ABBA Voyage works is because “ABBA put their souls in those avatars and I think that’s why people (the audience) absolutely believe this, because ABBA were very much a part of this. Yes, it’s not them singing and moving live in the flesh, yet you feel that it’s them.

“The ambition wasn’t cynical, it wasn’t about money. The ambition was artistic,” he adds.

Challenged about the money remark, he says: “I never felt I was doing something for money. Of course I was being paid but that wasn’t my motivation. My motivation was to create something new and to create something no one had seen before.”

It’s true that ABBA Voyage is a stunning experience, though not as stunning or as emotional as watching a flesh and blood ensemble performing in the musical Mamma Mia! live on stage. Nonetheless, ABBA Voyage soars technically. 

Walsh believes that “technology’s going to move very quickly…and what I’m interested in is where this goes next.”

He mentions The Rolling Stones and The Beatles, and muses about whether one day we’ll see Stones and Beatles avatar ‘live’ concert shows using ILM’s amazing wizardry.

“What I loved about making ABBA Voyage was that I was working with the artists.,” he says. “They were very much a part of the process. They were present throughout. I’m not sure that making a posthumous concert could ever have that much purity of heart and spirit.

“I feel that I have been spoilt to have collaborated with artists that were there to give their opinion. Who’s going to be there to decide what The Beatles would be wearing in 2022? Some money man?”

But what about the Stones, who are still for the most part intact.

Yes, the Stones could do an avatar show, says Walsh, but he caveats: “I think another reason this (ABBA Voyage) is so popular is because, unlike the Stones, ABBA haven’t toured for 40 years.”

ABBA Voyage has signed a four-year residency at the ABBA Arena in Stratford. A spokesperson for the producers stressed that, for now, there are no plans to transfer the show to venues in the U.S or elsewhere abroad.

When Walsh is asked about the show’s possible global rollout, a wide grin forms on his face.

”You would have to ask the producers but I can tell you that the ABBAtars would have no problem with availability,” he jokes.

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