Louie Schwartzberg is a pioneering artist who has filmed some stunning footage of mushrooms growing over the course of 40 years. WIRED goes behind-the-scenes with Louie to find out how these amazing time-lapses were made for Netflix’s Fantastic Fungi.
The new Netflix documentary, “Fantastic Fungi,” features amazing time-lapse footage filmed by a team of cinematographers that included this pioneering filmmaker.
My name is Louie Schwartzberg. I’m a filmmaker, and I love to take audiences on journeys through time and scale. That’s a real rush. –
Let’s go behind the scenes and find out how these time-lapses were made for “Fantastic Fungi.”
Well, I think the biggest surprise for people watching the film is they think that it’s all filmed outdoors. There’s a lot of reasons why you can’t film the time-lapse of plants and fungi outdoors. Number one, there’s wind, which should make the objects shake and rattle and look like a Charlie Chaplin movie. Number two, there are bugs and other elements that would interfere with the filming. It has to be constant. You know, even during the day, the light fluctuates.
So I built a studio on top of my garage. If I was shooting one frame every 15 minutes, it means I’m shooting four frames an hour times 24 is 96 frames. Ninety-six frames are four seconds of film. So the way it works is I had somebody build an intervalometer for me. An intervalometer means it triggers a camera one frame at a time. There you go.
In 24 hours we’ll have one second of film. It also triggers the grow lights to come on and off and the photo lights. The photo light is beautiful. The gorgeous tabletop cinematography lighting. The grow lights are these sort of LED lights that are kind of weird and pink.
I think they were developed for people growing cannabis. I’m able to program the grow lights to be like sunrise and sunset. If I leave the grow lights on 24 hours, they die. I set up shots in the morning. I check them at night. I realized I’d turned it into a spiritual practice. It gets me up in the morning because as soon as I’m out of bed, I’m thinking, ooh, I wonder what the flower did last night? Is it still in frame? Is it in focus?
I have to imagine what the framing and the composition will look like tomorrow, or two days from now, or a week from now. That is a transformational experience because you have to put your mind into the flower’s or the fungi’s mindset and intention, thinking where it’s going to grow, how big it will get, and if you’re right, boy, it’s a rush. If you’re wrong, it means you have to do it all over again.
Louie and his team consulted mycologists, fungi experts, on how to grow mushrooms in an environment free from bacteria and bugs for the film. But which was the most photogenic fungus?
Lion’s mane had this little kind of tiny tentacles that would emerge. They would wiggle in this really beautiful wave-like pattern. I say roughly, you know, the ratio of success to failure, it’s roughly about one out of six, maybe one out of 10. It’s extremely difficult to do. When I’m shooting the closeup of the fungi growing, we create a miniature set. Moss, and logs, and rocks. Time-lapse macro cinematography. Your depth of field is very shallow. We use macro lenses, 100 millimeter Canon, 180 millimeter Canon, and the 35-millimeter microlens.
So naturally, the audience won’t be focusing on the background. If I’m doing a more of a master shot, where we used, for example, motion control, we will put up a blue screen, and then we will composite in a sky or a forest to make it believable. To be able to move the camera was impossible to do in special effects before motion-control cinematography.
So with motion-control, they took cameras and combined them with computers to do a repeat move, meaning it shoots one frame, it stops, shoots another frame, and stops, and you have this controlled dolly move while the mushroom is growing. It’s a dolly track in a tripod head that now has tiny motors that enable the computer to program a pan, a tilt, and the length of the move on the dolly and control the camera and focus. All these things have to be working together as if it was a real-time shot.
But one critical component of the fungi story was impossible to film using traditional techniques.
The mycelium is like the tree, and the mushroom is like the apple to the tree.
The mycelium, an underground root-like system that branches out, kind of like the internet, connecting plants and trees to each other.
You got a couple of problems here. A, no light. B, smaller than the eye can see. It’s only one cell thick. So what we did was we used scanning electron microscopic photography for the electron microscope to work. They work in a lab on a giant slab of concrete because any vibration would ruin the shot. You take the specimen, put it under the microscope, and bombard it with electrons. You get the most extraordinary closeup detail that is unimaginable to the human eye. We used those images as a reference for computer-generated animators to use, and we created these incredible shots of traveling through the mycelial network.
Louie has pushed the envelope of our visual language throughout his career, both in terms of tech and artistry. He also pioneered the stock footage industry. Getty Images eventually bought the company he formed to license his vast library of clips.
I started shooting time-lapse four decades ago by looking at time-lapse clouds back in 1970 when I pioneered the first 35 millimeter cameras that could go outdoors and shoot one frame at a time. Shooting fungi, flowers, and plants, I have a camera rolling 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
From commercials to IMAX to feature films, it’s impossible not to have seen the work of Louie Schwartzberg at some point in your life.
I love to film hummingbirds. Again, looking at life from their point of view enables you to realize that all of life has a different metabolic rate, and I think all of life has a different frame rate.
So for example, a mosquito on your arm, you know, having a little drop of blood, it takes a look at that hand coming towards it in ultra slow motion and has plenty of time to take off because its metabolic rate, its lifespan is way shorter than our lifespan. Our lifespan is way shorter than a redwood tree’s lifespan. This reality of, you know, real-time human point of view is not the only point of view, and that’s the beauty of cameras and time-lapse cinematography. It’s a time machine.
You know, you can talk about this stuff in scientific terms, you could have Einstein explain the theory of relativity, but you don’t get it until you see it. The longest thing I’ve ever shot was a mouse rotting. You can say that decomposition is the end of life. I argue that it’s the beginning of life. You see this kind of rippling of the fur, and then that kind of dissipates, and then you see some bones, and then you see the grass grow up in between. To observe the pattern and the rhythm of how it decomposes is beautiful.
Louie’s art has given him a unique perspective on nature, time, and the nature of time.
I’m engaged with trying to understand the intelligence of nature and how we can live in harmony with it. That means at times using a time-lapse camera to be able to observe it in their timeframe. It’s a shared economy under the ground where nutrients and food are shared for ecosystems to flourish without greed. I believe that should be the model for how we should live our lives. We should take that wisdom from below the ground and bring it above the ground.