Cy Kuckenbakers 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 filmmakers work goes, the videos not his most important, he says: That airplane videos 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: Its 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, hes decided to build on the buzz of the timecollapse technique and craft a series of 10 short videos sketching the city he loves.
Its a study of San Diego based on the murals from the 20s: big, public murals where youd have panels [depicting] agriculture, industry, family—very broad, he says. Thats the goal for this series.
The Fresno-born Kuckenbaker says he wants his project to help establish San Diegos often-misunderstood cultural identity.
I want to look at San Diego in a dynamic way, in a way I think it doesnt usually get treated. Anyone who lives here knows its sort of official identity is incredibly shallow and inaccurate.
Since his initial success, Kuckenbakers crafted a video of cars on a highway, reorganized by color, and hes working on videos of people surfing and children on swings. Hes also in negotiations with the city to film lifeguards.
Kuckenbaker uses a video-editing program called After Effects; he says he didnt invent the time-collapse technique, but he might be the first to apply to it to documentary filmmaking.
Its one of those adjacent-possible things, but I havent seen anyone do what Im 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 thats what I used to always do.
The time-collapse video series message is subtler, and its also more entertaining, so it reaches more people, Kuckenbaker says. Theres 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 its harder, he adds. If you can give them some charm, some entry point, thats 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 masters 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, Im influenced by the students. I can see with the students its all web, he says. The documentaries I did before, I think, are 40 times more important— more than that. Theyre real. Theyre serious. But they will never sit in that context.
The Internet is rapidly changing filmmaking, he says. In many traditions of filmmaking, densitys not important, but the Internet wants density. Thats why [the videos] work so well for the web, because they match the webs values about speed and density.
But that doesnt 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] whats interesting to me. I think that theres a lot there.
The time-collapse videos may be technically radical, but theyre also ethnographic, he says: Im 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 hes building to heavier topics.
I cant 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 hes not letting it go to his head. Art, he says, is about hard work and humility.
Im old enough, and Id failed enough, to know you take the win and shut up.