Louis Schwartzberg is a cinematographer who finds beauty in things most people barely notice — butterflies, bees, hummingbirds. He calls attention to the flowers these creatures pollinate — and the mystery of mushrooms that can heal, help trees communicate and clean up an oil spill.
Louis SchwartzbergLouis Schwartzberg
With his time-lapse cinematography, Schwartzberg slows the flapping of wings, and the growth of fungi, so viewers can marvel at the intricacies of nature and ponder our powerful bond with the environment..
Schwartzberg is an innovator in time-lapse cinematography. He’s been working in the medium for 40 years, using macro lenses to expose frames at a very slow rate, to be played back later at a standard speed. The process makes the images appear as if time has sped up. He’s had the cameras rolling for 40 years, 24-hours a day, seven days a week — squeezing four decades into 20 hours of film.
“It started because I wanted to shoot high-resolution imagery because I was into fine art photography when I was in college,” he explained. “When I got enthralled with filmmaking, well back then the only thing you could afford was 16mm, which was small and grainy. Film was a hundred dollars a minute for developing and processing, even back then but I could modify these really old cameras to shoot one frame at a time because cameras weren’t able to do that.”
Schwartzberg had to pioneer the technology and figure out a way to be able to take it outdoors, without a generator. “I’m trying to hike up a mountain to shoot the sunrises and sunsets so, a friend of mine built electric guitars for the Grateful Dead and he helped me build a small, little motor that would run on flashlight batteries so I was able to take the camera outdoors,” he said.
“In addition to it enabling me to capture phenomena that blew my mind, it also turned me on to wonder and awe,” he added. “You can’t imagine what a flower looks like when it opens and closes, you can’t imagine what fog looks like when it comes and crashes into the shore, you can’t imagine what shafts of light look like in a forest throughout the day and when you see it, it’s a real God-like view. And it opens your mind, it broadens your horizons, and it changes your perspective.”
When you can look at life from the point of view of a redwood tree, or a flower, or in slow-motion from the point of view of a hummingbird, that opens your heart in a giant way. You realize that your point of view, the human point of view, is very narrow and arrogant and potentially destructive.”
In 2011, Schwartzberg made Wings of Life, a film about the increasingly threatened creatures that are vital to the world’s food supply. The film won awards for theatrical programming and cinematography. “Wings of Life is all about standing up for the little guys,” Schwartzberg said. “It’s the pollinators – bees, bats, hummingbirds, butterflies that are critical for life on our planet because if they don’t fertilize the flowers, we don’t’ get fruits, nuts, seeds, vegetables.”
His work includes Moving Art (2014), a Netflix series created through time-lapse cinematography. In his 2019 film Fantastic Fungi, Schwartzberg combines computer-generated imagery(CGI) and time-lapse cinematography with interviews.
“I’m always looking at these little things that really make the world go around but with a greater meaning than a botany lesson or a biology lesson,” he said. “They have greater significance. Even in Fantastic Fungi, when you look at the mycelial network, here is this communications system that connects trees and plants to each other and the shared economy, without greed, to let life flourish. That is the model we should all follow.”
Gratitude RevealedMY HERO Project
In his latest film, Gratitude Revealed, Schwartzberg focuses his inquisitive lens on humans — dancers who practice their craft on the sides of cliffs, women who were incarcerated and are trying their hand at stand-up comedy, and the first woman to win the US National Aerobatic Championship.
Watch a trailer HERE.
“I was inspired initially by my folks, being Holocaust survivors,” he said. “Growing up under their roof, you learned to appreciate all the little things in life – a roof over your head, steady job, the miracle of having children, your health. That, to them, was heaven on Earth.”
In his work, Schwartzberg says he looks for people who have that kind of resilience — people who’ve overcome adversity but still have a lot of hope. “Those are the stories I love to tell,” he said.
One person he features in Gratitude Revealed is Brother David Steindl-Rast, a 97-year-old scholar, author and Catholic Benedictine Monk. In the film, Brother David asks, “Do you think this is just another day in your life? It’s a gift. It’s the only gift that you have right now, and the only appropriate response is gratefulness.”
After hearing a recording of Brother David, in 2014, Schwartzberg posted a video to him that talked about gratitude. “It went viral,” Schwartzberg said. “It got 20 million views. It proved to me that there was an audience that was really eager for it.”
Norman Lear, who celebrated his 101st birthday in July, also gives his thoughts on gratitude in the film. “I go to bed each night intending fully to wake up the next morning, and I’m grateful for that cup of coffee, and for the cereal I’m having, or the banana,” he said during the interview. “It’s really very meaningful to me.”
“Gratitude, I think, is an antidote to the feeling of disconnection that we’re all feeling right now, which was certainly exacerbated by Covid, when you couldn’t get together with friends and family or go out to dinner. That was an example of something you took for granted. You never thought about that, right? You never thought that ‘this is really special that I can have my friend come over or have dinner with my family.”
Gratitude RevealedLouis Schwartzberg
His hope is that his films will help change people’s behavior. “It’s not about what you think or what they do, it’s an emotional connection that has to be established, not an intellectual or academic one,” he said. “If you talk about doom and gloom, you lose hope. Even though the science is clear, it doesn’t really help to say the ice cap is melting because people don’t know what to do about it. But if you fall in love with trees, for example, you can’t throw away a stack of paper. You don’t have to think about should I be recycling.”
Schwartzberg founded the Energy Film Library, which helped launch the stock footage industry. He started Moving Art, a company that produces High-definition films that feature nature, visual effects, and cityscapes, and he created BlackLight Films, which features children’s programming and documentary films. He’s given a number of TED talks and has spoken at NASA, The Nantucket Project, Bioneers and the Global Spa and Wellness Summit.
This month, Schwartzberg will be presented with the 2023 MY HERO Media Award of The MY HERO International Film Festival. “Louie Schwartzberg’s work exemplifies a crucial aspect for a better world,” said Jeanne Meyers, co-founder and director of The MY HERO Project. “Thank you for continuing to inspire people to be the best version of themselves.”
Meyers said Schwartzberg was chosen because of his film work, as well as his most recent endeavor — the Louie Channel (louischannel.com), which features inspiring videos and a podcast series about wonder and awe. The idea is to foster wellness, art, beauty and, of course, gratitude.