Photo: Kevin Macdonald and Joe Walker talk about the editing of Life in a Day

Life in a Day director Kevin Macdonald (left) and editor Joe Walker discuss the editing of the film.

Photograph courtesy Joe Walker

Life in a Day was born out of a unique partnership between Ridley Scott’s Scott Free UK and YouTube. The film is a user-generated, feature-length documentary shot on a single day—July 24, 2010.

Enlisted to capture a moment of the day on camera, the global community responded by submitting more than 80,000 videos to YouTube. The videos contained over 4,500 hours of deeply personal, powerful moments shot by contributors from Australia to Zambia, and from the heart of bustling major cities to some of the most remote places on Earth.

Life in a Day brings together the most compelling footage from YouTube to create a 90-minute film crafted by director Kevin Macdonald, executive producer Ridley Scott, producer Liza Marshall, and their teams. The film offers a unique experience that shows—with beauty, humor, and joyful honesty—what it’s like to be alive on Earth today.

A Discussion With Director Kevin Macdonald and Editor Joe Walker

With a body of award-winning work that includes One Day in September and Touching the Void, film director Kevin Macdonald is no stranger to unique and challenging documentaries.

Although Macdonald has since directed feature films, his footprint continues to gravitate toward real life: The Last King of Scotland, although fictional, profiled the life of Uganda’s military dictator, Idi Amin (portrayed in an Oscar-winning performance by Forest Whitaker).

When asked why the idea for Life in a Day ignited his imagination, Macdonald is quite clear. “I always want to give an audience something new, something they haven’t seen before. And of course experience something new myself. It keeps you stimulated as a filmmaker to know you are trying something that might fail, that is an experiment. And Life in Day was a risky experiment."

Macdonald drew his inspiration for the concept of Life In A Day from the work of one of his heroes, the British artist and filmmaker Humphrey Jennings. Jennings is best known for making beautifully poetic documentaries about Britain during the Second World War, but he was also one of the founders of a movement called "Mass Observation" in the 1930s.

Mass Observation was an attempt to document the strangeness and beauty of the ordinary—of everyday lives—primarily by asking volunteers to write detailed diaries and to answer questions like, "What’s on your mantelpiece?” and “What graffiti did you see today?”

“I see this film as very much like that,” he continues. "Life in a Day was a wonderful opportunity to hear the voices of ordinary people describing the world as they see it, telling us their fears and loves. I always knew this would say something fascinating about who [we] are as a species and what we value—but I never realized how emotionally affecting the result would be."

Production company Scott Free UK, production partner YouTube, and Macdonald agreed that the film would be confined to a single day, running from midnight to midnight. The date was chosen fairly quickly. It was a date that fell after the FIFA World Cup and early enough in the summer not to lose too many contributors to their holidays. The date, July 24, was also a Saturday—a day when it was felt many people could devote more time to the project. What the team didn’t account for was that the date was also a full moon …

“We literally got hundreds of clips of the moon,” says Macdonald. “So it evidently seemed the most natural place to start—at midnight, with a full moon seen from a dozen different perspectives around the globe.”

Did the time limitation of 24 hours hamper the creative process? Not for Macdonald. “You have always got to have limitations, haven’t you?” he says with a smile. “We could have said, ‘Oh, what’s it’s like to be alive in 2010?’ and collected footage over the space of a year. But, apart from the impossible quantity of footage we would have got, the film wouldn't have had the same sense of magic that is given to it by knowing this was more or less all happening at the same time—all over the planet! That idea induces a bit of awe, for me anyway."

As it was, the resulting influx of contributions amounted to more than 80,000 submissions totaling about 4,500 hours. All of these submissions had to be viewed, categorized, and filed for possible consideration by the team. A small army of dedicated researchers/viewers, many of whom were film students themselves, poured over the mass of footage while Macdonald, his editor Joe Walker, and the production team began structuring the concept of how to use all this footage to take the audience on a cohesive journey.

"By their very nature, many documentaries are exercises on giving order to the chaos of real life. In the same way as a journalist has to choose and order his facts to write a newspaper article, so a filmmaker has to give a documentary narrative and thematic cohesion. In this instance there was more chaos than usual. My attitude, however, was always: 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.

“That’s maybe what gives me the most pleasure about making documentaries,” Macdonald continues. “We can revel in the chaos of it and look for order, patterns. All of our experiences in life—when we walk down the street and have children and all these things we do—is kind of chaotic and random. But we are always trying to give meaning to it.”

Macdonald had very little idea of the scope of footage he would be sent. When the project was announced, it was hoped that the team would be able to pull together enough material to fill a full-length documentary. The message to contributors was simple: Tell us your story, tell us what you fear, and show us what you have in your pockets. By creating this basic framework, Macdonald hoped to steer people toward certain patterns of response that could be compared and contrasted.

“I suppose the questions helped to provoke certain discussions,” says editor Joe Walker. “Our attitude to possessions, say. It offered us wonderful ‘time capsule’ material.”

“More than anything, I wanted to get honesty,” Macdonald says. “I wanted to get people to give me a little insight into their lives and that could be, on the surface, seemingly banal. It could be their journey to work in the morning. Obviously, maybe one of those journeys is banal, but a hundred of them intercut showing all the different commuters, all the different pedestrians, all the different modes of transport, from bicycles to foot to trains to chauffeur driven cars … suddenly becomes really fascinating.

“What we might see as banal, living in our own culture, is not banal to somebody growing up in Dakar. And likewise, what seems banal now to somebody in Shanghai, is probably not banal to somebody in Colorado.”

The team was also keen to receive material that wasn’t just about the process of living and the special, happy moments. They were looking for emotion, disquiet, opinion, and exclamation.

While the concept of a global project like this may not be new, the media in which the elements are laid out—the Internet, and in particular, YouTube—is certainly groundbreaking.

“I think that the Internet is a great metaphor for and a creator of connectedness,” offers Macdonald. "The film is doing something that wouldn’t have been possible pre-Internet, specifically pre-YouTube. The idea that you can ask thousands, tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of people all to contribute to a project and all to communicate about it and learn about it at the same time belongs essentially to this age that we live in. Life in a Day couldn’t have existed 100 years ago, 20 years ago, even 6 years ago."

Editing plays an enormous part in any film, particularly in a documentary and most particularly in Life in a Day, where the footage was so voluminous.

Veteran editor Joe Walker, whose credits include Steve McQueen’s award-winning Hunger, Rowan Joffe’s Brighton Rock, and Daniel Barber’s Harry Brown, laughs when asked why he came onboard such an ambitious project. “Megalomania probably. I wanted to see if I had it in me to manage such a monstrous amount of raw material.”

The process took a total of seven months to complete and involved more than 4,500 hours worth of footage. “We set up our team on an estimation of 12-15,000 clips [and] under a thousand hours of footage, but by the end of July that figure had reached 81,000 clips and 4,500 hours, so we were anticipating a lot less content than we actually received,” Walker explains. “Kevin's an intuitive filmmaker, a doer, so there were few preconceptions. He made the analogy of not wearing ourselves out pointlessly machete-ing our own way through the jungle but instead to look for natural pathways to open up.”

The matrix, the shaping of material, constantly threw up new challenges to the team. When segments didn’t gel, they were uplifted and dropped elsewhere, causing a wave of corrections required to realign the momentum of the piece. There were many “happy accidents” as Macdonald calls them—the full moon being one distinct example. But Walker admits that the team could have taken the film in any number of directions with the wealth of material made available to them. The conundrum was, “Which route?”

“One could always rely upon millions of coincidences and rhymes in this material,” says Walker. “Just because of the sheer volume and range of it. So when we had to move big chunks of the film into a different order, and had to lose connections we'd begun to rely upon, we knew that other connections would swiftly take their place. Some of those only dawned on us later, such as how two very different contributors utter the words ‘because I'm a man,’ or how many clips feature a space where a mother should be.”

Walker was initially introduced to Macdonald through producer Liza Marshall, for whom Walker had worked before. “Some time ago I cut a film called Eroica for Liza, [about] a day in the life of Beethoven, the day just happening to be the day of the first rehearsal of the Eroica Symphony, the day that classical music changed forever.

“I've worked mostly on drama, not documentary, but Liza knows just how much genre-busting projects like this one appeal to me. And my background in music helped swing me the job, I think, as Kevin anticipated a big collaboration between the cutting room and the composers.”

What ultimately attracted Walker to Life in a Day was, somewhat masochistically, the danger that they might not find a film amongst the mass of material. “The very real danger that we might not find a film out of all the submissions got my pulse racing,” he says. “I think it's a good sign when you not only long to join a project but also develop a fear of it.”

When surveying an expansive landscape of the footage, it was natural that certain patterns would begin to emerge for Macdonald and Walker. Contributors tended to film either themselves or people known to them. They followed distinct patterns of a daily routine in many cases—waking, washing, walking, and eating. The teams embedded the themes within the flow of the film as signposts, as a reminder to the viewer that one is traveling throughout a single day on Earth.

“There were certain themes that popped out at us, and it was just a question of picking which clips would do the theme justice,” Walker explains. “For example, we spotted endless shots of people shooting their own feet walking, so it felt inevitable we'd work with that material at some time.”

The team had numerous montages available to them. Walker half jokes when he explains that if someone had asked to see a film about drumming, the team would have had little trouble calling up several hundred clips of people drumming.

The researchers’ job was to tag the clips as they arrived, coding them to be placed under certain themes. One amusing example of this was the tag word “mybeautifulgirlfriend,” which was used to signify any clip that featured a keen photographer filming his girlfriend.

“The shots were often backlit in a park, usually in the first flush of romance,” notes Walker. “Everyone would look out for this strange subset of clips knowing that at some point we might combine that with other subsets to create a chapter on relationships.

“Personally I loved all the shots of silly pompous men irritating their long-suffering partners,” he says. “Luckily that amused Kevin too, so we got to it, building up what at first was an almost hour-long cut in which you followed the stages of a romance as if [it were that] of one couple, but sewn together out of ‘Frankenstein’ parts.”

But what about the thousands of hours of footage not included in the final cut? YouTube’s channel for the project has cleverly archived all submitted clips for anyone to browse. The process reflects Macdonald’s first inspirational hook, the Mass Observation movement. Rather than being housed in a giant archive facility at the University of Sussex in Brighton, England, the library sits in the ether, accessible to all with the ability to connect to the Internet.

Macdonald and Walker feel the heavy weight of guilt for not being able to include the myriad clips donated by contributors who, in the true spirit of the project, offered up their intimate moments, fears, dreams, and insecurities to be a part of this unique and rewarding experience.


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