Directed by Robert Rodriguez and Oscar-winning animation director Patrick Osborne Happier Than Ever is a unique performance film starring Billie Eilish shot over 5 consecutive nights at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles.
Focused on the No 1 album of the same name, Billie and her brother Finneas perform the entire tracklist front to back accompanied on various songs by the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus.
Additionally ‘animated Billie’ drives across LA from the recording studio to the Bowl via various LA landmarks that have personal meaning to her.
Billie Eilish at the Hollywood Bowl
Bringing this to life on the hallowed Bowl stage was DP Pablo Berron.
“One of my main concerns when I first got the call to the job was, how are we going to work with the stage lighting to make it cinematic? Because I knew a concert lighting designer was going to be involved with the general design of what was happening with the lighting. And I’ve worked with theatrical lighting designers before, and it’s a very different idea of how to light.
They’re lighting for an audience; these very steep, hard lights from very high angles; they are very frontal and flat. And that’s really not the most flattering thing when you’re trying to photograph somebody close up.
And I really wanted to shoot Billy really close, with the camera really close to her face and just do stuff that you wouldn’t normally be able to do in a concert film with an audience, for example.
But as it turned out, Billie’s tour lighting designer Tony Caporale was unbelievably collaborative and a real ace all around. He understood perfectly from the beginning that this was about the camera and not an audience in a big venue, and he was super receptive to all of my ideas.
So he and I and my longtime gaffer Konrad Siggurdsson came up with an overall approach over 3 weeks prior to the shoot.
We built these special RGB 36″ soft China balls that we could use when we were very close and when we wanted to follow her around the stage. I also brought in some big soft Arri Sky Panels on the side or lighting from the floor on certain songs.
I think we also had six or eight big 10ks lining the stage and then placed another pair strategically, really far downstage on the sides to sort of make them be a pretty, cinematic sidelight for her. The idea was, as much as possible, to eliminate the follow-spot concert lighting that usually functions as the performer’s key light and figure out a different way to get light on them from places where you’d never expect the light to come from in a show with a live audience.
I really like lighting, sometimes to a fault. I came up as an electrician and a gaffer when I first started out. And so I just get very excited about, you know, creating worlds through lighting. It’s about creating volumes in space, not just a tableau. And yes, sometimes you turn the lights off and that’s what ends up really working!”
“People like Billie, you know, who are just so photogenic and so emotional it’s just such a joy to shoot them and they can take almost anything lighting-wise. It was all about being flexible to her performance.
My 5 operators, myself, the whole lighting team, my guy for the lighting program, we were all on a comm system. So depending on what the camera was meant to do, if I was in there handheld with her, if it was a Steadicam shot, I was anticipating the lighting changes. It was really about turning lights off, to be honest with you, more than adding extra lights.
It was pretty much whenever there was a hard light on her, it was like, ‘turn it off, turn it off, turn it off!’ It was about keeping unwanted light off her and really getting in sync with the programmer. We’d always just try to keep light on the back never on the front of her. Especially when the camera’s close up.
So when we spun around her, I would be on the intercom and I would say, ‘OK, we’re going to turn around, start fading the front light out, now fade this light out, OK, now fade out this one and fade this one completely off’ as we moved. So it was very carefully timed when a certain light would fade out and again when it would fade in. And thankfully after a short while we were able to have it happen almost in real-time which was amazing.
Billie’s live workflow brought challenges because she was recording all of the vocals live and she sings super quietly. So there’s a lot of sensitivity to that; the Steadicam guy has to walk on the tip of his toes and if I have another operator on rollerblades moving around and another guy with the fiber cables from the cameras moving around, then suddenly there are five people running around the talent trying to sing her song and perform. So it was a kind of ballet of everybody being very very quiet, but also having to anticipate when something was going to happen.”
Choosing the gear
While the vintage Porsche car and other plates for the animated parts of the film were shot with the Red Komodo in S35 6K R3D, the main performance by Billie Eilish at the Hollywood Bowl became a showcase for Sony’s Full Frame Venice camera.
“There’s only really two options for me when it comes to choosing digital cinema cameras these days: the Alexa system, the Venice. and sometimes possibly the Panavision DXL2. But on this show the Venice was a no-brainer for a number of reasons. I knew from the moment I got hired that it was the right tool for this job.
It really helped out from a systems architecture standpoint for the video systems team.
There were so many different video villages that had to be set up for so many different clients and people and eyes. I don’t even know how many monitors there were! But at any given time, there were maybe 300 people at the shoot and everybody needed to see picture.
I really fought to keep all the cameras wireless but a lot of the cameras ended up being hard wired through fiber in order to have better control. It ended up being the right decision. And Sony with their broadcast experience they have that capability built right into their systems.
Also, my DIT Dan Skinner was able to remotely control every single camera. So the operators didn’t have to worry about exposing anything. Essentially, they would just leave the lens wide open, and then whenever I wasn’t able to control the master fader on the lighting console we could adjust the stop remotely in incredibly fine steps.
My DIT and I used lookup tables for the Venice camera that they developed at Company 3. One was like a film simulation and another one is kind of a more stylized version of the same feel. The output of the camera then ended up looking stunningly beautiful; its one of the most filmic images I’ve ever seen on a digital camera.”
The show also used a wide array of lenses.
“I am famously indecisive sometimes, especially when it comes to prep. So basically I called my friends over at Panavision and told them about the job.
It started as an anamorphic show and then it became spherical and then, you know, large-format spherical glass in general is in really high demand. And it was one of the busiest filming weeks we’ve ever seen in Los Angeles (because a lot of COVID on-set restrictions had started to lift). So they kind of pulled a lot of amazing miracles to give me a bunch of options on lenses.
We ended up with two sets of the Panavision Primo 70s, a set of Cooke Panchros that I don’t think we ever used, and a set of Panavision P-vintage lenses which in there was a 50 millimeter T 1.0, and that was just freaking gorgeous and I used that a couple of times.
We also had a set of Zeiss Supreme primes that I own, mostly because of the Primo 70s. There’s a 14mm and a 24mm in the Primo’s and there’s nothing in between, so I have a 21mm Supreme and that got used.
On the drone we used a 14mm Arri Ultra Prime in S35, because they didn’t want any of their large format expensive glass up there so I needed a nice small lens as we had a Venice and our RAW recorder and everything on this huge drone.
And then for zooms, we had a Panavision 11 x 1 Primo zoom expanded, a 3×1 Primo zoom expanded, and two of the Fuji Premista 28-100s. I had never used the Fuji’s personally, but they are gorgeous, a true T2.9 4x zoom. I used them a lot the first couple of nights with the orchestra, and then switched to primes when we shot Billie. And we also had a Primo 70 15-30 zoom for wide angles and that was also really really pretty.”
“So spherical was totally the right decision. But initially, I was really bummed that we couldn’t shoot anamorphic because by some miracle there were these Panavision UltraVista anamorphic lenses, that there are only three sets in the world, available. And I’ve been trying to get my hands on them forever.
But then we decided not to go the anamorphic route. So the guys at Panavision were like, have you ever seen these anamorphic attachments that we made for our lenses? And they’re essentially kind of like the ARRI Master Anamorphic Flare kits. But these particular attachments, I don’t know how to describe the glass, there are no filaments like other ‘fake anamorphic’ optics. So the way the light interacts with them and these particular lenses I just found super beautiful and it really brought a three-dimensional feel rather than feeling like it’s just layered on the image.
I was like, I’ll take them and we’ll see if I use them. And I ended up using them quite a bit!”
People that have worked at the Bowl for 50 years, they were like, ‘nobody’s ever done this. Nobody’s ever had the Hollywood Bowl for a week and come in and just literally do whatever you want.’
“You know, we even rebuilt the pool in the Bowl that hadn’t been used since the early ’70s; the whole thing was just totally insane. Aron Levine and Kerry Asmussen and his people from the live production company were so good at dealing with the infrastructure and logistics of the whole thing, and Robert (Rodriguez) who I’d never worked with before, was so direct in knowing what he wanted. I mean, when we were filming the promos for the show we actually finished early! As we called wrap, Billie turned around and said ‘What?? I’ve never finished a shoot early, ever’.”
“Highlights? From the first moment of the first song, when I stepped on stage and there was Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Phil and out come Billie and Finneas, and there was the sun setting and it was just like, holy shit!
I think the other time it was really, really electric for me was shooting Oxytocin, it was one of the first songs I shot handheld with her on stage, and there was no other camera running. It was just like, this is the only shot in this setup. And we were like, dancing back and forth together and she’s playing to the lens and I’m so close to her and the lights are firing off and there are lasers and there’s smoke and I turn around to the empty Hollywood Bowl, and I’m on the stage there and she’s singing, and I was just like, wow, this is really special.
Such an iconic place and, you know, such a beautiful young star not even at the peak of her career, she’s just at the beginning but is on top of the world right now.
And it was, ….really, it was just a dream the whole thing.”
Happier Than Ever with Billie Eilish at the Hollywood Bowl is out now worldwide on Disney+
Pablo Berron is currently shooting ‘Hypnotic’ for Robert Rodriguez starring Ben Affleck.
This interview was transcribed using Adobe Premiere.
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