She’s probably everyone’s favourite and least annoying pop star. In her new film, Billie Eilish is pacing around every iconic part of Los Angeles in the hopes of portraying her love for the city. In an ultra-cool animation with a very Blade Runner-meets-Matrix aesthetic, a “film noir-inspired animated Billie” guides her viewers through “her favourite corners of the city”. The cinematic concert experience will be the artist’s Disney+ debut and will feature a performance of every song in the album’s sequential order from the stage of the Hollywood Bowl.
The film’s direction comes from Nexus’ Oscar-winning director Patrick Osborne and he’s teamed up with fellow director Robert Rodriguez. Together they’ve created a multimedia piece with live performances at The Hollywood Bowl interwoven with the animation. It’s a self-proclaimed “love letter to Los Angeles” whilst paying homage to classic Hollywood.
As her hometown, Los Angeles is hugely important to Billie. The animated sequences, says Dave Hunt, the CG supervisor, were “a way of taking the audience on a dreamlike journey through LA”. Hunt goes on to tell us about the “timeless atmosphere” that exists around many of the city’s iconic places, “particularly the Hollywood Bowl”. The animated journey with Eilish becomes “a neat parallel” to the chronological performance of the album.
“We always knew our stylised Billie would be driven by motion capture data from Billie herself,” explains Dave Hunt, “so at an early stage we wanted to make sure our 3D character was reflecting as many of Billie’s movements as accurately as possible.” This meant that, from the very precise style of her walk to the subtlety of facial expressions, it was vital that these were translated correctly to make the final performance feel like authentic Billie Eilish. “We also had Robert Rodriguez’s camera data recorded on set, so as well as Billie’s motion we also had the nuance of his camera work to use which really helped our 3D camera moves feel authentic,” continues Hunt.
Hunt explains the complex design and animation process: he says that on top of the performance capture, “there is a fairly involved process of making keyframe adjustments to the original data. Some of these might be minor polishes such as fixing eyeline or handposes, other changes may be more involved such as adjusting the speed of a performance to work better in our edit, or combining different takes from the mocap recording.” The team made good use of previsualisation on this project – this term is used to describe techniques such as storyboarding, either in the form of charcoal sketches or in digital technology, before the creation of a complex scene. “Before any of the live action shoots went ahead we were able to quickly prototype shots – experimenting with camera angle and focal length to establish key shots that we’d want to match on location in LA.”
Once they started getting footage back, they could then create a post-visualisation edit – this edit, Hunt tells It’s Nice That, “looks rough as it’s ungraded footage with a proxy character in each shot, but it provides a great way of confirming each shot before the mocap and animation work begins in earnest.”
Billie Eilish was involved at every level according to Hunt, “from initial references through to character and costume design and then, of course, the motion capture performance which is the backbone of the animated sections.” The singer even already had colours associated with each song on her album, “so that in turn drove both the onset lighting as well as the colours and grade for the final animation.”
At the start of the project, Eilish immediately had a few key character and style references, one of which was Jessica Rabbit from Who Framed Roger Rabbit, as well as Holli Would from Ralph Bakshi’s Cool World. These two characters became the “initial steers” – “definitively 2D references” which the schedule and animation volume couldn’t work with, “particularly if Billie was to be the source of the physical performance.” So the challenge was to create a hybrid character “that used a 3D character model, driven by motion capture, but rendered with block colours and linework to create our contemporary spin on what Bakshi and Zemeckis/Williams were creating with their characters in the late 80s early 90s.”
To make the design team’s aim feasible, they expedited a single shot of animated Billie Eilish driving a Porsche along Hollywood boulevard. “This was our testing ground,” explains Hunt, “for all the techniques we would need to implement in the finished show and we knew once we had creative approval on that, we should have our ducks in a row for the full production.”
The film will be released in anticipation of her album Happier than Ever, and she worked alongside her brother Finneas as well as the L.A. Philharmonic and conductor Gustavo Dudamel for the project. Happier than Ever: A Love Letter to Los Angeles debuts on Disney+ on 3 September 2021.
GalleryNexus Studios: Happier Than Ever, Billie Eilish (Copyright © Disney, 2021)
Nexus Studios: Oxytocin by Billie Eilish (Copyright © Disney, 2021)
About the Author
Dalia is a freelance writer, producer and editor based in London. She’s currently the digital editor of Azeema, and the editor-in-chief of The Road to Nowhere Magazine. Previously, she was news writer at It’s Nice That, after graduating in English Literature from The University of Edinburgh.