Probably nothing out of the ordinary happened to you on July 24, 2010. It’s those seemingly unimportant, mundane details that director Kevin McDonald (Last King of Scotland, State of Play) was looking to feature in his new documentary Life In A Day. Composed solely from YouTube submissions of people who had filmed something on that date, McDonald’s crowdsourced documentary showcases yet another way technology is bringing the world closer together. Life In A Day will premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on January 27 and be simultaneously broadcast on YouTube at 8PM EST/5PM PST.
“A lot of the attraction (to the documentary) is you couldn’t do this more than five years ago,” McDonald said.
The movie started when YouTube approached Scott Free Productions, Ridley Scott’s (Alien, Black Hawk Down) production company, and asked if they wanted to collaborate on a project. Scott approached McDonald, who came up with the idea of a collective documentary using user submitted videos filmed all on the same day edited to make a cohesive film. McDonald said he drew inspiration from Nikita Mikhalkov, specifically his movie Anna: From Six Til Eighteen – a documentary where the filmmaker asked his daughter the same questions on her birthday each year to show the historical changes during her life, and Humphrey Jennings, who was doing crowdsourced projects as early as the 20th century.
The response was overwhelming after McDonald announced the project in conjunction with YouTube. Over 80,000 people uploaded videos, equaling about 4500 hours of footage. In order to give the project a global take on the day, the director distributed 450 cameras to developing countries to give an accurate representation of the entire world. Out of all the clips, he estimated about 450 clips made it in, with one person’s submission appearing four times.
“Established filmmakers were always allowed to take part… (but) it was about getting a non-professional perspective,” he said. “It’s about getting what the ordinary person thinks and feels and is preoccupied by. It’s like temperature of the world on that particular day.”
Of course, the crowdsourced documentary came with its own set of problems. Not having a director of photography to tell what to do meant that some of the submissions were up not up to par for a cinematic release. The director mentioned that he got a lot of self-promoting video testimonials – much more “really narcissistic teenagers in their bedrooms” than he was expecting. Now looking back, he wishes he had also given them tips to people on how to properly film a subject.
“If you give a camera to a villager in northwest India who has never seen a TV or newsreader, filming is alien,” McDonald explained. “I think just practically speaking these were people who haven’t seen a documentary and have never seen YouTube and have never seen self expression in that way. They would take the camera, and you would see amazing things in the background, and then they would shove it someone’s face like a news interview.”
Editing the project involved a dedicated team of 23 people who reviewed the material and created a cataloging software so they could tag the videos and also rate them for how well the video was shot and how interesting the material was. From the best 250 hours determined by his team, McDonald sat down in a dark room, watched all the clips and whittled away until he created the final product. He said that what emerged from about ten months of filming, editing and reworking the material was a free flowing film that follows basic themes of human life, showing the range of emotions we experience. From the joy of childhood to the despair of death, it was all captured on film through different user submitted experiences.
“I’m always very critical of my films,” McDonald said. “I’ve never felt positive about a film. Shortly after I finish a film, I’m usually full of negativity in a self-loathing filmmaker way. But, with Life In A Day, there are such moving parts and I like it.”
“I can say that because (technically), it’s not mine,” he added.
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