Join cinema's new in-crowd

Oscar-winner Kevin Macdonald credits more than 340 amateurs as co-directors on his new film, the YouTube-inspired Life in a Day. It's the future of documentary-making, says Leigh Singer

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The Independent Culture

On 24 July last year, John Walkley and his wife Anne celebrated their golden wedding anniversary. To ensure festivities were recorded, John, a retired policeman, bought their first-ever digital video camera. "It cost £75 and looked like a packet of fags," he remembers, "you just point and press the button."

One year on, and the Walkley's comic, slightly saucy wedding vows feature in a major movie project and John shares a co-director credit with an Oscar winner. Not bad, given his initial ambition was "to learn how to post a clip on YouTube."

The film in question, instigated by YouTube and Ridley Scott's Scott Free production company, is the new, user-generated documentary Life in a Day. Crafted by The Last King of Scotland director Kevin Macdonald, the concept encouraged people worldwide to submit clips filmed on 24 July, 2010, filming anything they liked and hopefully answering a few pertinent questions ("What do you love? What do you fear? What's in your pockets?").

The response was staggering: some 80,000 videos, sent from almost every corner of the globe. Clips ranged from intensely personal monologues, vignettes of daily routines or random one-off events – from a skydive to a teenager's first shave.

Macdonald and a team marshalled by editor Joe Walker whittled down over 4,500 hours to a 95-minute feature. And though Macdonald stresses the importance of creating "a cohesive experience, a movie – a series of clips wouldn't be very interesting" – what is instructive is the way Macdonald shares his director credit with the 340-plus individuals whose footage he's incorporated.

"The best thing that came out of the film for me personally," he says, "was an appreciation of the generosity and creativity of all these people willing to share their lives and talents. They're the people who represent the best of the internet." Joint credit seems appropriate, but this scheme also needs to be seen from a wider viewpoint. Life in a Day is the most expansive, ambitious example of a new phenomenon: crowdsourcing film-making.

Crowdsourcing in the corporate world means the act of taking an employee's tasks and outsourcing them, open call-style, to a larger community. The independent film world has primarily adopted this technique to procure funding – websites such as IndieGoGo and Kickstarter allow filmmakers to appeal for finance for nascent projects. Life in a Day attempts something different: crowdsourcing not based on economics, but rather on art and aesthetics.

It isn't the first film to try this. Music documentaries like All Tomorrow's Parties and Glastonbury use footage taken by fans over several years, even decades, to evoke their events' scope. The Beastie Boys' Awesome: I Fuckin' Shot That! gave cameras to 50 concertgoers and compiled the live gig from their combined perspective. Hard-hitting documentary, Burma VJ, meanwhile, used undercover journalists' covert camerawork to document the fight against state oppression.

The 2010 Star Wars-inspired festival favourite The People vs George Lucas culled some 40% of its content from online submissions. "Within 24 hours of putting a call out for contributions we had our first upload," says its producer Anna Higgs. "In nine months we got over 700 hours of animation, webcam rants, music videos, the whole gamut of fans' cultural debate. It was phenomenal."

What these projects share is the essence of artistic crowdsourcing – rallying people passionate about an event or issue and emboldening them to add their own voice or vision. The overseeing film-makers all laud their results. Beastie Boy Adam Yauch stated proudly that the Awesome project's "untrained camera operators give the film sincerity. The people that shot it were feeling it." Glastonbury's Julien Temple holds that "people filming themselves is so much better than a TV crew sticking a big, furry microphone into a tent, which kills everything dead." As Higgs succinctly puts it, "the more brilliant people you have access to, the better your film will be."

Given the reliance on footage that can literally come from anywhere, what does this mean for the traditional top-down idea of the director as "author" of a film? "I feel it's my film," says Macdonald. "There's not the same degree of ownership as with other work. But that's a nice feeling. It's a more pleasurable experience than directing your own film. My contribution is somewhere between curator and director."

His editor, Walker, is more bullish. "I'd never take away the formidable work, that spine, you need from a director, but a director is a brilliant football manager. We're the strikers – the actors, cameramen, editors. The best directors are those who persuade us that an idea, which is sort of theirs, is ours. We're all co-authors to a degree."

To take Walker's anti-auteur football analogy further, crowdsourcing films are the first time that a top-class manager sets out to win the Premiership with (at least on the shooting front) Sunday League players. And even these amateur 'players' have vastly different abilities – and goals.

Life in a Day's John Walkley harbours no cinematic ambitions. His fellow contributor, the Slovakian film-maker Marek Mackovic, set out deliberately to film segments of the Korean Okhwan Yoon's mission to cycle round the world that might appeal to the project. Of a hilarious clip where Okhwan compares flies from various countries, he says, "we just knew this was going to be in the film."

Yet above the individual contributors' intentions comes the overall ideology of the film itself. Crowdsourcing filmmaking's inherent democracy seems ideally suited to political activism, be it Burma VJ, or The Real Social Network, an upcoming documentary focused on the recent student protests (including students' own footage) from the team behind The People vs George Lucas. Even Life in a Day, Macdonald argues, has political roots.

"It's giving a voice to people who aren't usually given one around traditional forms of media and elitism," he says, citing as inspiration the Mass Observation movement of the 1930s, where ordinary people were encouraged to diarise their lives. Modern technology only expedites this impulse.

"People are now used to having their opinion heard because they speak out on all of their social media," agrees The Real Social Network's Anna Higgs, "so if you include them in the process, you engage the audience before you've begun. You'll have more representative films."

There are still obvious caveats to employing this communal approach: responsibility to the contributor/clip submitted, so that it's not repositioned to suit an agenda ("we backed off intercutting the guy with the Lamborghini and the guy living with 20 people in the necropolis," says Walker, "it just felt too crass"); and the financial issue – should contributors expect more than simply the reward of seeing their work make the finished film? Perhaps most importantly – is crowdsourcing filmmaking really a viable or desirable model for the future?

"I think this type of film-making is going to be with us for a long time, because it somehow reflects our experience of the world these days," assesses Macdonald. "We all spend so much time now on the web, Facebook, tweeting or whatever and there are little wires going out all over the place to all different types of knowledge, entertainment, events. This film is a metaphor for that kind of experience."

'Life in a Day' opens in cinemas on 17 June. For information on 'The People vs George Lucas' and 'The Real Social Network' visit 'Burma VJ' , 'Glastonbury', 'All Tomorrow's Parties' and 'Awesome: I Fuckin' Shot That!' are all available on DVD and/or Blu-ray