Last summer, YouTube joined forces with producer Ridley Scott to create a crowd-sourced documentary. How do you cut 4,500 hours down to 95 captivating minutes?
Last summer, YouTube joined forces with director/producer Ridley Scott and award-winning filmmaker Kevin Macdonald to embark on a potentially risky endeavor. Via their YouTube channel and other online and traditional marketing efforts, everyone around the world was asked to submit footage of their lives from July 24, 2010. This summer Saturday was not chosen arbitrarily—the filmmakers knew that most people around the world would not be working or in school, thus more likely to be indulging in recreational activities.
Coincidentally, July 24 began with a full moon. It also was the date of a disastrous stampede at the Love Parade music festival in Germany that killed 21 people. But it was also just a regular day when people danced in water fountains, jumped from planes, sat in repose with their loved ones, told secrets, and made coffee. July 24, 2010, was just an ordinary day when everything and nothing happened. And that everything and nothing was ultimately submitted in 80,000 YouTube clips.
After a small army of editors went through every bit of the 4,500 hours of footage, a story began to come together that eventually evolved into Life in a Day, a feature-length documentary that recruited the global community to encapsulate a moment of their lives on camera. The end result is the somewhat chronological experience of just a regular day told through images of regular people from Australia to Zambia and everywhere in between.
But Life in a Day is not just about the mundane and the routine. While parsing through the 350 hours that the editors deemed potentially suitable for the film, director Macdonald began to see larger themes emerging that depicted a grander life narrative of birth, growth, love, loss, fulfillment, and death. The end result is a film that reminds us that no matter where we live and what we do with our lives, we’re all human. And we’re all in this life together.
Tribeca: So how did it go at the sneak peek on Sunday (July 24)?
Kevin Macdonald: It was nice! In every city we’ve been doing special screenings and inviting along people from the local area who took part in the film to come. The special thing for me about this film is that it started as an experiment. Having made two or three sort of fairly big-budget things in a row and feeling a bit jaded with the restrictions and budgetary things, I wanted to get back to doing something that’s really creative and fun with no financial pressure, so we did this.
And it was tremendous fun, and different, and stimulating because it was so different. What I found is that audiences really respond to the movie, which is the strangest thing because I didn’t think that they would. I think that ordinary people who aren’t necessarily film-literate or film buffs will really enjoy it, and that’s a great feeling, obviously.
Tribeca: So are you surprised at the audience response?
Kevin Macdonald:I’m a little surprised, yeah. The post-production of this film was incredibly quick – the whole film was basically post-production. We shot on July 24 and then we finished it for Sundance in January. The whole thing was like 5 or 6 months. So it was pretty frantic getting it done. And then taking it to Sundance and suddenly realizing that it really worked for an audience, not having tested, not having shown it to many people—that’s a nice thing.
Tribeca: Your last two films were narrative features, so how did you get involved in a project like this?
Kevin Macdonald:Well I’ve made lots of documentaries and I love documentary. I’m kind of a student of documentary as well – I edited a book with a friend of mine, published by Faber and Faber, called The Faber Book of Documentary. So I’ve thought a lot about and seen a lot of different sorts of documentaries, [but] this idea was something I’d never seen before, and that was exciting to me.
I felt that there was a way of making a movie [where you could take] what is the most mundane and reviled kind of video there is—the YouTube clip or the home movie—and elevate it into a movie. Trying to construct a film that works as a film from that stuff that’s normally seen on a screen this size, that people see as very transitory and frivolous, and actually take it and say, “No, this is saying something about us, and who we are.”
Tribeca: Because of some of the equipment that’s being used, there’s some really high-quality stuff in there. But even the stuff that’s really grainy, when it’s blown up that big it looks impressionistic.
Kevin Macdonald:It’s beautiful! I mean, that’s the thing—I think one of the problems that the film industry is going through at the moment is this obsession with resolution: "Let’s make it sharper!" Sharper’s not necessarily great, you know. One of the most beautiful films I ever saw was Michael Almereyda’s film that he made on the PixelVision camera. We don’t think when we look at stills or a painting, "Oh, how sharp can they get it?"
It’s not about sharpness; it’s about creating an atmosphere. Often, not knowing—using darkness and obscurity—can actually make your imagination work more. And that’s what I think about some of this footage. Even the most blurry material has a beauty to it and an honesty to it. Most of the stuff that looks great in the film was shot on the Canon 5D, which is the camera of choice for indie filmmakers these days. It shoots beautiful images with a very shallow depth of field, and it costs $1,500.
Tribeca: How did you ensure that the initial ask for footage had a global reach?
Kevin Macdonald: We were in partnership with YouTube for the film, so that was a huge boon. It would have been very hard to make this film without someone like them partnering with us, because they have such global reach. We were able to advertise the film on YouTube, and we directed people to our channel, where Ridley Scott and I had both done little videos encouraging people to take part.
So that was the primary way, but we were also conscious of the fact that there would be a lot of people in the developing world who don’t have access to Internet and wouldn’t find out about this. We wanted there to be some sense of global representation—obviously, nothing is ever going to be totally objectively representative in 95 minutes. We went to a camera shop and literally said, “Here’s $60,000. How many cameras that do HD video can we get?” We bought almost 500 cameras, and then we sent those out with various aid organizations around the world, and they distributed them in Africa and Southeast Asia. That was how we got things like the little shoeshine boy in Peru, and people in Africa and in Vietnam.
Kevin Macdonald: He’s fantastic, isn’t he? He’s so unexpected, and he says, “Wikipedia, it’s like a library! There’s everything in it!”
Tribeca: Was there some footage that you received that you loved that didn’t make it in the final film?
Kevin Macdonald: There were some things that were really strange or really funny that just didn’t find a place. Ultimately, my rule in making this film was to make something that was coherent, that was of a piece. It wasn’t just like, “Let’s throw everything that’s good in there." There was a structure—there are many different structures to the film. We had to be quite rigorous about adhering to those structures, because there’s nothing worse than watching a movie when you feel like the director doesn’t know where something’s going. No matter how great the material is, if you’re meandering around and don’t seem to have a direction, then it doesn’t work. My job was to give it an overarching direction and structure.
Tribeca: There are these everyday details, but then there is the thread throughout the film that includes birth, growth, learning, failure, death. So there’s this sort of life arc, too.
Kevin Macdonald: I deliberately didn’t have any preconceptions of how I was going to make the film before I saw the material. I really wanted to go in and let the material speak to us—when I say “us,” I mean the editor Joe Walker and me. Joe was really a co-director of the film because it’s such an editorial film. We sat there and we watched 350 hours from the 4,500 hours that came in. The group of 25 multilingual researchers watched everything, 12 hours a day for 2 1/2 months, and they gave it a star system. Everything that was 4 and 5 stars was the stuff that I watched.
So we went through this and we just let the material speak to us. The themes that seemed to come across were the ones that we thought were great characters, images, and stories. But somehow, it all seemed that the best stuff was the stuff that felt really honest. That’s the kind of stuff we were looking for, not someone saying, "Hey, my name is Chuck, and I want to be an actor."
Tribeca: Did you see a lot of that?
Kevin Macdonald: Oh yeah, a lot of that. A lot of narcissism, or people doing phony stunts. I didn’t think that was interesting. What’s interesting is people being real and being honest about themselves, and being brave enough to let you into their life in some way. There’s a scene with a boy learning to shave for the first time. It’s a very sweet thing in some ways, but also it’s a rite of passage. What else is there that separates boyhood from manhood? There’s the father telling the son, “This is how you do it,” and the son comes out of there all bloodied. It’s hilarious, but it’s also part of the river of life.
What became more and more apparent, what the material seemed to be saying was that what people really want to talk about are the basic, fundamental things: childhood, birth, exhilarating moments in their lives, love, having children, politics a little bit, the chance of death and illness rearing their heads at any moment. Those are the things that people actually want to talk about. That’s why the film, to me, is powerful. I think that it sneaks up on you to be quite profound, in way. It’s not philosophical, but it actually confronts you with a lot of things that you maybe don’t confront normally in your life.
Tribeca: The moment that stuck out the most to me was when the young man was coming out to his grandmother on the phone. That killed me.
Kevin Macdonald: The thing that’s most interesting to me is the performance, in a sense. It’s not made up, but there’s a performance in the sense that you hear how little it is that makes you feel emotional. It’s the tiny tightening in his voice, the way he sort of breathes out when his grandmother clearly is going to be accepting of this. He’s not expecting that, and there’s a tension. It taught me a lot that I will hopefully be able to use in my fiction work—that it’s the subtle, subtle indicators that demonstrate emotion.
It’s like the girl at the end in the car—she manages to go from feeling really self-pitying and talking about how she’s not important, and then you see her change her mind as she’s sitting there in the car. It’s an Oscar-winning performance. If that was George Clooney managing to change emotion in that smooth and seamless way, you would think, “Wow!” She does it because ordinary people do that when they go through emotional things in life.