Moving Art: An Interview with Louie Schwartzberg

How the award-winning cinematographer, director and producer on the importance of connecting with nature.

Nowadays, most people spend their time looking at images of nature on their newsfeed, throwing these photos a quick “like” and moving on. But technology and nature aren’t at odds with each other — in fact, if used mindfully, technology can be a powerful tool to illuminate the healing power of the world around us. And one man is doing that in a profound way: Award-winning cinematographer, director and producer Louie Schwartzberg. “My videos aren’t a substitute for nature,” he told Thrive Global, “they are a bridge.”

Thrive Global asked Schwartzberg about his inspiration, the vision behind his Netflix show Moving Art, which was just renewed for a second season, and how we can all maintain our connection to nature regardless of where we live. Read the full interview below.

How did you become interested in filming nature?
I got interested in filmmaking when I was at UCLA. I filmed the anti-war protests that were happening on campus, and it moved me from being a political science and history major into becoming a theater arts major. Once I found my voice with film and photography, I met my greatest teacher which was Mother Nature. She taught me everything about lighting, composition, color, texture, movement. And to this day I’m still learning from the master.

You once said that “beauty is nature’s tool for survival” — what do you mean by that?
I’ve been filming time-lapsed flowers in my studio non stop, 24/7. I learned that beauty is nature’s tool for survival because we protect what we love, and the flowers seduced me with their color, touch and aroma. But I also learned something deeper when I got involved in doing Wings of Life, a Disneynature film narrated by Meryl Streep from the point of a view of a flower. I learned a lot about pollination, which is all about maintaining the foundation of life. Without the pollinators, we wouldn’t have the fruits, nuts, and vegetables that we depend on for healthy living. We’re hardwired for beauty. That’s why we think puppies are cute, and kittens are cute, and every baby is cute. Because if they weren’t cute, we wouldn’t put up with them! We’re hardwired to love, and I think the reason is because life wants to flourish. And beauty is the score that nature invented that orchestrates the dance of life.

You’ve talked about how filming nature has made you more connected to the present moment and cultivates gratitude — tell us about that.
What’s great about being in nature is that you’re filled with wonder and awe, which makes you present–and that is a portal into the divine. That’s a transformational experience, and that awareness of being in the moment is what all practices try to do, whether it’s meditation, yoga, etc. When we’re in the moment, we are filled with gratitude for all the little things that we take for granted — the bee pollinating the flower; the people in our lives, that we have a trillion cells in our body working harmoniously that we don’t have to micro-manage them. So nature is a portal into the divine that engenders gratitude for all the little things in life that we take for granted.

You have a show on Netflix called Moving Art which just launched its second season. What’s it about?
In the second season, the episodes are shot all over the world: Big Sur, Iceland, Koh Samui, Africa, Whales and Dolphins, Ankgor Wats. What’s great is that it is pure music and imagery, there’s no narration. But that doesn’t mean I’m not telling a story. We are just offering something different than the old formula of conflict, anxiety, and predator versus prey.

What I am really thrilled about is the fact that many people have referred to it as a healing modality. It has helped people reduce their anxiety and stress. People use it pre- or post-surgery. Parents use it with their 3 year old to go to bed at night, or have had major breakthroughs with children that have autism. Some people watch it every day to align themselves in the morning. It really supports my intuition that this is a healing modality. We have music therapy, guided meditation, massage therapy, aromatherapy. But we have no therapy for vision, when vision is 80% of the information we receive.

Why do you think the show has become so popular?
The most critical issue we’re facing in our culture is the battle for attention. So these digital devices are battling for your consciousness, and I think that offering Moving Art on these digital displays is a therapeutic counterbalance to all of that negative energy that creates a lot of stress and anxiety. It’s hard to tell people to put their devices away, so let’s find a way to use them positively. I’m trying to grab your attention with beauty and love, which sounds little new age-y, but the fact is, from the comments we’ve gotten, it’s clearly a healing modality, and I think we need that in the world we’re living in right now.

You’re beginning research in hospitals to see the effect your videos have on preventing staff burnout and accelerating patient healing. What have you found so far? What’s the science behind why watching nature makes us feel more calm?
We’re experimenting now with using these films at UCSD Jacob’s Medical Center in La Jolla as well as in a prison in Florida to reduce violence. In the hospital we’ll be looking at reduction of heart rates, respiration rates, better sleep, shorter hospital stays, less addiction to painkillers. Science research reports that looking at nature imagery makes us calm, and it is really healthy for people to zone out. National Geographic did a study where they took people on a two-day backpacking trip and tested them before and after on creative decision making skills. On their return, they performed 50% better on creative decision making skills. Nature slows you down, and when you slow down you become more patient. You become rich in time. That’s one thing all of us right now wish we had more of. Is there anyone who says they have plenty of time? It’s the one thing money can’t buy, and anything that makes you feel richer in time by slowing down makes your life more satisfying.

You spoken in the past about how seeing nature allows us to experience wonder and awe. What do those emotions and feelings to do for us?What I try to do is make the invisible visible by creating these journeys through time and scale. And when you see nature from that point of view, flowers opening and closing, or the slow motion flight of a hummingbird, many people say, “OMG!” I believe the “Oh” means I caught your attention; the “My” means it touched the deepest part of your soul; and “God” is that universal energy we all want to be connected to. It stops you from your crazy, jumpy mind to-do list, it brings you into the feeling of being grateful for being alive. My videos aren’t a substitute for nature, they are a bridge. And a lot of the imagery is things that you and I can’t see — time lapse, slow motion, helicopter-views. It broadens your world view because you’re seeing things that are real but invisible to the naked eye.

Your movie Mysteries of the Unseen World was about worlds that we can’t see because they’re either too slow, too fast, too small or even too big. Tell us about why you made this film, and what were the challenges of shooting these hard-to-see worlds?
That is now on Netflix as well. I’ve always been bored with normal, and that is why with my camera (which started 40 years ago) I was always doing altered speeds, time lapse or slow motion, because it evokes that transformational experience. I think it is really arrogant to think that the human point of view is the only point of view. You walk by a flower and it looks static, but it’s not static — it’s doing this incredible ballet that you’re not aware of. We need to look at life from point of view of a redwood tree, a hummingbird, a flower and a flea. From the point of view of a redwood tree we’re only around for a couple seconds. To the fly looking back at us, we’re a giant hand in slow motion. It gives you this respect and reverence for everything and builds compassion–I can’t step on a bug when I see one now, because what a miracle of bio-engineering it is. What you see something for what it truly is, you protect it.

What’s your goal in sharing your videos? Are you hoping to educate people? Inspire them?
The emotion that I feel at the moment when I press the trigger on the camera is the emotion I want people to experience. I want it to be an immersive experience. How people integrate that experience into their lives can be a number of different things– it can reduce anxiety, create wonder and awe, be a transformational experience, or a way to relax. Once you feel it, you can’t forget it.

And that feeling of loving nature creates values that we need to shift the consciousness of humans to protect our planet for ourselves and future generations.

As the world becomes more and more urban, how can we maintain our connection to nature?
That’s why I’m offering Moving Art as a bridge technology. It’s not a substitute for going into nature, but rather than tell people to put devices away–which creates stress and anxiety in their lives–let’s find a way we can use it in a positive way. So even if you just have a minute between meetings, you can swim with a whale in the ocean. And that’s extraordinary.

Louie Schwartzberg is an award-winning cinematographer, director and producer whose notable career spans more than four decades providing breathtaking imagery using his time-lapse, high-speed and macro cinematography techniques. Schwartzberg is a visual artist who breaks barriers, connects with audiences, and tells stories that celebrate life and reveal the mysteries and wisdom of nature, people, and places.

Louie’s theatrical releases include the 3D IMAX film Mysteries of the Unseen World with National Geographic, narrated by Forest Whitaker; the documentary, Wings of Life for Disneynature, narrated by Meryl Streep, and America’s Heart and Soul for Walt Disney Studios.

He is currently in production on the feature film, Fantastic Fungi, which explores the world of mushrooms and mycelium and illustrates how this fascinating organism can provide sustainable solutions to some of the world’s greatest problems, from curing diseases, to saving the bees, and cleaning the atmosphere.

Louie has also directed the Soarin’ Around the World; an IMAX ride film, now showing at Disney Parks in Anaheim, Orlando and Shanghai.

His Netflix series, Moving Art, was renewed for a second season and will be premiering later in 2017. Designed to inspire, educate and evolve our perspective on the world, each episode immerses viewers in the natural world, taking them on a journey through time and scale.

Louie’s TED talks have gone viral with almost 50 million combined views. His Gratitude Revealed series of shorts were launched on Oprah.com. Supported by the Templeton Foundation, with science and analytics by the Greater Good Center at UC Berkeley, the series explores the multifaceted virtues of gratitude.

Louie is the only filmmaker to be inducted into the Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Lemelson Foundation’s Invention Ambassadors Program.

For Schwartzberg, the greatest satisfaction is creating works that can have a positive effect on the future of the planet. “I hope my films inspire and open people’s hearts. Beauty is nature’s tool for survival — we protect what we love. That is the shift in consciousness we need to sustain and celebrate life.”