Three seconds of fame for a Berkeley tech whiz

When film producer Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Aliens, Thelma and Louise) and director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland), collaborating with YouTube, issued a global call for people to capture one day in the life of the world on video, more than 80,000 clips streamed in.

Phil Loarie

Phil Loarie explains how he captured the moon on video for “Life in a Day.”

The result is the crowd-sourced documentary film Life in a Day, which will reach U.S. theaters Sunday, July 24, exactly one year later.

And the very first clip — all three seconds of it, showing the moon rising over the Oakland hills — was shot by a 24-year UC Berkeley employee/tech whiz who spends his spare time making electronic music and videos.

Phil Loarie, a systems administrator who does tech support for the Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences Department in the College

“Life in a Day” trailer.

of Engineering, used a palm-size Sony camcorder to capture the moonrise as seen through shimmering thermal layers from Ford Point, on the bay near his Richmond home.

It opens a 95-minute story cobbled from snippets submitted from 192 countries — more than 4,500 hours’ worth — in response to its makers’ call for people to participate in “a historic cinematic experiment,” a snapshot of the world and its 6.7 billion people in one day.

Loarie watched the film for the first and only time when it streamed online during its U.S. premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January.

“I was almost in tears,” Loarie recalls. “I was so excited.”

Twenty minutes in, his laptop battery died and he raced to a nearby Starbucks to plug in his computer. He got there in time to catch the  last 40 minutes — and see the credits roll. His name came first. And then the tears really did well up.

“I thought, it’s been 35 years and that’s my first,” says Loarie, who has lived and breathed film and music since high school and has used electronics to create both since catching the tech bug as an undergraduate at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. He came west to earn a master of fine arts degree in electronic music at Mills College.

Bigger than the credit, he says, was the feeling of taking part in something so communal — something that anyone with a video-capable camera or phone could do.  

“It’s all about doing it, with all these great people, and learning — and getting a little recognition is a nice thing,” Loarie explains over lunch from the salad bar at the Faculty Club.

Life in a Day is kaleidoscopic, building a daylong arc from glimpses of the mundane and the extraordinary in a multitude of languages and landscapes. Babies (and a giraffe) are born, a calf is slaughtered, people get married and brush their teeth and impersonate Elvis, according to one reviewer who saw it at Sundance. It ends up expressing a collective hope, he wrote.

The trailer gives a taste of its emotional reach. The climax of a section labeled “fear” shows a mountain climber looking down on a pristine panorama of snowy peaks and saying, “I’m afraid of losing this place.”

Loarie, who has anywhere from 15 to 25 music and video projects going at any one time, heard about Life in a Day from a friend. He was already YouTube savvy — his “SchmueyVision” channel there shows 32 of his videos — and has been a regular competitor in Vimeo video contests, which he never wins.

Loarie’s original footage.

Grabbing his camcorder and heading out was a natural. The videos had to be shot on July 24, 2010, and Loarie made the most of his 24 hours. He took time-lapse shots at Richmond’s harbor, and took his first stab at a moon video — but the fog came in and the moon set at 3 a.m. Later he shot a friend in her garden and a few takes of the fog coming in and steam billowing from the Richmond refinery, did a few more marina shots, and then headed to the pier at Ford Point at the end of Harbour Way. 

By then it was 9:26 p.m., an hour after sunset. Loarie needed the windshield to help steady the camera, and shot southeast through atmospheric distortions caused when the cool night air blew in off the bay and collided with the day’s heat rising off the land.

“It was like shooting through Jell-O,” he says. “I was careful to breathe slowly and not make a sound. Time was running out as the fog was creeping in.”

He got three takes — and then his camera battery died.

A week later came the deadline for submissions. Loarie uploaded 11 videos. Six or eight weeks after that, he heard from the editors. They liked one of the clips and wanted his original footage. It was his last moon shot. In the end, they used 10 seconds of it, sped up to three.

Now, Life in a Day is opening in U.S. theaters, with National Geographic as distributor. It will get a special one-night-only benefit showing on Sunday, July 24, in dozens of theaters nationwide. (The website lists Fairfax, Brentwood, Livermore and Petaluma in the Bay Area.) General release starts July 29. And it will be available online and as a DVD at a later date.

The curious or obsessed can already flip through 5,642 of the clips considered for the movie on the Life in a Day YouTube channel.

Loarie credits his years of computer work at Berkeley with helping to shape his real life outside of the university by giving him plenty of opportunities to learn how computers can assist not only engineers but artists as well.

“This has to be the best day job I have ever had,” he says.