Fri Dec 30, 2011, 9:11 PM
Koyaanisqatsi is a Hopi word meaning “life out of balance.” It was also an amazing documentary
film utilizing slow-motion and time-lapse photography of cityscapes and landscapes across America to
beautifully, although disturbingly, depict our modern society’s growing unbalance.
One of the cinematographers was Louis Schwartzberg, who has since gone on to make it his life’s
mission to use his cinematic artistry to raise the alarm for public awareness of the dire situation
we face in the possible collapse of our taken-for-granted natural resources. The “colony collapse
disorder” currently decimating our honeybees was the prompt for Louie’s new movie, Wings of Life: A
Love Story that Feeds the Earth.
With the wonders of CGI dazzling our senses as never before, it takes a work like Wings to stun
us with the magical beauty of nature going on everyday in the outdoors all around us. It’s a story
that plays out seasonally and never changes plot, yet watching the players perform their roles is
more engrossing, entertaining and moving than any Hollywood screenplay.
The film is a cinematic wonder of beautiful camerawork capturing natural beauty – the finest example
of a “dialogue” between nature’s own “narration” and the “journalistic” skills of a poet-soulled artist.
If we don’t start better preserving and protecting nature, humanity will surely not survive the extinction of the commonly overlooked but absolutely essential source of our very existence. As Wings so clearly reports, the “four pollinators” whose lives serve as the foundation of our food chain – our bees, bats, butterflies and hummingbirds – are in danger of extinction brought on by loss of habitat, climate change, pesticide overuse, etc. These four groups of tiny creatures who exist only in the shadows or as momentary distractions in our daily field of vision, creatures so seemingly inconsequential, are in fact the lynch-pins in the transfer of the means of human subsistence from the plant world to the animal world.
If we lose them we lose over a third of our fruits and vegetables. Watch Wings for the sheer enjoyment of the breath-taking beauty of Louie’s cinematographic artistry. But be sure to really “listen” to what the majesty of the beautiful flowing images, and imagining their disappearance from our world, is really telling us.
Louie has been filming the pollination of flowers with his time-lapse technologies 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for over 35 years. He says he never tires of watching and recording “The Dance.” The pollinators are seduced by the beauty of the budding flowers into facilitating their reproduction. Beauty and its power of seduction are nature’s means of survival, from the plant to the animal to the human kingdom. In Louie’s cinematography is captured the desire for survival that is as real for a single flower as it is for each one of us admiring that flower’s bloom.
Life desires life, no matter how brief it’s time on Earth. And the preservation of that delicate balance of life drawn forward from flower to hummingbird to you and me is an epochal struggle that has been going on forever – but a struggle we have only become aware of in recent generations. Hopefully our awareness of the needs of nature underlying the beauty we’ve taken for granted so long will not have come too late. Louie Schwartzberg’s art is doing a lot to building that awareness needed for our survival.
While you’ve made great contributions to the visual arts in commercial Hollywood cinematography, the artistry you are best known for involves stunning depictions of “nature in the balance”, as in “Wings of Life”. Can you speak of creating your special kind of “3-in-1” art that combines (1) the beauty of nature with (2) scientific documentation and enlightenment (3) in the service of humanity?
Cinematography has always been a voyage of discovery. I use the camera as a portal to explore other dimensions of time and space. Nature has been my teacher and taught me to explore and reveal things that I can identify as universal rhythms that connect with my soul, unveiling the mysteries that are too small, too vast, too slow or too fast for the human to perceice.
From a scientific perspective observation is the first step toward exploration and experimentation. Wondering how and what if is the "sense of wonder" Einstein referred to when asked his definition of God. Being present and observant is also the first step toward being mindful. When you are mindful it opens your heart to beauty and compassion for humanity as you recognize that in nature it is all connected and since we are a part of nature we are connected to each other as well. Nothing in nature survives without a relationship to another living thing. The ability to cooperate is what has enabled humans to build civilizations. Cooperation is also what humankind needs to do now in order to survive by restoring environmental sustainablility, social justice and respect and gratitude for all living things.
There is a passion to your photography of the “Cathedral of Nature” that evokes the spiritual mechanics of life on the planet. But your celebrations of the wonders of the “Great Watchmaker” are set against many groups in denial of global warming, etc. Do you see a real change of consciousness being sparked by artistic/documentary works like yours?
I hope my films inspire and open people's hearts. Beauty is natures tool for survival because you will protect what you fall in love with. You can detail all the shocking facts about environmental degradation, but unless you move people emotionally there won't be the shift in consciousness we need to solve our problems. Intellectually we have all the answers needed to affect change, what we lack is the will. That is where most organized religions and their leaders have failed to move their followers. What could be more spiritually important than sustaining Life on the planet, having respect and awe for all living creatures, and ensuring social justice for all people.
Your use of time-lapse photography in capturing the rhythms of nature makes your pieces seem like symphonic compositions. Can you speak to the direction of narrative through the manipulation of tempo with time-lapse assemblage?
I never get tired of capturing the rhythms of Life that are beyond our perception. We see life at 24 frames per second, an extremely limited view. I have been filming time lapse flowers 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for over 30 years, capturing 2 seconds of screen time per day totaling 12 hours of total footage. I can now go out and film slow motion at 1000 frames per second and capture 12 hours of footage in a couple of hours. What is truly amazing is that when played back the graceful, poetic, symphonic motion of the time lapse flower or the slow motion hummingbird is the same yet they come from two opposite ends of the time spectrum in nature. So humans look like time lapse ants to a redwood tree and we also look like a slow motion giant to a mosquito. My cinematic techniques takes us on a enlightening ride of time and scale that feels like a dream, yet is authentic and real.
Watching “Wings of Life” gives one the feeling of having attended a reading given by a great poet. Can you speak to the relationship your photography has to poetry, i.e., the epiphanous explication of the quotidian, magical connections gone unnoticed, the examination of the telling details that reveal the workings of the whole world?
My goal is to capture the fantastic in every shot. When I edit them together I give it a direction based on the continuity that is revealed to me in movement, composition, color and emotion. After a while the film speaks to me and tells me how it wants to be assembled taking advantage of serendipity, and letting the flow occur in the magical haven of being in the zone. I am no longer the director just a good listener taking direction with a wide open heart and mind. Poetry is all about pace and the unique ability to experience it over and over and not get tired of it but discover new meanings and nuances, that is what I hope my films can accomplish.
When did you first become aware of the “migratory brotherhood” of bees, bats, butterflies and hummingbirds, now endangered, and so key to our own survival on the planet? Do you see parallels between the “The Pollinators” and human migrant workers, likewise so necessary yet always threatened? Is your work ever criticized for being “political”?
I first started off by wanting to tell the story about flowers. Than I read about colony collapse disorder, the mysterious decline in bees, where they don't return to the hive, and scientists have still not figured out the cause through any forensic investigation. It appears to be a cumulative effect of stress, loss of habitat, pesticides and their growing demand to pollinate agri-business mono crops of thousands of acres in a very short time. The same stress, travel, poor diet, exposure to pesticides also negatively affect migrant workers, who are also taken for granted. If the bees go we lose over one third of the world food supply. If the migrant workers go, we lose harvesting the pollinated and fertilized crops that we depend on to survive. You can't tell the story of the bees without telling the story of the flowers, which most scientists agree was the greatest biological event that occured on the planet more than 135 million years ago. Before flowers there were only cold blooded animals. The invention of flowers brought about energy packets called seeds, nuts, and fruits which enabled warm blooded animals like mammals to evolve. Most people today still don't realize that a flower becomes fruit. And without bees to transport the plants pollen (DNA) around to reproduce because plants don't have legs to move, Life as we know it would disappear. What I did not know was that in addition to bees, bats, butterflies, and hummingbirds are also pollinators that ecosystems depend on for survival.
From your early cinematography like your work on the amazing “Koyanisquatsi” to “America’s Heart and Soul” and “Wings of Life”, you have been a documentarian of our modern “lives out of balance”. How do you see art, for both the individual and the public, as a curative to our current sensory overload? Can new digital technologies now serve as instruments of healing the damage done by earlier blunt-force technologies?
My hope and belief is that new digital technologies evolved by forces that mimic the intelligence and networking capability of nature, in order for nature to protect itself from man's self destructive behavior.
The internet is like mycellium, vast fiber thin single celled fungi systems that can grow to be 50 square miles and is basicly one organism. All plants and animals are trying to get the message across to us humans to get our act together before we create a mass extinction. We need to open people's hearts through art. Artists have antennae into the future. Since most people don't live in rural areas growing their own food, we are disconnected from the foundation that supports us, Life itself. So if we can experience truth and beauty through digital distribution of art on digital display devices (formerly known at televisions), than I have hope that we can reawaken people's spirits, and facilitate the consciousness shift that must happen in order to create a sustainable future. That is why I am creating my own digital channel Movingart.tv so people can have nutritious options in the 500 channel Universe where there is a lot of junk food. It's no wonder that TV ratings go down every year as people shift away from negative energy. What if you could tune in to inspiration, relaxation, rejuvenation, celebration, all the gifts that artists provide, that we can't access in our over populated stressed out urban lives. The meaning of Koyanisqautsi was a Hopi Indian phrase meaning 'Life out of Balance" and the film ended with a rocket exploding indicating that technology was going to be our downfall. I believe it is the opposite. Democratized digital media communication networks is the only way to globally educate masses of people quickly, which is the solution to affect behavioral change to live in harmony with each other and preserve the life giving sustainable resources we need to protect.
- Do you feel that artists have some sort of “natural” duty or inclination to educating themselves about, or caring about, nature and related subjects?
- Why do you think it is that the most common elements in our lives (like flower pollination) are more and more overlooked as art subjects? Is it simply the massive amount of technology dominating our lives? Or is it something more basic, perhaps “anti-nature”? Or is an appreciation of the natural coming back?
- Is there room in our hunger for eye-dazzling entertainment for both “Avatar” and “Wings of Life”? Do you think CGI, etc, will “kill off” nature documentary films, or will both natural and CGI “manmade” films exist for as long as they’re done incredibly well?