Inside The Visual World Of Billie Eilish’s ‘Happier Than Ever,’ A Testament To Her “Brilliant” Creative Vision

There’s a moment early on in the 2021 Apple TV+ documentary film, The World’s A Little Blurry, where Billie Eilish stakes her claim as the ringleader of her own creative circus — one where what she says goes.

In the scene, a then 16-year-old Eilish maps out her visual ideation for the “When The Party’s Over” music video. Explaining in fine detail how she envisions her now-iconic black ink tears coming to life, Eilish has very specific instructions for director Carlos López Estrada.

“Don’t zoom,” Eilish demands in a video message to Estrada, filmed at a replica set in her backyard. “Don’t do anything these bozo f***ing filmmakers do when they try to have it not be boring.”

At the actual video shoot, the blue-haired singer bounces between the set and the monitor to ensure that her vision — born from a “beautiful piece of art from a fan” — is being properly executed. When they wrap, she makes a quiet declaration with loud determination: “For the rest of the videos, I’m directing them all myself.”

It’s an aspiration Eilish has had since she started releasing music at age 14, but an opportunity she only had a few times before taking the reins with 2019’s “Xanny.” “Since the beginning of my career I wanted to direct videos,” she told The Guardian in 2019. “I told everybody that immediately and they were like: ‘Well, you don’t have any experience and you don’t have the time.’

“They really didn’t want a 14-year-old girl to direct a music video,” she continued. “But I knew I wanted to and I convinced them, I got their trust, and from here on out I want to do my own videos, and I eventually want to make a movie. I’ve wanted to direct my whole life. I love cinematography, the camera angles, the visuals.”

Now, the singer is in the midst of building a world around her second album, Happier Than Ever, which earned Eilish seven nominations at the 2022 GRAMMY Awards. Though she’s no stranger to GRAMMYs — in 2020, she became the youngest artist (and only second ever) to sweep all four General Field categories — this year spawned perhaps Eilish’s most meaningful nomination yet: Best Music Video. Earning the nod was the visual for the album’s title track, one of Eilish’s self-directed masterpieces that features the star experiencing a cathartic release of emotion by way of a rain-induced flood.

One of six videos Eilish directed for the album, “Happier Than Ever” — which is nominated for both Record and Song of the Year, as well as Best Pop Solo Performance — is just a sliver of the visual universe the singer created. With the release of a philharmonic-backed concert film (the Disney+ special Happier Than Ever: A Love Letter To Los Angeles, nominated for Best Music Film) and multiple aesthetically pleasing live performances, Eilish displays a transformation at work — one helmed by an artist set on having full creative control.

As that fateful scene in The World’s A Little Blurry indicates, the documentary’s director R.J. Cutler saw the genius within Eilish as they worked together. “It was important to me to illustrate the fact that in terms of all other aspects of her work, her career, her business, her art and her image — whatever it might be, she is the final word,” Cutler tells “It should be no surprise to anybody that a brilliant visionary director who has an incredible instinct and a very specific visual sensibility is in command of the camera.”

That sense of visual awareness is integral to pop stardom — particularly for women artists, who have historically been held to a higher standard than their male counterparts. Knowing this, Eilish launched the Happier Than Ever era with an aesthetic rebranding that swapped her trademark neon green roots for an Old Hollywood-style blonde cut. “I couldn’t go anywhere with that hair because it was so obviously me,” she told Elle last year. “I wanted anonymity.”

Her compromised sense of security is a major theme across Happier Than Ever — and rightfully so, considering she came of age in the public eye. Though Eilish had never fully lost authority of her narrative, building a world around such a personal record offered an opportunity to regain control in more ways than one.

Visualizing Happier Than Ever

Eilish’s self-directed visual world began to truly take shape with the music video for “Your Power,” a damning examination of abuse and its consequences — or lack thereof. Nearly camouflaged against the earthy tones of Simi Valley’s mountainside, the singer steeps in her lyrical vulnerability while a green anaconda envelops her body. “Your Power” served as the follow up to “Therefore I Am,” a final send-off to Eilish’s old signature green-rooted hair.

Within her own visual direction, Eilish often errs on the side of solitude. She builds narratives through the use of distinct locations and dramatic accessories, rather than acting out elaborate scenes with other people — whether she’s having a real tarantula crawl out of her mouth for early career cut “You Should See Me In A Crown,” walking down the middle of a street in the path of cars racing in all directions for “NDA,” or performing in a torrential flood for “Happier Than Ever.”

In the official “Male Fantasy” music video, which Eilish directed and edited, she conveys cold and brooding emotions with acute power within isolation. She moves from the quiet space of a living room back to her bed, then in and out of the refrigerator before once again returning to the security of the blankets. It’s the exact opposite parallel to the lively slumber party she directed for “Lost Cause,” which played into the same neutral color palette, but did so with a carefree air of spontaneity.

Crafting Intimate Live Performances

In July 2021, Eilish kicked off a four-part live performance video series that saw the singer scale back the avant-garde ideas often executed in her music videos for a more intimate setting. For the first release in the series, she leaves behind the slithering snake of “Your Power” and reimagines the song at Los Angeles’ Biltmore Hotel.

Opening with an Old Hollywood film title card, the video places Eilish and Finneas against graceful orange curtains at the end of a long corridor at the hotel. The famed designs of the location are obscured with focus locked on the acoustic performance itself, a subtle visual narrative that develops over the course of the series. The historic 1930s hotel plays into the presence of Los Angeles as a character in Eilish’s world, somewhere she often champions and revisits through song and video. Her constant call-backs add weight to the depth of the pivotal moment in “Happier Than Ever” where she cries out: “I’d never treat me this shitty, you made me hate this city.”

“We had a good, long conversation with their team early on about [wanting] to create this as Billie not only enters this new phase of her musical career, but as she becomes an adult starting to tackle bigger themes — as you can clearly hear on the album,” says Micah Bickham, executive producer of content production at Vevo. “We wanted to create this world that was elevated and took it to that same sort of place, exploring these more iconic and maybe more adult themes.”

For “Male Fantasy,” Eilish settles on the edge of a gold-blanketed bed in a torn cream sweater as she ruminates on the same notions of the male gaze and desire that she later explores in A Love Letter to Los Angeles. “All of that was by design,” Bickham explains. “Her and Finneas in a simple hotel room just having a conversation with her fans in a way that blaring concert lights and large bands [couldn’t].”

He adds: “We were just trying to create a bit of a paradox, if you will, between these softer environments and then take Billie into those worlds, who is basically, either vocally or performatively, creating a bit of a contrast. If you think about some of the songs, some of the lyrics juxtaposed to the world that she’s sitting in, it’s a really interesting simple expression of contrast. That was a really important part of it.”

Completing Another Visual Journey

In the Vevo live performance series videos, there’s a sense of emotional release that mirrors the intensity embedded within the lyrics. But Happier Than Ever is shaped through Old Hollywood regality, which displays the power of performance even in the absence of theatrics. “Lost Cause” and the simmering, rhythmic “Billie Bossa Nova” are delivered in the Biltmore Hotel’s famed Crystal Ballroom, using the location as a point of entry to the alluring tone of each track. As the final installation of the video series, “Billie Bossa Nova” places Eilish in the center of the ballroom in front of a trio of luxurious ceiling-high windows.

“It’s like, how do we create vignettes and spaces for each of these conversations to take place so that when you watch them individually, they stand on their own two legs — but if you were to watch them as a collection, you see the evolution of those performances from song to song,” Bickham says.

The series is a significant example of Eilish driving the narrative of Happier Than Ever forward through the use of hyper-specific tones and color palettes. The singer, who has synesthesia, established the visual and tonal range executed through wardrobe choices and set designs. The muted pinks, pops of blue, and array of neutral selections — juxtaposed to the gold regality of the hotel — correspond with the Eilish’s own synesthetic perceptions of each song.

“There are not that many artists who create a world around the album that they’re making. They’re not just performing singles, they’re creating a character and that character is operating inside a world and the visuals that you’re seeing are built inside that world,” Bickham says. “Some people think they want endless possibilities, but it’s important to have someone like Billie define what the parameters are and give us that thing that we can color inside the lines of, and help extend and build that world.”

Reimagining The Concert Film

Amid the rollout of Vevo performances, Happier Than Ever: A Love Letter To Los Angeles arrived in September. The hour-long special brought more stunning live performances, doubling as a tribute to Eilish’s hometown. Filmed over a week at the Hollywood Bowl, Love Letter reconfigures the typical concert film formula — particularly thanks to her 2D animated avatar, which threads a visual storyline through the streets of California.

When Eilish first approached animator Patrick Osborne and filmmaker Robert Rodriguez to co-direct the Disney+ feature, she — in very Billie fashion — had a specific vision for how the film would look.

“The first interaction we had, she was sending all of these reference images of blonde animated characters from ’80s cartoons,” Obsorne explains, recalling Ralph Bakshi and Jessica Rabbit-esque sources of inspiration. “Billie, from the beginning, [wanted to have] an animated alter-ego version of herself that was kind of idealized and something she isn’t.”

Working under a tight deadline, animators in London, Los Angeles and Sydney created a landscape for the blonde avatar to explore Eilish’s hometown. The avatar has freedom that the real Eilish lacks, though billboards promoting Happier Than Ever appear throughout, reinforcing the ironclad inescapability of fame.

During “Not My Responsibility,” Eilish tackles the conversation surrounding her body, while the avatar’s silhouette saunters through shallow waters. She drives through rare traffic-less streets in a top-down convertible, making pit stops to take in the city from the rooftop of the Roosevelt Hotel and to dine alone at a quaint restaurant. Later, she arrives at a movie premiere under the shine of flashing lights. The avatar detours through Echo Park and Highland Park (the singer’s longtime home until stalkers and security breaches made relocation imperative) before arriving at the Hollywood Bowl.

“If I was to dig into the psychology of the animated character, these ’80s animated characters that she’s referencing are really idealized from a male perspective,” Osborne says, calling back to Eilish championing bodily autonomy and desire on Happier Than Ever itself.

“She has such a cool aesthetic eye that certain things feel like her,” he adds. “She had an angle on this and that, then it was up to me and Robert to shape it into some kind of achievable story.”

Capturing A Precious Moment In Time

The unrestricted adventures of Eilish’s 2D avatar are a call back to life before When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? and the massive influx of notoriety that followed. Having captured that moment in The World’s A Little Blurry, R.J. Cutler recalls a recent conversation with Eilish’s mother, Maggie Baird, about the change.

“Maggie said to me recently that she didn’t expect that this would be one of the reasons she is so grateful for the film,” he says. “But she now recognizes that it captured a moment in their lives that in some instances no longer exists.”

At the pinnacle moment in A Love Letter to Los Angeles, the 2D character appears as the venue’s sole audience. She watches the real Eilish perform an exceptional record of their shared experiences, backed by Finneas, the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, guitarist Romero Lubambo and drummer Andrew Marshall. The artist’s ongoing theme of solitude, and the autonomy found within that, reaches a pointed height and speaks to the one consistency between where Eilish has been and where she’s headed: herself.

“These films are a dialogue between the moment that they capture, and the moment that they’re viewed,” Cutler adds, noting the comparison between the 16-year-old girl in the Apple TV+ documentary and the now 20-year-old GRAMMY-winning musician currently embarking on a sold-out international arena tour.

By presenting the complex emotions of change in a tangible form, Eilish has constructed a living gallery of artistic growth. Surely she’ll continue to evolve, but her Happier Than Ever era will always serve as an important statement piece of where she’s been and where she’s going — with her artistic identity at its center.

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