A day in the life of the lonely crowd

Life in a Day editor Joe Walker tells spiked about the making and meaning of his innovative crowdsourced movie.

Rob Lyons

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One of the tricks with writing up an interview is to pick out the best bits from the material you have, to decide what’s important or what fits together to make an interesting whole. And after talking to the engaging and enthusiastic Joe Walker, editor of Life in a Day, it’s trickier than ever.

Still, my job is a doddle compared to the Herculean task Walker took on in editing Life in a Day, a collection of video snapshots taken by YouTube users over the course of one day: 24 July 2010. ‘We hadn’t anticipated how much we would get’, he says. ‘We were warned that we would get twice the amount of the YouTube Orchestra experiment; they had 300 hours of footage. They warned us we might get as much at 600, because it was being pushed very heavily on the YouTube page. We ended up with 4,500 hours – the scale of that is just monstrous.’

Walker and the film’s director, Kevin Macdonald, set up a ‘sweatshop’ with film students and young filmmakers to plough through the footage, selecting and tagging what was good. This cut the mountain down to a mere 200 hours of the best material. In comparison, Walker tells me, the film he has just cut for Steve McQueen [the pair worked together on McQueen’s 2008 feature, Hunger] had 21 hours of footage for a final film of the same length as Life in a Day, ‘and that’s plenty’.

The film came about, Walker tells me, after some brainstorming between YouTube and Scott Free (the production company owned by A-list directors and brothers, Ridley and Tony Scott) about how to mark the online video service’s fifth birthday. The idea was to capture one day around the world using footage supplied in two different ways. Firstly, the main source of material was from YouTube users and aspiring directors using their own equipment, whether it was top-of-the-line video cameras or just mobile phones. ‘We wanted to make a cinema film’, Walker explains, ‘but we didn’t want to exclude people who were technically challenged or financially challenged’.

Secondly, realising the limitations of internet access around the world (and embargoes in various countries on YouTube’s owner, Google), the makers of the film bought 500 cameras to post out to the four corners of the globe. ‘We went into Jessops one day and asked “What’s your best camera under £100 and how many can you give us for £50,000?” They thought it is was an episode of The Apprentice’, laughs Walker. ‘We sent out the cameras and said “Keep the camera, send us the [memory] card”. We thought all the cameras would end up on eBay but we ended up with a real rich crop of stuff.’

The film justifies the effort and is testament to Walker and Macdonald’s talents. What could easily have been an unwieldy mess or a wearisome stream of consciousness manages to capture a variety of slices of our lives and build up a picture of the world as it is today. Yet while the film is clearly an ‘authored piece’, as Walker puts it, and is most definitely uplifting, there is no trite message, either.

The joy of life – like the birth of a baby – sits alongside the tragedy of death, like the crush at the Love Parade music festival that day in Germany that killed 19 people. The sacrifices made to overcome poverty, exemplified by an Indian guest worker in Dubai living thousands of miles from his family, contrast with the American whose greatest joy is his Lamborghini. Love and happiness, illustrated by a hilarious fiftieth wedding anniversary renewal of vows, meets rejection and disappointment or marital bickering. It’s ‘All the World’s a Stage’ meets You’ve Been Framed – but it’s much better than that makes it sound.

In his appeal to YouTube users to send in footage, Macdonald asked participants to consider three questions and undertake one activity. The three questions were: ‘What do you love?’, ‘What do you fear?’ and ‘What makes you laugh?’ The task was to reveal what was in their pockets. The last of these seems a particularly clever question, because it says a lot about the kind of society we live in and offers the chance to talk about what we are doing that we need to have these things to hand. Macdonald’s ideas for the film were influenced, says Walker, by the British Mass Observation Unit of the 1930s and 1940s, where everday life was documented in minute detail.

But the film has so many themes that go way beyond those simple questions. Some of them are visual motifs. For example, Walker tells me that they received scores of shots of backlit, attractive women videoed by their boyfriends – a kind of semi-soft-porn start-of-the-romance theme. Then there were shots that went together naturally in the film, like a full moon which cropped up frequently in the footage and provides the start of the film with a sense of people being on one planet together looking at the same sky.

But there were other ideas that even Macdonald and Walker missed. It was the film’s composer who pointed out to them how the idea of a missing mother recurred again and again in the finished film, completely unconsciously. More than most films, Life in a Day will be worth watching again and again to pick out new things each time. Given that there must be something like 4,498 hours of unused footage, many other takes on that one day would be possible. Walker himself says he’d love to see what other film-makers could do with this resource.

Perhaps most interesting is the idea of how we connect with each other and mark our presence on Earth. A particularly striking scene is a slightly rambling monologue to camera delivered by a young American woman called Betsy Delvalley. She’s desperate to contribute something to the project, but has struggled to work out what it should be. She wants something interesting or beautiful to show the world, but she’s normal and doesn’t think she’s that interesting. ‘I am afraid of not existing’, she says, adding ‘I want people to know that I’m here’. Whereas many people sent in footage of themselves desperately trying to be part of the film or complaining about their lives – Walker says there was ‘a lot of whingeing’ – Delvalley is not a wannabe, just disarmingly earnest.

It’s a nice moment which captures the contradiction at the heart of our ultra-connected, social networked world: we often don’t feel all that connected. We can be at one with the whole of humanity, in a way not possible before, and yet feel totally isolated at the same time. We want to be part of the crowd, yet be unique, too. In turn, many people are so desperate to reveal themselves to the world that privacy goes out the window. Sometimes, the decision to reveal private things can be brave and touching; other times it seems like mere attention-seeking.

Walker said lots of other interesting things when we talked. Sadly, they didn’t make the cut, rather like the fun global drum solo that he stitched together that didn’t make the film (it’s on the DVD extras, he says). But choosing is the creative part, which is why this is more of an editor’s film and less of a director’s film than anything else you’re likely to see.

In his book What is History?, EH Carr argues that a ‘historical fact’ is that which a historian has decided is important. In Life in a Day, Walker has played the part of a historian, too – for just one day in history – to thought-provoking effect.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

Watch the trailer for Life in a Day:

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