An impassioned filmmaker and naturalist, Louie Schwartzberg has been a pioneer in cinematography, lending his unique imagery to films, television shows, documentaries and commercials for over three decades. His time-lapse and aerial photography captures the natural world like no other, exposing the true beauty of nature with its hidden patterns and interconnectedness that often goes unseen to the naked eye. From migrations of monarch butterflies, to the flow of human traffic in Grand Central Station, he provides a sense of wonderment and captured moments no matter his subject matter. To meet the man behind the lens, I recently caught up with Mr. Schwartzberg over the phone from his home in California to talk about his new project Moving Art, his unique approach to storytelling and how nature is the ultimate muse.
red flower: Your work is about telling stories both in people and in nature, as you did in "America's Heart". Tell us a little bit of the story of how your parents came to New York, and about you growing up in the city during that time.
Louie Schwartzberg: My parents came to New York because they were Holocaust survivors. And after the war, I think they had a choice between going to Israel, which my mom didn't want to go to because that meant more war, or New York. They were lucky enough to be able to immigrate to New York and lived in Harlem. Which I think put them through some culture shock, but even though they went through that [Holocaust], they still had a love of life and hope.
red flower: Is that where they originally settled, Harlem?
Louie:Originally it was the Lower East Side, but it was a whole other world to be in. Because they were told, you can come to America, it's "the land of milk and honey" with gold paving the streets. It was a cold reality. Growing up for me, it was more of a protective environment. They were fearful because of what they went through, and also because they were immigrants. I remember about four or five locks on the door, they wouldn't go anywhere. It's kind of a reclusive way to live. Then we moved when I was eight to L.A., where at least there were playgrounds, and a beautiful sky. But I never really had a chance to experience nature back then. We didn't go on vacations, because for them, having a roof over your head and food on the table was like heaven on earth. That's what they really appreciated. It helped me to develop a certain appreciation, or gratitude. So when I was a kid and we got to L.A. and saw the palm trees, I thought I had died and gone to heaven. Eventually, I learned a lot more about nature when I went to UCLA and discovered photography, but maybe that's a whole other phase of my life.
red flower: Well, that's a good lead in, is that how you got involved with photography, when you were in school, especially the time-lapse format?
Louie: I was partly introduced to photography by my dad; he did a lot of it, more as a hobby. We had an enlarger that he set that up in the bathroom, and I remember the magic of being in the dark and seeing the alchemy of the photo coming up in that tray. Then it resurrected something when I went to UCLA. I was going to be a Poly-Sci/History major, but when I got involved in the anti-war movement and started documenting police brutality, I ended up using my camera as a tool to document the social injustices. I got to do a photo essay instead of a term paper for one of my classes, and I just got more involved in image-making. That's when I really discovered my voice. My gift was finding ways to be able to express myself visually. And that led to filmmaking, which led into shooting nature, because nature was by far the greatest teacher I ever met, and still is.
red flower: How did you end up focusing on time lapse cinematography and more microscopic subject material?
Louie: It was an old camera that they had back in the shop at UCLA. There was 35mm, which you can't really afford to shoot. At that time we were all shooting 16mm, and I wanted to shoot large and the biggest format, so I found a way to kind of take this old body, and put an animation motor on it, and I started to do time lapse. Time lapses of clouds, time lapses of flowers. And for each time lapse, I'd shoot maybe twenty minutes, so you're only shooting about two seconds of film per day. Which is something that I could afford. More importantly (besides the economic things) was the sense of wonder and joy you would get from watching things you can hardly see and the ability to look at things in a certain speed in that limited perspective. In other words, to realize that flowers are moving and growing all the time. Our eyes can't see that movement. It looks like a blur. So I loved the idea of opening up your awareness, and going into portals that are beyond human perception. That is something that still turns me on immensely.
red flower: Even though the technology has advanced a lot since you first started, what do you find to be the most challenging aspect of the work you do?
Louie: The technology has changed but it still takes patience to get the time-lapse shots. Maybe you're shooting digital instead of film, but it still means knowing how to light, knowing how to set up a shot, and how to capture that magic moment, which is also true of the stop motion work. You need to be able to observe the behavior of a hummingbird or that of a butterfly and understand what it's going to do. So being aware, present, knowledgeable and prepared are things that don't go away. You have that experience of knowing from the past how to be in the right place at the right time, but you don't ever really- it's never predictable.
red flower: You've done a number of large scale environmental films, such as
Wings of Life for Disneynature, and you're working on the IMAX film, Hidden Worlds with National Geographic. Why is it important to make these kinds of films today?
Louie: I think it's really important to make these films because I want people to fall in love with the natural world and realize beauty is nature's tool for survival. You protect what you fall in love with and from an environmental sustainability point of view, we are clearly at a tipping point. How are we going to create the shift in consciousness that's needed to change people's behavior? It's not going to be by scaring people or giving them a to-do list, like recycling. I think if you intrinsically fall in love with something, you'll protect it. Just like the way you fall in love with your children, or you fall in love with your puppy. You'll do whatever it takes to keep that person alive, or that animal alive, or that plant alive, right? You do it naturally; as opposed to feeling like, "I have to do this." So if you love a forest, it's really hard to throw away a bunch of paper, because you just can't do it.
red flower: It's about shifting the abstract to the personal.
Louie: Yeah, I want an emotional experience. I want a stirring emotional experience like I feel when I'm out in nature filming that touches your heart. I think your heart guides your brain, or your mind, to do the right thing.
red flower: With all the work that you've been doing, and especially considering your past, do you consider yourself to be an activist?
Louie: [Long Pause] Yeah, I think so. I would call myself a peaceful warrior, an eco-warrior, or all those kinds of names. I think it's important to be proactive, I think it's important to figure out, on our planet, how to help make the world a better place. I think you can do that by touching people's hearts, and hopefully I'm doing that with my films. The reactions have been wonderful. People saying, "Oh my God, this changed my life," or "I never knew a tomato comes out of a yellow flower." Everyone from children to older adults, the fact that it opens their eyes and changes their life is something I want to do, because I think we're all connected, and the more people realize that we're all connected, then perhaps the solution for how to live in harmony with the planet will become realized.
red flower: You talk about how people are disassociated a bit. How do you think people who live in an urban environment can connect and be aware of nature, and how do you bring that awareness and make them realize the direct effect of their lifestyle?
Louie: There are certain things you can do. Even in an urban area, you can have a rooftop garden. You can be a beekeeper. You can take an empty lot and turn it into a community garden. You can bring nature into your life. The whole wellness movement is all about rejecting the bad things in life and reconnecting with nature. Scientists can prove the physiological effects that occur when you're around a harmonious environment. Not all of us can live in this sort of blissful environment, so we need to do whatever we can to bring nature into our lives.
red flower: You mention the wellness movement, and obviously Yael (founder of red flower) is very inspired by your work and shares your vision of expressing the power and beauty of nature. Do you think this aspect of your work is why the wellness community is so drawn to the things that you do and make?
Louie: Absolutely. I think that it's a beautiful, symbiotic relationship. Wellness is all about yoga, meditation, healthy food, balance, and being in the moment. One of the things my nature imagery provides is that it puts you in the moment. People see a shot of a flower opening or an ocean wave crashing and go, "Oh my God!" They're staring at it, and their jaw is hanging low, and I've always kind of wondered why they say those words over and over. I've broken it down to where, the "Oh" means you're present, the "My" means you're connected to something deep inside your soul, and the "God" is that sort of universal energy that we all want to be connected to. So I think the wellness movement is really all about just becoming aware, compassionate and opening your heart. I hope that my visual imagery can really enable that.
red flower: As a digital library of moving images and fine art, Moving Art seems to provide imagery that's really lacking in people's lives. Was this the original intention of the project, or do you have another goal in mind? Who is Moving Art for?
Louie: My God, Moving Art is for anyone who wants to be sane! [Laughs] No, no, Moving Art is for anyone who wants to connect to the natural world and connect with his or herself. Connecting with the visuals of nature is more like looking into a mirror, because you find that the beauty makes you identify with something deep inside of yourself. That's why you connect with it. You're becoming more grounded and that's the same reason why people go to a spa. The whole wellness movement makes you more grounded and more centric. A lot of us scurry around all day, we work, and it becomes hard just to close your eyes, breathe, and to just let your mind go blank. I think the visuals I provide can be used the same way you would use a mandala to focus on something. It's not a film telling you this elaborate, complex story, but you can be mesmerized by it. So whether you're looking at a flower opening, or the stars, or a beautiful landscape, you can be sucked into that world.
red flower: You've worked in the film industry for a long time, and you've had a lot of different business ventures. Has the success of past ventures affected your process of getting new projects off the ground?
Louie: I'm hoping eventually I'll have more freedom to do the kinds of films that I want to do. Maybe in this new world we're living in, I'll be getting more community support from people who have a similar vision. It's kind of exciting right now, this sort of digital internet world we're living in, where you can potentially make more niche films that serve a potentially smaller market.
red flower: You used Kickstarter for one of your campaigns, do you think that you would try that again? Do you think that these kinds of platforms are the future of getting these things off the ground?
Louie: I do. I think that with Kickstarter, more important than the money, is the fact that you're building a community. That is worth more than the money. All of a sudden you have a bunch of people that share your intention, who will support you, and want to see that film get made based on a shared interest, issue, topic, or supporting the filmmaker. That's really more valuable than the small amount of money that creates.
red flower: On an endnote, when was the last time you felt truly in awe of something?
Louie: [Laughs] Well, on a large scale, I'd have to say when I shot in Mexico, and you have tens of thousands of Monarch butterflies flying around your head. That was truly one of the highlights of my life. But I would have to say that every day I walk by a flower that's about to open in my garden, I am definitely humbled and filled with awe, as well.