Around the World in One Day on YouTube – NYTimes.com
How exactly do you make a documentary about a day in the life of a planet — about how people all over the world eat, sleep, pray, work and even learn to shave? You could start by asking everyone on YouTube to film their daily activities on a specific date; in this case, on July 24, 2010.
Then you could ask all those people to send you their raw footage; in this case, 4,500 hours worth.
Then you would have to find someone to splice it all together.
For “Life in a Day,” the 95-minute documentary produced by YouTube and Ridley and Tony Scott, that person is the film’s editor, Joe Walker. The film is directed by Kevin Macdonald (“The Last King of Scotland”; “State of Play”), but, tellingly, Walker’s name is the one that appears first in the closing credits. He edited the whole film over seven marathon weeks. “The analogy is like being told to make Salisbury Cathedral,” Walker says, “and then being introduced to a field full of rubble. You have to start looking for buttresses and things that connect together.”
Of course, Walker had some help. He worked with a team of roughly two dozen researchers, occupying three floors of a building in London, in what he likens to a “megalomania sweatshop.” Researchers were chosen both for a cinematic eye (many were recent film-school graduates) and proficiency with languages, as the footage was coming in from all corners of the world.
Together they watched, logged, tagged and rated each clip, on a scale of one to five stars. “One star meant the person who made it spent less time thinking about this than we did,” Walker says. “And five stars meant if this isn’t in the film, you should fire me.” The vast amount of material, he says, was two stars: “Teenagers whining in their bedrooms to no particular affect. There were hundreds and hundreds of hours of that stuff.”
There were also hundreds and hundreds of hours of, well, anything else you can imagine. “I noticed fairly early on that a lot of men with very good cameras were taking beautiful pictures of their very beautiful girlfriends backlit in parks,” Walker says. So they tagged all those clips “My Beautiful Girlfriend” and built a montage out of them. Other tags included “Ablutions” and “Footwork.” “So many people shot their own feet walking, we could have made a continuous 12-hour film out of people walking,” he said. “We could have made a film about watermelons. We could have made a film entirely shot by women named Linda. With four and a half thousand hours of film, you could have done anything. But we went for things that resonated and stories and strong characters and all the things you’d usually expect from a cinema film.”
Walker and Macdonald reviewed the four- and five-star-rated clips. (Walker says he watched “only” 600 or 700 hours of footage; a typical feature film, by contrast, might be cut from 25 hours of film.) They then whittled that down to a brisk 200-hour version. Then a three-and-a-half-hour rough cut, then a 95-minute final.
In the finished documentary, the montages of ordinary acts, repeated from Japan to Dubai to Las Vegas, take on a kind of profundity: waking up, brushing teeth, making lunch. But the film’s most memorable moments are the ones of unexpected intimacy — a man with a terminal illness, speaking from his eventual death bed, or a young gay man on the phone, coming out to his grandmother and recording his reaction to her response in real time. “I was fully expecting a film that’s closely integrated with YouTube to cover the subjects of cats and dogs and children falling over,” Walker says. “What was totally surprising was how generous people were about turning these brave stories over, these things very close to their hearts.”
The film aims to tell the story of a planet, but it’s the vulnerability of these individual moments, contributed as part of a larger project, that lingers. If the knock against the Internet in general, and YouTube in particular, is that it stokes our collective narcissism, this film, in its best moments, proves the opposite: not a global craving for exposure but a surprising universal willingness to allow ourselves to be exposed.