Given only three months, the Oscar-winning animation director worked quickly to capture the Grammy-winning artist’s signature moves, weaving a hazy, noirish 80s journey through her hometown into ‘Happier Than Ever: A Love Letter to Los Angeles,’ her cinematic concert experience performed on stage at the Hollywood Bowl, now streaming on Disney+.
Now streaming exclusively on Disney+, Grammy Award-winning artist Billie Eilish’s Happier Than Ever: A Love Letter to Los Angeles is a cinematic concert experience featuring her performing every song from her brand-new album, Happier Than Ever, on stage at the legendary Hollywood Bowl.
The special is directed by Robert Rodriguez and Oscar-winner Patrick Osborne, who designed and produced the film’s animated elements that take viewers on a dreamlike journey through the most iconic backdrops of Eilish’s hometown of Los Angeles. It’s produced by Interscope Films and Darkroom Productions, in association with Nexus Studios and Aron Levine Productions, with Kerry Asmussen serving as the Live Concert Director and Pablo Berron as Director of Photography.
Osborne is perhaps best known for his 2014 Oscar-winning short, Feast, which he followed up with the innovative Emmy Award-winning and Oscar nominated VR short, Pearl, in 2017. The longtime Disney animator put all his experience and skills to work on the special, which from start to finish, took a mere three months to produce. “I've been working with Nexus Studios over the last year on various projects,” he tells AWN, “and they’d been talking to Disney+ and Interscope about doing this concert film for only a couple days before it was brought to me to possibly work on. This was about 13 weeks ago. So, whatever was going to happen would have to happen quickly.”
“Billie had this idea of doing an animated character of herself that would go along with her new look,” he continues. “At the time, she was not blonde yet. She was just about to launch the change in her vibe that was part of her album release plan. She told me she loved this 80s look, referencing all kinds of things, including Richard Williams and Ralph Bakshi. Obviously, we're on a tight schedule that's going to make it really difficult to do rotoscope-style animation. But the plan was to come up with a cool, noirish story of a trip through vintage LA, inspired by Williams and Bakshi, people like that, and see what we could create that was exciting. That was on a Monday. We talked more about it on Tuesday; I talked to Robert about it on Wednesday, and off we went. Things happened that fast.”
In trying to incorporate Eilish’s ideas into something “neat and cool” that would mesh with the album, Osborne and Rodriguez needed to develop something that would fit the concept of the Hollywood Bowl concert with the LA Philharmonic. “The Hollywood Bowl is a super vintage, awesome location,” Osborne explains. “How do we integrate the vibe of the animation into the lighting design and plan for what the bowl program would be? Because the animation was designed as pieces placed in-between the songs, what could we do with that? The project ended up as a 100% collaboration the whole way between me, Robert, Billie, Kerry and Pablo, the live-action live concert director and DP, trying to figure out how to get the special to feel like one solid piece with a little bit of a story, even though the story is mostly in the album.”
“With Interscope and Disney behind it, we knew the calendar was the trickiest part,” he continues. “Would we be able to try some cool stuff within the allocated amount of time? It was also clear that regardless of our schedule, we could not miss capturing the iconic way Billie moves and looks on the screen.”
There was literally no time to waste. “Here are the collaborators… get together and talk,” Osborne laughs. “Robert and I had a few phone calls and we just kind of hashed it out. I built a deck of slides that pitched what this might be. And then we ran with it that quickly.”
The special features various animated elements nestled in-between songs, along with a climactic moment where live-action and animation combine at the conclusion. “Our target was always, how do you have these two versions of a character? You know, your ideal self as an animated character, and what you actually are on stage? What would those two characters feel about each other? And how do we build a little bit of a story about visiting some LA landmarks, but not in too touristy a way, that treats them in a timeless fashion?”
Osborne set out with a crew to shoot various locations around L.A. “Our initial inspiration was very much putting animation on live-action plates,” he describes. “We went around and shot a bunch of locations, to build a journey through the city that meant something to Billie. And then, the real challenge was how to get a performance that feels consistent, that captures her iconic way of moving? We always knew she had a really amazing and unique way of moving, posing, and looking at the camera. How then can we transform that into our animated Billie?”
It quickly became clear they’d have to find a fast way to capture that physicality if they were to have any hope to build on that for the special. Knowing they wouldn’t have Eilish for a week to shoot on location, and figuring they had no time for “old-school rotoscope,” Osborne searched for a way to deal with the challenge. “How do I do this [rotoscope] in a modern way?” he says. “How do I do it differently? How do I do it efficiently with only a few hours of Billie's time?”
They settled on “putting her in a suit and capturing her unique motion,” then applying their version of rotoscope on top of that performance. “We settled on a mix of rendering the motion capture with hand keying on top, trying to find a look that would work, where we could get her likeness, her motion, but still have that 80s roto vibe.”
While a more reasonable schedule would have allowed for several months of live shooting, followed by months to rotoscope it all, with only 12 weeks, Osborne had none of that luxury. “So, what I did was call on some friends, call in some favors, to get it done, because it was going to be tight,” he laughs again. “Zoic Studios in London and LA, Nexus in London and a company called Digital Frontier FX in the Marina here in LA, all contributed different parts. We divvied it up based on specialties.”
Having worked with Nexus on hand keyed animation over the last year, Osborne had them “take the reins on the most magical, more surreal parts of the story,” with Zoic and Digital Frontier taking on some of “the grounded stuff.” “Zoic did a bunch of the comping and making it integrate and look nice with the final images,” he adds. “And the trickiest part about all of that was we only got the Hollywood Bowl footage in early July, so we literally had three or four weeks to add animation to that stuff. Not very long.”
And, he adds, “We had to capture Billie’s performance before we did the Bowl stuff. So that was weird too. We had to measure the Bowl and make sure the stairs were the right size, and that her performance on stage would be somewhere close to matching.”
He concludes, “So, that was a fascinating few weeks for sure.”
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.