The film is 94 minutes 53 seconds long and includes scenes selected from 4,500 hours of footage in 80,000 submissions from 192 nations. The completed film debuted at the Sundance Film Festival on 27 January 2011 and the premiere was streamed live on YouTube. On 31 October 2011, YouTube announced that Life in a Day would be available for viewing on its website free of charge, and on DVD.
The film was produced by Scott Free Productions and the YouTube video sharing site. The film was distributed by National Geographic Films. The visual effects were produced by Lip Sync Post.
The film was the creation of a partnership among YouTube, Ridley Scott Associates and LG electronics, announced on 6 July 2010. Users sent in videos supposed to be recorded on 24 July 2010, and then Ridley Scott produced the film and edited the videos into a film with director Kevin Macdonald and film editor Joe Walker, consisting of footage from some of the contributors. All chosen footage authors are credited as co-directors.
The film's music was written by composer and producer Harry Gregson-Williams, along with Matthew Herbert. The film's opening song, written by Herbert, was performed by English singer-songwriter Ellie Goulding. The film also features the song "Jerusalem" by Kieran Leonard and "Future Prospect" by Biggi Hilmars.
Director Kevin Macdonald told The Wall Street Journal that the project was initially conceived as a way to commemorate the fifth birthday of YouTube, and that he wanted to "take the humble YouTube video, ... and elevate it into art." Editor Joe Walker said that as he understood it, the concept for the crowdsourced documentary came from Ridley Scott's production company "Scott Free U.K." and from YouTube, while Macdonald explained more specifically that "the inspiration for me was a British group from the 1930s called the Mass Observation movement. They asked hundreds of people all over Britain to write diaries recording the details of their lives on one day a month and answer a few simple questions. ... These diaries were then organised into books and articles with the intention of giving voice to people who weren't part of the "elite" and to show the intricacy and strangeness of the seemingly mundane."
Macdonald began his "Around the world in 80,000 clips" article in The Guardian by posing the questions, "What do you love? What do you fear? What's in your pocket?" and explaining that "one day last summer, I asked ordinary people around the world to answer those three questions and spend a day filming their lives." The 80,000 individual clips received amounted to 4,500 hours of electronic footage. Macdonald explained that about 75% of the film's content came from people contacted through YouTube, traditional advertising, TV shows, and newspapers; the remaining 25% came from cameras sent out to the developing world, Macdonald pointing out "It was important to represent the whole world." At a reported cost of £40,000, "we did resort to snail mail for sending out 400 cameras to parts of the developing world – and getting back the resulting video cards." Macdonald later remarked that he regretted not sending out a far smaller number of cameras but providing training in camera operation and desired type of content: "Naively, I hadn't realised how alien, not only the concept of a documentary is to a lot of people (in the developing world), but also the idea that your own opinions are worth sharing."
Macdonald expressed to The Wall Street Journal that the film "could only be made in the last five years because ... you can get enough people who will have an understanding of how to shoot something." Film editor Joe Walker told Wired magazine's Angela Watercutter that the film "couldn't have been made without technology. Ten years ago it would've been impossible." Macdonald explained that YouTube "allowed us to tap into a pre-existing community of people around the world and to have a means of distributing information about the film and then receiving people's 'dailies.' It just wouldn't have been organizationally or financially feasible to undertake this kind of project pre-YouTube."
The filmmaking team "used YouTube's ability to collect all of this material and then we had this sort of sweatshop of people, all multilingual film students, to sift through this material. It couldn't have been done any other way. Nobody had ever done a film like this before, so we had to sort of make it up as we went along." "To put (the 4500 hours of raw footage) in context, I just cut a feature film for Steve McQueen and there's 21 hours of [film] for that."
Walker, whose team edited the whole film over seven weeks, remarked to Adam Sternbergh of The New York Times that "The analogy is like being told to make Salisbury Cathedral, and then being introduced to a field full of rubble. You have to start looking for buttresses and things that connect together." Walker indicated that a team of roughly two dozen researchers, chosen both for a cinematic eye and proficiency with languages, watched, logged, tagged, and rated each clip on a scale of one to five stars. Walker remarked that "the vast amount of material was two stars," and that he and director Kevin Macdonald reviewed the four-star and five-star rated clips.
In addition to the star rating system, the editing/selecting team also organised the 80,000 clips according to countries, themes and video quality as part of the selection process, and further had to convert from 60 different frame rates to make the result cinematically acceptable. All the logging and researching was done using the CatDV media asset management software.
Director Macdonald said that the film focused on a single day "because a day is the basic temporal building block of human life—wherever you are," with editor Joe Walker adding that the particular day, 24 July 2010, was chosen because it was the first Saturday after the World Cup.
Concerning the chronology of the film and the order of the clips, Macdonald explained that he let the 300 hours of "best bits" tell him what the themes and structure of the film should be, likening the material to a Rorschach test—"you will see in it what you want to see in it." Joe Walker further explained that "We always wanted to have a number of structures, so it's not just midnight to midnight, but it's also from light to dark and from birth to death. ... bashing things together and making them resonate against each other and provoking thought."
Director Kevin Macdonald said he saw the movie "as a metaphor of the experience of being on the Internet. ... clicking from one place to another, in this almost random way…following our own thoughts, following narrative and thematic paths." Betsy Sharkey wrote in the Los Angeles Times that "this fast-paced documentary is shaped as much by Internet savvy as traditional filmmaking, which doesn't make the experience of it any less satisfying, or the implications any less provocative." "The story is told through the voices of the contributors, but mostly it's the images that do the heavy lifting."
Macdonald explained that the film "doesn't have a traditional story or a traditional narrative, but it has thematic movement…and ... recurring characters." He praised certain specific contributions, including "the most technically amazing skydiving shot I have ever seen in any film" and "a hand going up to a window pane and picking a fly off and filming the hand walking through the house and letting the fly go—and you see the fly take off in the distance." Asked if there any particular submission crystallised the film's theme, Macdonald cited "the family who had been going through cancer." More generally, Macdonald praised the immediacy that a handycam permits.
Ian Buckwalter of Washingtonian magazine said that "the familiar beats of the day (were) cut together to show that we're actually far more similar than we are different." The Washington Post's Michael O'Sullivan similarly noted that "the people whose lives form the spine of Life feel familiar... Their hopes and joys, disappointments and fears are our own." Liz Braun, writing in the Toronto Sun, said that "The overall sense of the project appears to be: It's good to be alive. ... According to the film, there are things that divide us as humans, but far more things that unite us." Toronto Star critic Peter Howell was in accord, observing that the "film shows things (what) billions of us do every day, perhaps thinking that we are somehow alone in our pursuits. Yet we couldn't be more connected." However, The Boston Globe's Tom Russo gave director "Macdonald and crew credit for picking out good, clear, telling contrasts, and not sweating potential heavy-handedness," citing contrasts between "one smug contributor pull(ing) a set of Lamborghini keys from his pocket, ... then mov(ing) on to ragged-looking Third Worlders amusedly scoffing at the idea that they'd have anything in their pockets," and a Westerner "quietly worries about losing his hair, while an older Afghan man quietly worries about getting through the day alive."
The Los Angeles Times' Betsy Sharkey described the progression of the film: "Beginning with videos that start pre-dawn then moving through morning, afternoon and evening, ... the rituals that define a day begin to emerge. Beyond an extraordinary range of cultures, terrain and styles reflected, which are captivating on their own, the film stands as a stirring reminder of how ordinary and yet eclectic humanity can be. If "Life in a Day" is any measure, we are a quirky, likeable, unpredictable and yet predictable bunch."
Yumi Goto of TIME LightBox remarked that "the most striking aspect of this documentary is that it's the first crowdsourced, user-generated content to hit the big screen." The Washington Post's Michael O'Sullivan said that, being "alternately funny, scary, boring, moving, amateurish and gorgeous, it is a pretty spectacular thing: a crowdsourced movie that manages to feel singular and whole." Anthony Benigno wrote in Filmcritic.com that the film "is pretty much the first social-media movie ever made."
The New York Times' Adam Sternbergh wrote that "the film's most memorable moments are the ones of unexpected intimacy. ... The film aims to tell the story of a planet, but it's the vulnerability of these individual moments, contributed as part of a larger project, that lingers." The Los Angeles Times' Betsy Sharkey wrote that "The fact that we all experienced that day is part of what gives the documentary an unusual kind of relatability."
Sharkey characterised the film as being "the most hopeful yet from Macdonald, a director who's made his reputation by digging into the more corrupted and conflicted side of human nature with One Day in September, his Oscar-winning documentary on the 1972 Munich massacre of Israeli Olympic athletes... (T)he lightness (Macdonald has) unearthed in "Life in a Day" has an earthy and at times euphoric appeal."
Life in a Day has received generally positive reception from film critics. Rotten Tomatoes reports that 82% of 52 critics have given the film a positive review, with a rating average of 7.1 out of 10. Metacritic gave the film a rating average of 58/100, indicating "mixed or average reviews".
Helen O'Hara from Empire stated that the film was "moving and insightful. Not a classic by any means, but a fascinating glimpse of the way we live today." Michael O'Sullivan of the Washington Post gave the film three and a half stars out of four, saying that "Life in a Day is, without exaggeration, a profound achievement." Peter Howell, a critic of the Toronto Star, gave the film three out of four stars, saying "the vast majority of the film feels undeniably real and incredibly inspiring." Wired magazine's Angela Watercutter wrote that the film "brims with intimacy and urgency."
CNN's Mark Rabinowitz wrote that the film is "a rousing success of an experiment: quite possibly the first large-scale, global use of the Internet to create meaningful and beautiful art," with CNN Newsroom's Josh Levs remarking that the film is "the best time capsule in the history of the world." Ian Buckwalter of Washingtonian magazine called the condensed experiences "breathtaking" and "as riveting as any narrative."
Liz Braun, writing in the Toronto Sun, said that "a lot is predictable" and "It's all familiar for the most part, and it's all mildly interesting," but also cited several "sequences that fully engage a viewer emotionally." Andrew Schenker from Slant Magazine criticised the film by stating "Only a few snippets escape the uncritical narcissism that the film celebrates." Contentions such as Schenker's were contradicted by The New York Times' Adam Sternbergh who wrote that "if the knock against the Internet... is that it stokes our collective narcissism, this film, in its best moments, proves the opposite: not a global craving for exposure but a surprising universal willingness to allow ourselves to be exposed."
Though saying Life in a Day "isn't a bad movie" and there are "fits and spurts" in which the film is "actually quite beautiful," "funny" and "moving," Anthony Benigno from Filmcritic.com asserted that documentaries should have a point, narrative, conflict and goal, but called this film "scattershot" and "at its worst, veering closer into exploitation...and even voyeurism." V.A. Musetto, a critic of the New York Post, said about the film: "Judging by the National Geographic doc "Life in a Day," a lot of nothing happened on 24 July 2010." A counterpoint was expressed by the Los Angeles Times' Betsy Sharkey: "the world community had a lot of interesting things on its mind, but it still took filmmakers like Macdonald and Walker to help us say it with feeling."
Two writers for The New York Times adopted opposing opinions. Mike Hale's review asserted that "much of the material is interesting in its own right... but... the problem is the resolutely conventional and soft-headed way in which that material has been assembled," and that "the overall tone remains gee-whiz." In contrast, Adam Sternbergh concluded that "the montages of ordinary acts, repeated from Japan to Dubai to Las Vegas, take on a kind of profundity."
The film has been criticised for its use of free labour. In the film industry, the production teams required to produce images and sounds are normally paid. However, in the case of Life in a Day, the labour undertaken by YouTube users to shoot the content used in film was not compensated, even though the film was screened in traditional cinema venues for a profit.
In October 2011, BBC News announced that Britain in a Day would be funded by BBC Learning as part of BBC's "Cultural Olympiad," with the Britain in a Day YouTube channel accepting video contributions from the public about their lives on a specific day: 12 November 2011. Ridley Scott oversaw the project with executive producer Kevin Macdonald (both from Life in a Day) and director Morgan Mathews.
In 2012 directors Philip Martin and Gaku Narita teamed up to create Japan in a Day which accounts of the aftermath from Japan's devastating tsunami in 2011 featuring YouTube videos shot by survivors living in and near the affected areas.
Director Kevin Macdonald and producer Ridley Scott also created Christmas in a Day (November 2013) a 48-minute YouTube documentary on which a 3.5-minute advertisement for UK supermarket Sainsbury's was based. The film constituted crowdsourced clips recorded on Christmas 2012.
Italy in a Day (September 2014), directed by Gabriele Salvatores, included clips selected from 45,000 crowdsourced video submissions recorded on 26 October 2013, and premiered during the 71st Venice International Film Festival.
The production house behind Italy in a Day is teaming with Scott Free Productions to produce Israel in a Day, with Germany and France also working on their own versions in the format.
Spain in a day by Isabel Coixet was released 2016.
Canada in a day will be released by CTV on 2017.