Billie Eilish is having quite the year, to such an extent, that introductions feel unnecessary. Her rise to fame has been chronicled extensively. There are countless think pieces on her androgynous style, and how it makes her a very different kind of pop star. All the details of her extremely Los Angeles upbringing, how she was groomed for this—homeschooling, working actors for parents, singing and dance lessons—have been detailed and shared. You know her brother’s name is Finneas, and that he’s in her band. You’ve probably heard that they recorded her entire debut album in his bedroom, how the songs sample broken glass and Easy-Bake Ovens. You know that she’s 17 years old. You’ve been impressed by the subtlety in her vaporous voice, and either appalled or enamored with the candid self-deprecation in her lyrics.
What hasn’t been as widely discussed is the technical production and set design on her tour.
PRG and VER are providing lighting, rigging, LED, automation, and cameras on Billie Eilish’s When We All Fall Asleep World Tour. We delve into the creative process, gear and iterations it took to bring her visions, the stuff of dreams and nightmares, all around the world.
Early Creative Direction
Erik Anderson and Gordon Droitcour of Cour Design started working with Billie Eilish in late 2017.
The design duo has always been more solutions-focused. Their company started when they worked together to develop a way to trigger lighting using Ableton, which gave them early entry to the market of people doing automated lighting systems, and in turn, up-and-coming artists.
“The first tour we sent Billie on was with one of our automated systems, and her dad was setting up the lighting because there was no LD to operate anything. Now she’s doing seven trucks. That’s happened in a 12-month period,” says Anderson, co-founder of Cour Design.
That was the year 2018, during which Billie sold out her North American tour in under a minute. It was also the year her songs were streamed more than one billion times.
“If we are all being honest, she’s exceeded expectations. I’ve never seen it happen this quickly or organically. She built that momentum, and it took off because she’s identifying with a fan base,” Anderson says.
From the logistics and design side, her rapid rise created a lot of challenges.
“You’re dealing with very short turnaround time, and Billie is an artist who likes to be involved as much as she can. She knows her brand better than anyone else. It’s been exciting but also challenging from that perspective.”
Worldwide 360 Solutions
“VER was with Billie from the beginning, and we always push as much as we can to keep the artist working with that original team when they blow up,” Anderson says. “Account executive Anthony ‘Looch’ Ciampa worked hard to hit the numbers we needed to.”
PRG and VER knew that Eilish’s team had a lot on their plates tackling both Coachella and the tour, which had a hectic schedule jumping back and forth between Coachella, Australia, the United States, and Europe.
“Having a single account representative we could go to and talk everything through with has been a huge time-saver for us,” explains Anderson. “It’s also been beneficial to have a company that has the ability to work with the numbers on lighting side so they can make the video side work and vice versa.”
Cour Design partnered with lighting designer Nick Whitehouse's company, Fireplay, when it came time to debut Eilish’s new, more involved touring design at Coachella.
“The design side of it was a real collaboration,” Whitehouse says. “They had a concept they’d worked through with Billie, so we took it and put our spin on it and added some elements that were unique.”
This included taking a flat wall with a riser in front of it and figuring out how to practically turn it 45 degrees into an opened cube with a video floor that surrounded her.
“Fireplay came and gave us some helpful tips on how to achieve the forced perspective with the raised floor,” explains Anderson. “Billie was really happy with it from the beginning. We scrambled in every possible way to get it together and it’s been wild.”
LED, Scenic, and Rigging
Lyrically and thematically, Billie and Finneas have created characters in many of her songs, including “Bad Guy” and “You Should See Me in a Crown.” They are playing with the identity mirrored in other aspects of her brand. Her vocals are often compared to Lana Del Rey, and her personal style to Tyler, the Creator.
“We wanted to create this immersive video environment because every song is a different persona and a different feel,” says Whitehouse. “Content is created to reflect the mood of the music and to frame Billie in a different way for each single track, so we were able to do complete shifts for how the show looked and felt simply by changing the video content.”
In order to create the video cube, ROE Visual BM4 LED tiles were used for the floor and WinVision 9 Air for the back LED screen, all provided by PRG.
Eilish depicts herself as the monster under her bed for the debut album art and has an ongoing theme of nightmares and horror. A rigged bed that moved around the stage and took Billie midair became the ultimate, standout scenic element on the tour.
“Billie was really involved in driving this forward, and we were very happy with how that worked out,” says Whitehouse. “When she’s up there performing on the bed, that’s iconic. When you look at her trajectory and process as an artist, the way her production and album went down, those features are the ones that most associate her brand with what we’ve done, and to me, it’s the perfect design that fits with her story and everything she’s trying to do.”
PRG provided a Kinesys automation system with four motors to fly the bed.
Lighting Design and Programming
Lighting director Tony Caporale teamed up with Dominic Smith of Fireplay to program the show.
“Dominic has a very elegant touch, and it was great to tandem with him because we both come from different styles,” says Caporale.
Caporale runs the show on an MA Lighting grandMA2 lighting console and uses a lot of timecode. If only he had more hands, he says he would do it all live.
“With how the beats are commanded for us in the programming, we definitely have to timecode it heavily. Billie loves all the beats to hit hard. When Finneas is producing the music, he has really intricate stuff in there, and we really push it louder in the live show to give the fans that detail from the album. All the eerie sounds you hear, whether it’s a dental drill or a staple gun sampled in the song, they like to have that accented in the lighting, and it’s so fun to program that in.”
Part of what makes Eilish so interesting, sonically and aesthetically, is her duality: the velvety voice that envelops you juxtaposed with these pounding beats. Both the moments of loudness and the subtleties of the production are paramount during lighting programming.
“Roy Bennet taught me how to listen for intricacies in songs. It’s part of the bonding process you develop with the artists over time. As the show has gone on, I’ve listened to the music more and added new stuff in. Billie and Finn love when you find those little things in the music and create a way to visualize them.”
Timing, heavy strobing and the use of color are the three lighting elements for which Eilish has a very clear vision, given she has synesthesia.
“We have to work to get the shading just right. When she writes a song, she sees a color, which is so crazy to think about from a lighting perspective. At the time, she’s not thinking about lights; she’s expressing a feeling.”
Eilish’s music sounds different because it is, and that’s because the way she sees the world is different. She’s posted videos, explaining how she’s gone into a production session wanting to make something that “sounds like corduroy feels.” Eilish has used her synesthesia as a tool to make music that incites a physical response. She’s allowing her audience to perceive the world more like she does, by stimulating the senses in ways that blur the lines between cognitive pathways.
“The show is insane; the fans are insane. It’s been fun to see the phenomenon grow around her as an artist. I don’t even know how to describe it because I’ve never seen anything like it before. It’s a new teen pop idol, but a different type of pop idol,” says Caporale.
“She feels like a once in a generation artist,” agrees Anderson.
Thanks to that, the tour has been extended and will continue through November.
“This tour, because of its success, has gone to multiple continents already, and the fact that PRG has been able to support this throughout the world has been integral to our ability to extend it,” says Whitehouse. “They’ve been a really great partner to Billie and to this team.”
- Production & Lighting Design - Cour Design / Fireplay
- Creative Director - Erik Anderson (Cour Design)
- Lighting Director & Programmer - Tony Caporale
- Lead Programmer - Dominic Smith
- Lighting Crew Chief - Jim Keegan
- Lighting Techs - William "Flash" Roger’s, Lindsey Norman,
- Nate Plotsky
- Tour Manager - Brian Marquis
- Production Manager - Bill Leabody / Nicole Massey (Leabody Inc.)
- Set/Stage Designer - Cour Design / Fireplay
- Stage Manager - Jayy Jutting
- Video Designer - Cour Design / Fireplay
- Video Content - Comix
- Video Director & Disguise Programmer - Lewis Benfield
- Notch Designer - Lewis Benfield
- Video Techs - Tyler Thorton, Michael Boggs, Gerald "G" McDougal II
- Rigger - Rai Rathor
- Carpenter - Patrick O’Connell, Nate Poort
- Automation - Ryan Mast