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Natural Wonder

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By Jack Feuer, Photos by Matt Harbicht

Published Jul 1, 2011 8:00 AM


Clio-winning, Emmy-nominated director and cinematographer Louie Schwartzberg '72, M.F.A. '77 pioneered the art of nature and aerial cinematography, and his imagery has been seen in films like E.T., Koyaanisqatsi, The Bourne Ultimatum, Sex and the City and many others. Schwartzberg has worked with Disney, Hallmark Channel, Discovery and PBS, to name but a few.

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Q: When did you start shooting?

A:
I was a political science major at UCLA and when I got there in 1969, we had the antiwar protests and police on campus. And so one of the things I started to do was document the police brutality, especially against women. That got me involved with photography; that was the only way I could document it. And it was easier to submit a video.

Q: You also considered fine arts photography as a medium.

A:
I took a fine arts photography class at UCLA. It was about understanding the conceptual nature and communication of what images have to say. That opened up my creative spirit for the first time. My heart was really into fine arts photography, but that world is very elitist. The power and canvas of film is much bigger and the power of film as a tool for social change is far more attractive. That's where I found my voice.

Q: And why nature?

A:
I am really into capturing and celebrating life. And nature taught me about light; composition was my mentor. And then shooting time lapse was driven by that sense of wonder of observing the beauty of nature. [Besides, time-lapse film] is an affordable subject when you’re doing your thesis film. As a student, nobody could really afford to shoot 35mm. But you could if you only shot two shots a day. I found an old 35mm Mitchell camera in the rental-film department. This clunky, heavy old thing. I looked at it and said, "Great!" We didn't even have time-lapse motors at the time.

I was singing the U.S. Marines hymn in my head to keep cadence. Now time lapse has become almost a metaphor for advertising and movies. Back then, it was strictly a scientific tool. People used to shoot it for analysis.

Q: And you started literally living in the woods.

A:
After I graduated from UCLA, my roommate invited me to take care of some land he had bought in Mendocino. I ended up staying for three years. That's when I started to just shoot things that inspired me. I would shoot fog rolling in and out, flowers, purely out of passion. Now a young person can take a digital camera and there is no barrier to entry. But back then, nobody was shooting feature-quality film as a one-man band. Also, my thesis film was picked up for distribution by United Artists. It was called Eternal Sunrise and I think they purchased it for $2,000. That was a lot of money to me at the time. I thought I could live in the woods and make movies the rest of my life. But eventually, I came back to Los Angeles. I had done my thing in Mendocino. I needed to be back in L.A. to make movies.

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Q: You not only pioneered the use of time-lapse photography in commercial film, you virtually invented the stock-image licensing business.

A:
Yes, we started either the first or second contemporary stock-image licensing company in the world. It was acquired by Getty in 1996.

Q: You credit your parents with your world view. Why is that?

A:
They were Holocaust survivors, and they taught me that even though they went through the worst hell anyone could imagine, they still had a love of life and hope. Because they could still have a family. So I've always been inspired by people who have overcome adversity. How many times I've been rejected for projects — 100 to 1 is the ratio. And I think of what my parents went through and I say, "Well, this isn't so bad."

Q: Overcoming adversity is a major theme of your first full-length feature, the acclaimed documentary America's Heart & Soul.

A:
Those are the ones I gravitate to because I can understand them. Whether it's nature or people, the power of survival is what drives us. Stories of inspiration are rare. Maybe I have that survivor DNA. Whether you're talking about nature or people, the power of survival is what drives us.

Q: That's also at the heart of your current film, Disneynature's Wings of Life, about the disappearance of bees.

A:
This could be the most serious environmental issue facing mankind. We take those little guys for granted, but we are destroying a relationship that took 135 million years to evolve. And I show how man's choices are destroying their habitat. Then I discovered something grander — pollination, the intersection between plants and animals. A third of the food we eat comes from pollinating plants. Plants are the only thing that can take light energy and turn it into stored energy. You pull that apart and life as we know it would collapse.

Q: Actually, you're the only American filmmaker on the Disneynature roster.

A:
The French and British support more natural history filmmaking. They've developed more of a market for it by having more blue-chip docs air. So there are more opportunities and subsidies for European filmmakers.

Through the Lens

Explore the world of Louie Schwartzberg online at BlackLight Films.

Q: What’s next?

A:
Two things: A 3-D IMAX film with National Geographic called Hidden Worlds, about everything we can't see that's too slow, too fast, too small or too vast. We live in this one spectrum of light that we can see. What I'm exploring is what's beyond those boundaries. The other project is to leverage the 1,000-hour library I've accumulated over the years. Technology has caught up to my vision, which has always been to turn people on to the beauty and power of nature, and I'm launching a [company that offers] online digital distribution for high-quality digital displays. For me, it's never been about Act One, Act Two or Act Three. It's about the immersive experience, and I think we're ready for that now.

Q: Hardest shoot?

A:
Lots of them. One was recent, when I was shooting bats in the Sonoran Desert in Mexico at night. We did four all-nighters in a row and didn't get a single shot. And then being in a coal mine a couple miles underneath the earth in Kentucky for America's Heart & Soul.

Q: Most moving shoot?

A:
It would have to be America's Heart & Soul. I did a segment with a mountain woman from Appalachia and she was talking about her connection to the land. She points to her chest and says, "Cut me open right here and you won't find a heart inside. What you'll see is a mountain range and clouds floating in the mist. That's my heart."

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