Editor Joe Walker, left, and director Kevin Macdonald worked on the documentary… (Anne Cusack, Los Angeles…)
One year ago, after putting in a full day of work at her local department store, Betsy DelValley got home and pulled out her video camera. It was July 24, 2010, the day that YouTube launched an experimental project asking users of the social media site worldwide to submit videos about what transpired in their lives over 24 hours. The best submissions would later be culled together for a documentary film.
DelValley, then 19, was intrigued by the undertaking. The problem was, nothing all that exciting had transpired on the day she was meant to film. She'd worked, briefly visited her boyfriend, and then returned to her Illinois home where a thunderstorm was underway. But she still wanted to send something in, so she ran out to her car in the rain, camera in tow.
"The sad part is, I spent all day long hoping for something amazing to happen — something great — something to appreciate this day and to be a part of it," she confessed in the video she recorded that night. "I'm not gonna sit here and tell you that I'm this great person, because I don't think I am — at all. I think I'm a normal girl; normal life. Not interesting enough to know anything about. But I want to be."
Weeks later, at a compound in London, director Kevin Macdonald, editor Joe Walker and a team of about two dozen researchers working on the YouTube film — titled "Life in a Day" — stumbled across DelValley's clip. The film opens Friday in Los Angeles and five other cities.
"When we saw Betsy in the car, we said, 'That's got to be the end,'" recalled Macdonald, sitting across from Walker recently one early morning while both sipped coffee at an old deli. "She was thematically summing up the film and the impulse people had to participate, which is: 'I want to be heard and listened to. I want my life to mean something.'"
Before viewing DelValley's submission, Macdonald now says, he had no idea of how the documentary would take shape. The filmmaker — who directed the Oscar-winning documentary "One Day in September" over a decade ago and had since helmed a number of feature films, including "The Last King of Scotland" and "The Eagle" — was approached early last year about working on "Life in a Day" by Ridley Scott's production company, Scott Free. YouTube, along with co-sponsor LG, had told Scott Free that they were prepared to sponsor a film with a budget of $2 million to celebrate the website's fifth birthday. But they were unclear about which direction the film should go in.
Enter Macdonald, a student of the documentary format who had long been intrigued by filmmaker Humphrey Jennings' involvement in the Mass Observation project. Macdonald had actually made a 2001 documentary on the filmmaker, who with others in the 1930s attempted to document the everyday lives of 500 average British citizens by asking them to keep detailed journals.
"I thought we could do something like that, and with video cameras, it'd be much easier," he recalled.
So he went on "27 breakfast chat shows" to encourage people to participate. He created his own sample video as an example of what one might submit. YouTube advertised the project on its home page. And then the submissions started rolling in — 4,500 hours' worth of them. And collating that footage would ultimately prove to be quite difficult.
Walker, who had edited movies including the bleak drama "Hunger," said that on a typical feature film, he has 25 to 30 hours of footage to sift through. For "Life in a Day," he watched about 600 hours.
"There was a point where I thought I actually could not take in any more stuff, and I started to kind of resist," he said of the editing process. "It felt as though if I was going to take any more images into my mind, then I would have to dump some of it out."
Nevertheless, Walker began to see some sort of order emerging from the chaos. The film begins before dawn on July 24, first with shots of sunrises and then progressing into various early morning rituals. As one might imagine, a number of those habits are universal — turning off the alarm clock, brushing teeth, brewing coffee, even sitting on the toilet. And as the filmmakers would discover, most people talked about the same themes, too — love, fear, loneliness — anchoring the film with a sense of continuity.
Still, the filmmakers behind "Life in a Day" acknowledge that it could be a hard sell — because what exactly do most audiences expect from a "YouTube movie"? Ninety-five minutes of clips like "Charlie Bit My Finger" or "Leave Britney Alone"?
Sara Pollack, YouTube's entertainment marketing manager, believes the public often overlooks YouTube's breadth.
"I think the variety of videos that appear in the film are as great as the variety of films that appear on the site. You have everything from music videos with Lady Gaga to ones with aspiring musicians, funny videos of pets and babies — all of that makes up the fabric of what YouTube is, and much of that is reflected in this film," she said.