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Viewing Nature’s Beauty Through a New Lens

Nature filmmaker and photographer Louie Schwartzberg wants to really open your eyes, and not just so you can see what’s in front of you. He’s made it his personal goal to help others see the beauty of the world—people, plants, places—in a different way. He’s captured everything from San Francisco to fungi, but Louie is...

Photograph courtesy Moving Art by Louie Schwartzberg

Nature filmmaker and photographer Louie Schwartzberg wants to really open your eyes, and not just so you can see what’s in front of you. He’s made it his personal goal to help others see the beauty of the world—people, plants, places—in a different way.

He’s captured everything from San Francisco to fungi, but Louie is most widely known for popularizing timelapse photography, a technique in which frames are slowly captured so that when the video result is played, you can actually see “time lapse.” His TED Talk on gratitude and nature’s beauty has over three million views and he also recently directed the National Geographic IMAX film Mysteries of the Unseen World.

We spoke with Louie about his career in photography and why he believes it’s vital that we all become more connected to nature.

How did you become interested in nature photography and filmmaking?

I found my voice with photography as a student at UCLA. We had anti-war protests going on right outside my classroom, so I picked up a camera and started to document that. And when I met my greatest teacher, then I fell in love with nature. He taught me everything about lighting, composition, color, and how to live a sustainable, creative life. I started shooting 35 millimeter timelapse because I couldn’t afford to shoot movie film.

Photograph courtesy Moving Art by Louie Schwartzberg
Photograph courtesy Moving Art by Louie Schwartzberg

Did you spend a lot of time outdoors growing up?

No, it was the opposite. I grew up in Brooklyn and my parents were Holocaust survivors, so they never taught me anything about nature, but they taught me a lot about gratitude. And when you show an inner-city kid the ocean or nature for the first time, they are totally transformed. What I want to do with my filmmaking is help kids experience the truth and wisdom of nature no matter where they are, whether or not they have the opportunity to go to a national park.

Can you explain a little more about your Moving Art platform and what the mission is?

Basically, I’ve got a thousand hours of material that I’ve filmed over the years. The mission is to be able to share how cool nature is—there’s amazing timelapse, slow motion, and aerials. You may have heard of nature deficit disorder, where kids are suffering from the fact that they’re not connected to nature, but I think what we need to do is engage them where they are. That’s what I’m trying to do.

You’re the only cinematographer who’s been shooting timelapse 24/7 for over three decades. What have you been shooting?

Flowers, primarily. They kind of seduce you with their beauty and you fall in love with them. That’s why I made a film about pollination, which is so critical. A third of our food comes from pollinating plants. But to answer your question specifically, I’ve got two cameras going nonstop 24 hours a day, seven days a week, because time is precious and I don’t want to waste a single second. I’ve squeezed 35 years of shooting into 12 hours of material.

What are some of the challenges that you deal with when you’re timelapse filmmaking?

The biggest ones I think are mosquitoes. They come out at sunset, at early dawn, and at twilight. I’ve got theories about that, but besides the mosquitoes, when I’m on location it’s about survival. I’ve got to figure out food, water, transportation, and how to get back home when it gets dark. It’s not just the technique, but I do it because I think timelapse can transform your consciousness by helping you see things from a different point of view. That’s when you change your perspective. And when you change your perspective, that’s how you develop gratitude.

What are some of the most interesting places you’ve traveled to for your projects?

Greenland, Iguazu Falls, Fiji, Big Sur. I love all of the ecosystems—mountains, deserts, rainforests. They’re beautiful and nature has so many different flavors to it.

What’s one of the most memorable experiences you’ve had in nature while doing your work?

I was recently in Panama shooting hummingbirds in slow motion. It’s just amazing to see their world. They’re very territorial with the way they kind of fight each other to get the flower. And nectar-feeding bats in the Sonoran desert—I got this incredible shot of a baby bat breastfeeding on the mother bat as the mom is feeding on a flower in the desert. Most people don’t realize the entire Sonoran desert would not exist without these nectar-feeding bats.

What environmental issues mean the most to you right now?

I think colony collapse disorder would be at the top. I’ve heard scientists say it could be way more serious than climate change. And there’s a quote attributed to Einstein that if the bees ever disappeared, man would only have four years left to live. It doesn’t really matter whether it’s true or whether Einstein said it or not. The healthiest food we need to eat—fruits, nuts, seeds, and vegetables—would disappear without pollinating plants. It’s pretty serious.

What would you say is one of the most surprising things you’ve learned in your career?

I keep getting the same things reinforced over and over. When I film things, I’m connecting with the universal rhythms of the universe, which is the deepest part of my soul. And it’s this constant reminder that it’s all connected. I also think we always have to be curious, and nature really inspires you to be an explorer, which is also what National Geographic encourages people to do. To be an explorer and to be a scientist is the same idea; it’s all about curiosity. And I think the same thing is true being a filmmaker or an artist. We have different rules but we’re both trying to share the wonders of nature and the universe with people.

Tune into the Oprah Winfrey Network on Sunday, April 6 at 11 a.m. ET/PT to see Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday episode with Louie, “The World Beyond What We Can See.”

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Meet the Author

Sonia Harmon
Sonia Harmon is the blog coordinator at National Geographic. She has also written for Ladies' Home Journal magazine and Washingtonian magazine.