05 ABBA Voyage
For creating a moveable feast of pop culture spectacle
Mamma Mia, here they go again: Pop superstars ABBA have returned to the stage after a 40-year absence. This time around, though, the band is using a power pack combo of bleeding-edge tech and innovative venue design to bridge the gap between the physical and digital realms. Tapping into an unprecedented mix of light and sound, ABBA Voyage features digital avatars—ABBAtars, if you will—of the Swedish super group dancing and singing alongside a 10-piece live band at purpose-built stadium in London.
The six-year, US$175 million project to create digital twins of the Dancing Queen singers—all of them now in their 70s—was a masterclass in not just harnessing new technologies, but in collaboration. Working closely with George Lucas’ visual effects company Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), the team was able to craft hyper-realistic virtual versions of band members Agnetha Fältskog, Anni-Frid Lyngstad, Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson.
“People have often talked about whether you can create either people who have lived in the past or people when they were younger, and we actually create ABBA in their prime—1979,” says Ben Morris, ILM’s creative director in the show’s announcement video.
To make the avatars as lifelike as possible, the team used hundreds of cameras to film ABBA’s members along with four body doubles in motion-capture suits over five weeks. Then, 850 team members across four of ILM’s global studios developed and animated the avatars. Project leaders also modernized ABBA’s iconic outfits, dressing the ABBAtars in designs by Dolce & Gabbana and Erevos Aether.
But creating the ABBAtars was only half the challenge—the team also had to build a space that could bring them to life. So U.K. entertainment architecture studio Stufish joined the project in 2019, designing and building the 3,000-person ABBA Arena.
“We knew it was going to be a little bit of a hybrid between a theater, an arena and a cinema,” says Alicia Tkacz, a partner and architect at Stufish in London. “The show and arena were an undefined genre of entertainment that we were all creating from scratch.”
Stufish’s team traveled to Stockholm to meet with the show’s producers, ILM and ABBA to gather requirements. That included a request that the design be fully demountable, which will allow the building to be taken down and relocated to other cities.
“As a studio, we have been very interested in developing touring venues, fusing our knowledge of touring shows and permanent venues,” Tkacz says. “This project allowed us to realize this ambition and design a fully demountable structure. The concept of taking a production and venue of this scale to people is really exciting.”
The project team quickly settled on a site in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. But because the land was contaminated, the team had to design the structure in a way that wouldn’t require waste removal. The solution: situate the structure as much as possible on tarmac, so its foundations only penetrated the ground in 18 places. The arena’s roof—a 744-metric-ton semi-axisymmetric steel dome—was built on the ground, then lifted via strand jacks into position.
Throughout the build, Stufish had to stay hush-hush about its confidential design work—not an easy ask, considering planning applications must be accessible to the public. To ensure ABBA’s grand comeback remained a secret, the team submitted designs with the word “Logo” on the building’s front, which intentionally had the same character count as the eventual name on the arena: ABBA.
With the show’s production plans and the arena’s construction happening concurrently, the team needed clear decision-making processes to keep everyone aligned—and on schedule. “This complex project took a lot of diligence within the teams,” Tkacz says. “There were clear lines of responsibility and decision-making. The processes and approvals steps needed to be clear from the start, to ensure we met the ambitious timeline.”
Stufish completed the arena in April, and ABBA Voyage debuted in May to rave reviews, with The Guardian declaring it a “dazzling retro-futurist extravaganza.” Shows are scheduled through May 2023, but the project’s legacy could extend much further, as other acts seek to merge bespoke arenas with digital experiences—and other entertainment companies look to squeeze every nostalgia-infused drop from older acts.
“It’s an amazing integration of live music now and voices from the past,” ABBA’s Ulvaeus says. “It’s an amazing illusion.” Bandmate Andersson gives it the ultimate endorsement: “It’s a bloody good concert—that’s what it is.”
Listen to Stufish partner and architect Alicia Tkacz discuss how team members collaborated to create the ABBA Voyage show and its bespoke arena at the same time.
As entertainment architects, we’re show designers and we’re architects. We really see our role as being one role—obviously designing this bespoke venue, but designing it alongside the show means that they both work in tandem with each other, and we can ensure that everything that the creative team needs from a show perspective is reflected in the architecture and vice versa. But what was really important for this project in particular is that the physical world is reflected in the digital world. So they had to be concurrently speaking to each other, and the relationship between where the physical world ends and the digital world starts was critical in making this show work.
It was a very collaborative team of people. We had, obviously, Svana [Gisla] and Ludvig [Andersson], the producers; Baillie Walsh, the director; Industrial Light & Magic obviously brought that kind of cinematic experience and film experience; and then there was a team of more traditional live show designers. So, the kind of worlds colliding, I suppose, could’ve been a real baptism of fire but actually, it just worked. And I think it took a lot of diligence within the teams. There’s a lot of people involved so the management [is critical], making sure there’s a clear line of responsibility, who’s making the decisions, the steps it needs to go through to ultimately get approval. It was very, very clear so everybody knew the process from the start, which really helped.
As a studio and as a company, we’re very used to projects with very quick time scales. Once they decide the show is going to open, you can’t change that deadline, which is quite different maybe to some other building projects; there is a bit of flexibility in when the building opens. But with this, you have to open; when they sold the tickets for the first show, that’s it. It feels that there’s so much to do, but those last few months things just happen, and they just seem to all fit together, and all of these separate departments and companies who are working on their part, suddenly it all came together, and it was really great to finally have this arena. And when they came to start rehearsing the show, it all kind of made sense. This is why we’re all here, is for the show, and it was quite amazing.