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Forget IRL concerts. Here’s how ABBA’s new arena was designed for digital avatars

The ‘ABBAtars’ may have stolen the show, but the illusion wouldn’t be complete without the dazzling infrastructure that supports them.

Forget IRL concerts. Here’s how ABBA’s new arena was designed for digital avatars
[Photo: Johan Persson/ABBA Voyage/courtesy Stufish Entertainment Architects]

Concerts can be extravagant affairs, but if you boil them down to their essence, it’s all about people in the audience watching and listening to people onstage. So, how do you design a concert venue when the second part of that equation is missing?

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[Photo: ©Dirk Lindner/courtesy Stufish Entertainment Architects]
That’s the multimillion-dollar question behind the custom-built arena that’s housing ABBA Voyage, a dazzling show featuring four de-aged digital avatars of the Swedish superstars dressed up in electrifying, Tron-like costumes. The spectacular performance, which opened May 27 and will run seven times a week until at least December, includes a 10-piece live band tucked in the corner. The stage, however, is dominated by three 65-million-pixel screens that work a bit like a giant trompe l’oeil designed to trick the audience into seeing depth on a very flat surface.

The experience is made surreal by design, and it will likely revolutionize live performance, for better or worse. A week into the show, it’s become clear that those jaw-dropping avatars, which were created by filming the real ABBA stars in motion-capture suits, are the star of the show. But the illusion wouldn’t be complete without the equally jaw-dropping infrastructure that was built to support them.

[Photo: Johan Persson/ABBA Voyage/courtesy Stufish Entertainment Architects]
The arena was designed by Stufish Entertainment Architects. The firm drew on its experience crafting stages for Beyoncé and the Rolling Stones to design the actual stage, as well, in collaboration with show director Baillie Walsh and producers Svana Gisla and Ludvig Andersson, the son of one of ABBA’s members, Benny Andersson.

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[Photo: ©Dirk Lindner/courtesy Stufish Entertainment Architects]
The steel-and-timber building can be demounted at the end of its five-year tenure (though it remains unclear what will come after the Abba Voyage). With a capacity of 3,000, it houses a hexagonal auditorium beneath an 80-foot-tall dome. The hexagonal shape plays a big role in stoking that sense of illusion: Three sides of the hexagon are wrapped in three large screens; the other three make up the seating. The space in the middle holds the stage.

[Photo: Johan Persson/ABBA Voyage/courtesy Stufish Entertainment Architects]
Much of the magic relies on those three 65-million pixel screens and the way they’re laid out. For one, the hexagonal layout helps envelop the audience and adds a sense of depth that’s crucial to the illusion. Stufish CEO Ray Winkler likens the experience to the way you look at drawings in perspective. “When you stood in front of a Renaissance painting, you were drawn into that world and you lost your sense of place because the frame around you dissolved into the periphery, and you were absorbed,” he says. “That’s exactly what we’re doing with 21st century technology; we’re painting a tableau.”

[Photo: ©Johan Persson/courtesy Stufish Entertainment Architects]
The setup works a bit like the three computer screens you might see on a gamer’s desk; except here, the two side screens show close-ups of the avatars as they appear on the main screen. These echo the role of screens that you might see at a traditional concert, adding the illusion that the avatars on the middle screen are, in fact, physical people singing on a physical stage.

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[Photo: Johan Persson/ABBA Voyage/courtesy Stufish Entertainment Architects]
All of this is amplified by an extravagant high-tech production that extends beyond the screen. Surround-sound comes from all directions, including from the live band on stage; while on the ceiling, hundreds of small rotating mirrors reflect an array of lights and laser beams.

Those sweeping lights are then replicated as sweeping lights on the screen, making it nearly impossible for the audience to tell the real world apart from its digital counterpart. “There’s a beautiful mélange between digital and physical, but what the digital does so well is it picks up on the way stages are conceived in the physical world and replicates that as modern-day trompe l’oeil,” says Winkler. “But guess what? People applaud the avatars.”

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