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Making a feature documentary with 200 collaborators from around the world is no stroll in the park. Nevertheless, producer Ridley Scott and director Kevin Macdonald have done just that via a unique partnership between Scott's Scott Free Films, YouTube and LG Electronics.
Conceived as a user-generated feature-length documentary, shot on a single day (July 24, 2010), Life in a Day empowers the global community to capture a moment of their lives on camera. The date chosen was a Saturday—a day the producers felt many people could devote more time to the project. Additionally Scott and Macdonald sent 500 small digital cameras to far-flung places around the globe, partnering with Against All Odds Productions, a California-based company that specializes in large-scale global photographic projects—such as the best-selling Day in the Life book series. Participants were invited to shoot on one of the SD cards in the preset camera, send back the card and keep the camera. The producers wanted to try out a melding of YouTube as a social media platform and traditional film formats. Having put out calls for clips on YouTube several times, the team ended up with a staggering amount of material: over 80,000 submissions, totaling 4,500 hours.
Macdonald's concept for the film was inspired by the work of one of his heroes, the British artist and filmmaker Humphrey Jennings. Best known for his beautifully poetic documentaries about Britain during the Second World War, Jennings was a major figure in the celebrated British Documentary Film Movement. His colleagues included John Grierson, John Ryerson, Basil Wright, Harry Watt and Alberto Cavalcanti among others. Like many before and during World War II, these filmmakers were deeply concerned about maintaining democracy in the face of the threat from Fascism. Grierson and his colleagues believed filmmaking could play a central role in expanding public knowledge and understanding so citizens could be active on social issues. A particular contribution by Jennings was a movement launched in the 1930s called "Mass Observation," an attempt to document the strangeness and beauty of ordinary lives. Volunteers wrote detailed diaries about their lives, answering questions such as, "What's on your mantelpiece?" and"What graffiti did you see today?"
"I always want to give an audience something new, something they haven't seen before—and of course experience something new myself," Macdonald writes via email. "It keeps you stimulated as a filmmaker to know you are trying something that might fail—and Life in Day was a risky experiment."
As all this image material poured in from around the world, a team of researchers and editing assistants, led by veteran feature editor Joe Walker, created a selection process based on several factors, which winnowed down the usable material to about 300 hours. The researchers' job was to tag the clips as they arrived, coding them according to certain themes and finally rating them. According to Walker, one star indicated, "They've spent less thought on filming this than we have logging it"; five stars meant, "Such great characters, stories or footage that it should be in the film, or fire me."
Subsequently, Macdonald and Walker viewed the very best material, while the production team proceeded to retrieve the original footage and the editing team tried to convert it all into one frame rate. The team was keen to receive material that wasn't just about the process of living, that had special happy moments to contribute. They were looking for emotion, disquiet, opinion and exclamation. Walker describes their process as looking for visually "cinematic" kinds of images, given the feature film background that he shared with Macdonald. "We would look for material that went together well, such as all the shots of children where we are behind them and they are looking forward, such as the baby looking out of a window, or the Japanese boy looking out of a train, followed by a mother and daughter on a swing."
Macdonald describes his approach as asking, "What is this material trying to tell me? What are the collective themes and preoccupations that the contributors are pointing me towards? In other words, I tried to remain as open-minded as I could--not bring too many of my own preconceptions to bear on what I saw." The team found that contributors tended to film either themselves or people known to them, following distinct patterns of a daily routine like waking, washing, walking and eating. These themes were embedded within the flow of the film as a reminder to the viewer that one is traveling throughout a single day on earth.
Much of the sound in the film was also gathered via YouTube; Scott and Macdonald asked people for material to collage. They could hum or sing a long note, clap hands, breathe in and out, or record a favorite sound. All the music in the film is based on sounds recorded on that day. That process was managed by veteran composer Matthew Herbert; composer Harry Gregson-Williams came on board much later to help with some of the orchestral writing."When a skydiver falls to earth, for example, you hear a din of everyone's favorite sounds," Walker explains. "This could be kettles boiling, bells ringing, steam trains passing, placed one on top of another as she approaches the ground. The bells that you hear as Okwhan, the Korean cyclist, climbs a temple hill in Katmandu are all recorded by people around the world."
One of the surprises in seeing the finished film is how good the image and sound quality are on a large screen, given the multiple sources. A huge amount of technical work was done to achieve that consistency.
Engaging features of the structure include several mini-narrative sequences that punctuate the film from time to time, including the Korean cyclist, who is on a 10-year trip around the globe. Another is a sequence in a sumptuous landscape—a New Zealand farm with goats and animal herders that take you through an afternoon's work as the short sequences recur.
Collaging the found image and sound material is a fascinating and central aspect of the film—and works better than the sections scored with orchestral music, which often seems to overwhelm the images. A more engaging sequence involves a trio of African women singing while pounding grain; this scene serves as a recurring motif--sometimes harmonious, sometimes contrapuntal—with other scenes. To create a sufficient narrative arc, the filmmakers deployed various other strategies—like a very brief and affecting story of a Japanese man and his little son getting up in the morning, making breakfast and praying before the shrine of their dead wife and mother.
Life in a Day, distributed by National Geographic Entertainment, opened June 9 in Germany and June 17 in the UK. It premieres in the US on July 24—a year to the day after the documentary was shot around the world. The film will also enjoy a very long life online as the thousands of hours of footage not in the final cut have been made available on YouTube's channel for the project. The ultimate tribute is the establishment of a separate online TV channel, a nonprofit, community-generated film festival where people all over the globe can interact with the filmmakers, comment on their stories, upload their own clips and even make their own film diaries.
This post originally appeared in Documentary magazine.