5 p.m., May 26
Joe Walker on Editing YouTube Documentary Life in a Day
With Netflix and Red Box both entering the film distribution market, it's a wonder that it took YouTube so long to find its way to the big screen.
YouTube partnered with Ridley Scott's company Scott Free and director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) in hopes of forming a "user-generated feature-length documentary." Shot on July 24, 2010, Life in a Day, which is currently playing at UA's Horton Plaza, asked people to capture a moment of their life on video and send it in.
From Australia to Zambia, the world responded by submitting 80,000 videos. The unenviable job of assembling the nearly 4,500 hours worth of film went to veteran British film editor Joe Walker (Harry Brown, Hunger). Joe was in Chicago on July 23, 2011 when The Big Screen caught up with him.
Joe Walker and director Kenneth Macdonald
Scott Marks: You’re in my home town, Chicago.
Joe Walker: I’m rather enjoying it. We’ve got storms here. When we stepped out of the cab it was 105 or something ridiculous, and people are dying of heat exposure. Now we’re running from the rain.
Why do you think I’m in San Diego?
(Laughing): You made a wise move.
Happy anniversary, Joe. It will be one year tomorrow since the film, or should I say films were created.
We’re going to petition for a national holiday and change the calendars.
I try my best not to read anything about a movie before going in. After hearing the premise, I assumed it to be a bunch of talking-head YouTube videos strung together and initially thought an editor’s job on a picture of this kind would be slightly more challenging than that of a San Diego weather-person. That was before I watched the film. Now that I’ve had a chance to see it, I must ask if the name Dziga Vertov means anything to you.
Absolutely. Yes. You’ve spotted an origin. Our director Kevin Macdonald has talked about this. There is no such thing as an original film. This is a first, but everything has its fore-bearers and one of them was this amazing film that I think is called Anna: 6- 18, isn’t it.
No. That’s another Russian film that came out about twenty-years ago. I can’t recall the director’s name. (Nikita Mikhalkov.) The one that I’m referring to is Man With the Movie Camera (1929).
Even better! That’s a third influence. (Laughing) You know, I don’t know that film personally, but from what everyone has told me, I’ve been greatly influenced by it. We were told that we we’ve been influenced by art installations that weren’t even on our side of the world. The idea of this all-seeing eye and glimpsing the world all in one day was a very exciting prospect. It was the sort of thing that couldn’t have been done genuinely before the arrival of YouTube. This project started as an experiment between YouTube and Ridley Scott’s company, Scott Free. They sat around and bashed out a way to celebrate YouTube’s fifth anniversary, I think it was. It’s so hard to believe that they’ve only been around for such a short time. We fixed the date as the 24th of July because it was the first date we could do that was after the World Cup finished.
How was the word spread? I must be living in a fallout shelter, because Life in a Day was the first I heard of it.
It was YouTube basically, but they did massive amounts of press. I can remember one day when Kevin did twenty-six breakfast interviews. We did worry at one space that we wouldn’t get enough good material to make a film, but we were absolutely deluged. We had 4,500 hours of rushes that came from 192 different countries. All in all, there was about 85,000 clips coming from about 30,000 people around the world.
Sounds like I was the only one on the planet not to hear about it. Did you watch every video that was sent in and how in the world do you go about structuring that much raw footage?
There were lots of technical challenges to this project, notably the number of different frame-rates the cameras shoot in. We had sixty different frame rates. Cinemas is 24-frames-per-second and every mobile phone seems to do things differently. We had the challenge of languages. We had to translate an enormous amount of material not knowing whether it would be in the film or not. No one person could watch all the videos in the five months we had to make the film. We hired a huge team of researchers and we all sat together above a pizza place in London. We fed them lots of chocolate and coffee and they sat and watched hours and hours of footage. We watched every single clip and would rate them between one star -- which means they spent less effort filming this than we are logging it -- up to five stars, which meant it was so good that it had to be in the film. We began noticing little trends. There were a lot of shots taken by men of their beautiful girlfriend backlit in a park. We invented a tag, “My Beautiful Girlfriend,” and every time we found one we’d tag it, and eventually the best shots would come down. We built this enormous database. If you wanted a shot of a chicken and a nun in Bolivia, you’d be able to get your hands on it.
If you don’t like a particular person or storyline, it won’t be long before you’re allowed to eavesdrop on another individuals life.
There are obviously some stories we return to and fascinating characters we follow through the day and keep referring back to them. There are some people you glimpse just brushing their teeth. Or maybe it’s a shot of their foot or them turning a key in a door. One of the dominant things in the film is being exposed to many peoples’ lives. They’re quite often mundane things, but we’ve sort of woven them together in a movie. I was curious to hear your expectations of the film. I think a lot of people are expecting cat, and dogs, and a couple rainbows.
The most pleasant surprise is that you and Kevin devised a way to fashion a narrative out of the raw footage.
We had no idea how it was going to be structured by looking at the rushes. It was serendipitous, a total accident, that there was a full moon that night. A lot of people shot stories that were about the full moon. We realized that we had midnight at the beginning and there was a lady who filmed a piece that took place twenty-four hours later at a few minutes to midnight. We had a beginning and an end and could arrange the story as a chronology and touch on many other subjects.
Was everything in the movie shot by civilians or are there some bridging sequences that were filmed by professionals?
Although Kevin Macdonald has done many dramatic films, he is also closely associated with documentary features (One Day in September, Touching the Void). He put out an appeal that was very inclusive. Anybody could take part; just document something about their day or their world. That could have been anybody with a Flip-Cam. Many of the shorts we got were from mobile phones or very cheap technology. Ridley Scott put out a trailer that encouraged people who had ambitions to make films to get off their backsides and do something about it. There were people who were semi-professional or professional who chipped in. Some of the shots we got were absolutely stunning.
The one image that I went back and watched seven or eight times is the soap bubbles bouncing atop a placid river. It’s mesmerizing.
(Laughing): Each to their own, I’d say, Scott.
(Laughing): It’s an image I’d never seen before. It’s a beautiful, crazy, surrealistic moment in the middle of the film.
What about the snail? Did that appeal to you?
Brilliant! How many closing credit sequences can you think of that tell their own story?
Who would have thought that YouTubers would have supplied us with a shot like this? Apparently, it was a reconstruction of an experiment on how to startle a snail. As if there was such a thing in the first place. You couldn’t dream it up. There are a lot of strong images. Kevin and I used to joke that a lot of them will wind up in bank commercials. There's an amazing shot of a girl dressed in a tutu, playing with a Rubik's Cube, and spinning a hula-hoop in the middle of the Mojave Dessert. That’s a favorite shot. It’s just a matter of time before we see that in an insurance commercial.
(Laughing): I think Ridley and Tony Scott may at times invite that. The emphasis on formal beauty over substance in some of their films could invite this type of commercial style. You did a remarkable job of avoiding the cliches inherent in an undertaking such as this. How many zero-star ratings must you have handed out.
There was a lot of teenagers whining, I will say. After a long day spent watching the rushes, I began to feel like a therapist at the end of a particularly arduous day listening to people dumping their problems. You get quite heartless after awhile.
There are some very personal stories relayed during the course of the picture.
It’s not just about flashy shots and experimental technology, although there is plenty of that in the movie. There's a lot of people strapping cameras to various body parts and jumping off diving boards. There are also people who showed us glimpses of their lives in a way that...I wouldn’t have been that brave, particularly not knowing what was going to be done with that footage. You know, editing has a power. You can put one thing against another and allude to a third thing that really doesn’t exist.
It must be a silent Soviet montage kind of day. We begin with Dziga Vertov and eventually get around to mentioning Lev Kuleshov’s concept of association through editing.
Very good! In this film we tried to avoid the more cliched way of arranging things. We could have cut from a family living in total poverty to a guy showing off the key to his Lamborghini. It could have been as crude as that. We try to provoke without rubbing your nose in it. There are several cuts in this film that I am particularly proud of.
As well you should be. This is a remarkable achievement on your part. I never get to talk to editors. Honestly, this is the first time an interview opportunity with someone in your profession has ever come up. I was delighted that you took the time to promote the film and jumped at the chance. One complaint. I could have done without the slaughtered animals, but then again, I’m the guy who likes looking at skipping soap bubbles.
(Laughing): I’m afraid life is full of both of those, isn’t it?
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