Is the tech-powered dazzling grandeur of ABBA Voyage the future of the entertainment industry?

Baillie Walsh: ABBA Voyage Interview | Soho House

Director Baillie Walsh talks technology and storytelling behind the emotional impact of the reunion show – and why he could fall in love with an avatar

Monday 20 June 2022    By Anastasiia Fedorova

At the very start of the ABBA Voyage performance, one inevitably finds themselves a little lost in what is real and what is not. As the band emerges on stage, it’s hard not to squint at the light and shadow around their silhouettes – waiting for the illusion to glitch, but also hoping it won’t. There is a lot to marvel at: the incredibly detailed costumes, the choreography, the dramatic light show. But as the band members appear on massive screens as their digitalised selves, so-called ‘ABBAtars’, it’s clear that there is something even more important happening – the pivotal moment deemed to change our understanding of authenticity, reality, empathy and nostalgia in entertainment. 
In a purposefully built arena in London’s Stratford area, hundreds of ABBA devotees of all ages (the amount of platform knee-high boots and jumpsuits is spectacular) gathered to see ABBA in their 1970s prime – recreated by the ground-breaking new technology. The show has been in the works since 2017: as part of the process the band performed in motion-capture suits for five weeks, with 160 cameras scanning their body movements and facial expressions. Among the team working on the show are visual effects company Industrial Light & Magic, choreographer Wayne McGregor CBE, B Åkerlund who designed 20 costume changes for the band, producers Svana Gisla and Ludvig Andersson, and a 10-piece band that plays live throughout the concert.
Baillie Walsh: ABBA Voyage Interview | Soho House
The person responsible for this fascinating machine is UK-based director Baillie Walsh. Having worked in film, advertising, music and theatre for almost three decades, he originally got into making films ‘to tell stories and to be emotional’. ‘As an artist, going to the studio and being alone never thrilled me. I love the joy of working with other people,’ he continues. ‘Working with a stage performance felt very much in the same world with my previous work. It’s all the same thing in the sense of telling a story – and obviously a part of filmmaking is about light and creating motion.’
We talked to Walsh about the process behind the ambitious production and working with performers who are, well, not exactly real. 

From the point of view of technology, ABBA Voyage is incredible. It’s not the first time you’ve worked with 3D: you’ve created a Kate Moss hologram for Alexander McQueen, for example. Have you always been interested in the opportunities that technology provides for creative productions? 
‘I never sat down and thought, I want to create a hologram or a 3D film. It’s about taking that by the horns and running with it, and trying to create something that I – or anyone – haven’t seen before. But then, when you’re working with great people around you – great producers, great technicians, great craftsmen, great choreographers – that opportunity really opens up. When I started [on the Abba show] there was no complete idea, except a running order of songs – and the team really allowed me to push boundaries.’
Were you an ABBA fan before? 
‘I think ABBA is in our DNA. I saw them win the Eurovision Song Contest in 1974. I live in the West End of London, so outside my window most nights there’s ABBA playing. They've always been part of who I am. Every song has a personal memory attached to it. I’m a massive fan and have respect for their songwriting because I’ve listened to their songs thousands of times and I’m still not sick of them. That’s a real skill, and I don’t know any other bands where I could have worked for so long listening to those songs and they wouldn’t have driven me insane. I think that says a lot about their music.’
Baillie Walsh: ABBA Voyage Interview | Soho House
It’s fascinating the way you worked with the band on capturing their facial expressions, movements, and performance styles. Do you think it was strange for them to be recreated as younger versions of themselves? 
‘ABBA are more used to looking at themselves than most of us, even in the world we live in now with social media. But finding those true likenesses was a long process. And it was fun… though sometimes it wasn’t. It took a long time to get right. It was a joy working with ILM who are brilliant technicians.’
Working on such a long-term project, how did you feel when you finally got to see the whole thing in the arena? 
‘I worked on it for two and a half years before I got into the arena, so when I finally saw it, it was an enormous relief because I realised it works. It was really, really emotional. It was an enormous risk to believe that we could ask the audience to suspend their disbelief and believe that ABBA were there. When I realised it worked, I felt excitement, relief, and joy. I think the live band makes an enormous impact and brings that live energy.’ 
I think the sense of empathy you get from watching the performers, with all the little facial expressions, gestures and monologues – you start getting emotionally involved with them, even if you know they’re not real people. 
‘I ask myself the question, could I fall in love with an avatar? The reality is, I could. With the skill of technicians, we captured them perfectly.’ 
Baillie Walsh: ABBA Voyage Interview | Soho House
With that in mind, what do you think is the future of the entertainment industry if the technology you used became more available? 
‘I think absolutely it’s going to have to have a mark, but I don't think it’s going to change the entertainment industry. I think live performance is always going to be needed and wanted. But it’s going to be another facet. For theatre, this could be really interesting. We’ve now created this thing and I really look forward to seeing where other people take it.’
Do you ever think how this could be applied in combination with virtual reality or in the metaverse, which seems to be where most future-centric conversations are heading? 
‘What I love about this show is that it’s a communal experience. I don’t believe if this was a VR experience, it would have the same visceral impact. The excitement that I see in that crowd – that’s the wonderful thing about it. That’s what, as human beings, we desire and want and need. I think that with the VR experience, as interesting as that can be, I don’t want to separate myself with a pair of goggles. The shared experience is the most glorious thing.’
Baillie Walsh: ABBA Voyage Interview | Soho House
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