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How 24 hours and thousands of amateur filmmakers resulted in one extraordinary film.

Director Kevin Macdonald really can’t take all the praise for his new documentary, Life in a Day. Much of the kudos goes to producer Ridley Scott, who helped spearhead the project’s development. Then there was Macdonald’s team of 20 postproduction assistants who helped him piece the film together. But most important, Macdonald credits the 80,000 amateur filmmakers from around the globe who captured on video pivotal moments in their lives on a single day: July 24, 2010.

The resulting film — which is slated to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival this month before enjoying a worldwide release in the spring — is a deeply connective cinematic achievement that spans 24 hours in the life of the planet in a mere 90 minutes. “When you see people living their ordinary lives, you get an insight into who they are and how we are all really the same,” Macdonald says.

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Inspired by England’s Mass Observation Archive, a privately funded organization that asked 1930s laypeople to respond to regular questionnaires about the banalities of their lives, Macdonald and Scott teamed with YouTube — the video-sharing portal that serves more than 2 billion video clips a day in more than 29 languages — to encourage users around the world to participate. The experiment worked: More than 5,000 hours of footage were submitted from virtually every country on the planet. (Video cameras were distributed free of charge to people in developing or underprivileged countries.) Macdonald was astonished at the quantity and quality of footage, calling much of it “beautifully made” and “incredibly intimate.” 

But he admits that the sheer scope of the project required him to let go of his preconceptions of what made something good or bad — and to open his mind to chance and to serendipity. That notion became clear to Macdonald late one night in the editing bay when he was logging tapes and came across a clip filmed on a New York subway. “There were two different people filming on the same subway train in New York, and they literally bumped into each other and met in that way,” he says. “Those moments are rather magical, and they happen all around us. We need only to be mindful of them when they do.”