Cy Kuckenbaker's video of multiple planes simultaneously flying into San Diego International Airport elicits the thrill of a good magic trick. Four-and-a-half hours of plane landings cleanly distilled into 26 seconds—how on Earth did he do that?
As far as the 39-year-old filmmaker's work goes, the video's not his most "important," he says: "That airplane video's just an experiment, anyway. It was just technical curiosity—like, I wonder if I can just make this work."
However, posted on YouTube in November 2012, the video has more than 1.7 million views, and it drew international attention within days. Hundreds of emails poured in from fans, TV stations, research institutions and universities.
It was hard to sleep, Kuckenbaker recalls: "It's almost like the Internet came out of my computer and into the room and just got in bed with me. It was so chaotic. The speed was shocking."
Inspired by the experience of capturing the imagination of so many people, he's decided to build on the buzz of the "timecollapse" technique and craft a series of 10 short videos sketching the city he loves.
"It's a study of San Diego based on the murals from the '20s: big, public murals where you'd have panels [depicting] agriculture, industry, family—very broad," he says. "That's the goal for this series."
The Fresno-born Kuckenbaker says he wants his project to help establish San Diego's often-misunderstood cultural identity.
"I want to look at San Diego in a dynamic way, in a way I think it doesn't usually get treated. Anyone who lives here knows it's sort of official identity is incredibly shallow and inaccurate."
Since his initial success, Kuckenbaker's crafted a video of cars on a highway, reorganized by color, and he's working on videos of people surfing and children on swings. He's also in negotiations with the city to film lifeguards.
Kuckenbaker uses a video-editing program called After Effects; he says he didn't invent the time-collapse technique, but he might be the first to apply to it to documentary filmmaking.
"It's one of those adjacent-possible things, but I haven't seen anyone do what I'm doing," he says. "I saw still photographs do it and wondered if I could pull a technique from that field into video. We use special effects everywhere, but almost always within the context of fiction."
In 2009, before his Internet success, the self-described ethnographer shot, edited and narrated a feature-length film about a remote village in Malawi, Africa, called Bush League. For that film, he lived in the village on and off for three years.
He also secretly filmed a short documentary while working in Iraq. From 2007 to 2009, thanks to a family connection, he got a job at a military housing facility near the Baghdad airport, where he shot Indentured, a movie about the pay and working conditions of South Asian laborers employed by the United States military.
While he cares deeply about those projects, the films had limited appeal, Kuckenbaker says. "People do want to learn really serious stuff, but you cannot hit them in the face with a bat. And that's what I used to always do."
The time-collapse video series' message is subtler, and it's also more entertaining, so it reaches more people, Kuckenbaker says. "There's nothing wrong with delighting people in a positive way. This took me a long time to learn.
"If you just have the insight by itself, you will have people that will come to it, but it's harder," he adds. "If you can give them some charm, some entry point, that's really powerful."
To support himself, Kuckenbaker teaches digital photography at Irvine Valley College and film at San Diego City College. He graduated in 2006 with master's degree in filmmaking from the California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles.
Going from the ivory-tower environment of Cal Arts to being a working artist has dramatically shifted his perspective on filmmaking, he says. Spending time as an educator with young adults has convinced him of the value of working within the Internet medium to reach a broad audience.
"Because I teach, I'm influenced by the students. I can see with the students it's all web," he says. "The documentaries I did before, I think, are 40 times more important— more than that. They're real. They're serious. But they will never sit in that context."
The Internet is rapidly changing filmmaking, he says. "In many traditions of filmmaking, density's not important, but the Internet wants density. That's why [the videos] work so well for the web, because they match the web's values about speed and density."
But that doesn't necessarily mean the videos are shallow, Kuckenbaker adds. "The piece that I care about is the idea of time. That particular way of manipulating time [is] what's interesting to me. I think that there's a lot there."
The time-collapse videos may be technically radical, but they're also ethnographic, he says: "I'm surprised as everyone by the patterns. They tend to be small revelations, but they shift my point of view."
While his initial time-collapse videos focused on somewhat mundane topics, Kuckenbaker says he's building to heavier topics.
"I can't go to the serious stuff first. It would be counterproductive, ultimately." he says. "You start people with planes and kids, then you get to the more serious stuff."
In the end, the project will be an homage to San Diego, which he refers to as a "secret" city. "I have no idea what the future holds for me, but I love this town."
While his videos have brought him significant attention, he says he's not letting it go to his head. Art, he says, is about hard work and humility.
"I'm old enough, and I'd failed enough, to know you take the win and shut up."