When the video clips started pouring in from all over the world last fall, Los Angeles-based editors and filmmakers Angus Wall and David Brodie faced a daunting task: shape an avalanche of material into a “time capsule” video that collectively answers the question, “What would you want to remember if you left Earth?”
Presented by Google Play and curated by Christopher Nolan as a companion piece to the director’s space exploration movie Interstellar, the resulting short film EMIC orchestrates a stream of globally sourced images that rush by as if the entire human race were watching its collective life flash before its eyes just before hitting a death star.
Creative director Wall, whose editing credits include The Social Network, and Brodie, the film’s director, embraced the project’s come-one, come-all open submissions strategy. “Considering Interstellar‘s themes, the only way to go about making this film was to take this user-generated approach where you pull your content from the breadth and depth of humanity,” says Wall.
Paired with Interstellar‘s Digital HD release, EMIC launches March 17 on Google Play. To mark the occasion, Wall and Brodie describe how they sifted through 8,000 pieces of crowdsourced material to explain life on Earth for future generations–in fewer than 11 minutes.
Before Wall and Brodie looked at a single submission, they’d already set up a framework for EMIC. “The idea of having no structure at all would have been a bit terrifying,” says Brodie. “We mapped out a rough outline–five different movements–that basically created buckets for us to sort the footage into.”
Subdivided into 35 categories altogether, entries were cataloged by a team of assistants, Brodie explains. “It was a very rudimentary Sesame Street type taxonomy: ‘Which thing belongs with another?” We had a bin for vista shots that were evocative of place, another sequence for people looking at their families, a category for people doing art. I had everything in folders so that if I needed an image of a baby, I’d just go to my baby bin.”
Once the videos were organized and ripe for cherry-picking, the filmmakers zeroed in on the best of class in each category. Brodie spent days scrolling back and forth through timelines in search of the most evocative shots. “You hone it down and hone it some more until you find the moments that were most surprising and honest that reminded us of our own lives.”
The filmmakers also kept the the time capsule’s target audience firmly in mind. “When you look at a clip you ask yourself, ‘If someone in another galaxy 100 years from now watches this shot, will they be able to extrapolate what life on Earth was like?’ That helped us find the moments that were loaded with meaning and had a sense of urgency and fragility.”
The filmmakers settled on most of their keeper shots by mid-February and got to work micro-managing the sequence of roughly 500 images. Brodie says, “Part of that process was just a matter of wanting to go, for example, from people falling in love, to getting married, to having a kid and then watching kids grow up. You find the pieces that illustrate that trajectory.”
Other times, the filmmakers aimed for a more intuitive connection. “There’s lot of trial and error where you say, ‘Okay this image feels repetitive’ so you swap in something else and something else until you find the perfect combination. It’s like a Rubik’s Cube. Sometimes you have no idea why one shot should go with another except that there’s a tiny kernel of an idea in your brain: ‘One’s blue and the next one’s yellow.’ Half the time it works and half the time it’s utter nonsense.”
EMIC assembles its portrait of a planet through a combination of small moments and epic shots. “The structure we had in mind was more about the scope of the film, going wide scale, to specific, then going wide again,” says Brodie.
Wall adds, “User-generated stuff tends to be close or medium shots, but since this is supposed to be for humans who are no longer on the planet, we felt it was also very important to also include a sense of space of and scope and nature.” Brodie adds, “To set the stage for this time capsule concept showing Earth as our home, we included these big vistas that feel much more universal, because we don’t want to show just an American point of view.”
To glue the visuals together, Wall and Brodie used audio snippets from webcam video as voiceover commentary. “People talked on their webcams about their families, their problems, their activism and interests,” Brodie explains. By weaving these little sound bites together, we created a narrative that helped structure the individual sections and at the same time, we gave a voice to people.”
Unlike YouTube’s 2011 crowdsourced global documentary Life in a Day, EMIC (an anthropological term) extends beyond contemporary video to include black and white footage shot decades earlier. Brodie says, “The idea is that even if we have different cameras and clothes and technology today, the things that make us humans doesn’t change. Old footage and photographs show that people are pretty much the same in the 1915 and 2015, and hopefully 2115.”
For example, Brodie says, “We took audio of a 13-year-old girl in the Midwest talking about watching her aunts laugh and matched that to footage from the 1940s of a family in Europe laughing hysterically. That’s one way we were able to bend things together even though they’re separated by decades and continents.”
From the outset, Wall and Brodie wanted to contain the sprawling topic in a concise package. Brodie says “We had so many great submissions we could have made an hour-long piece, but it was all about crafting this really tight, non-repetitive film that had maximum impact.” Wall adds, “This film skips around so many different places, there’s a saturation point to what people are able to absorb and enjoy. I think the idea for us was to never let it be boring.”
While Wall and Brodie favored footage that had the feel of being filmed by a “human hand,” EMIC includes plenty of gorgeously crafted cinematic shots. “Ten years ago, this film would have looked very different,” says Brodie. “But today, the ubiquity of high-quality HD with really good light sensitivity is something that excites people to capture spontaneous moments, from passengers on trains to wildebeests crossing the plains in Tanzania. We capitalized on that excitement to capture this very specific moment in time that we’re all living in right now.”