Timelapses for a Netflix Mushroom Documentary Took 15 Years to Create

Filmmaker Louie Schwartzberg has been creating timelapses of different fungi over the course of the last 15 years as part of his film Fantastic Fungi. In a video with Wired, he explains how he creates these epic sequences.

Fantastic Fungi is a 2019 film directed by Louie Schwartzberg that has been recently added to Netflix. Schwartzberg describes it as “a consciousness-shifting film” that takes viewers on an immersive journey through time and scale into the wild world of fungus that lives underground and is connected in a network that some argue can heal and save the planet. In it, Schwartzberg shows the vast variety of fungus, from those that are edible to those that kill, and from mushrooms that can clear oil spills to those that help trees communicate.

Through the eyes of renowned scientists and mycologists like Paul Stamets, best-selling authors like Michael Pollan, Eugenia Bone, Andrew Weil and others, we become aware of the beauty, intelligence and solutions that fungi kingdom offers in response to some of our most pressing medical, therapeutic, and environmental challenges.

In an interview with Wired, Schwartzberg reveals that he doesn’t create the sequences in his timelapses in ways that most people expect.

“I think the biggest surprise for people watching the film is that they think it’s all filmed outdoors,” he says. “There are a lot of reasons why you can’t film timelapses of plants and fungi outdoors. Number one: there is wind, which would make the object shake and rattle and look like a Charlie Chaplain movie. Number two: there are bugs and other elements that would interfere with filming.”

Schwartzberg says that in order to make his dreamy sequences, the light has to be constant. Outdoors — even during the day — the light fluctuates. In order to fully control his shots, he built a studio on top of his garage. Even in a controlled environment, getting his shots is complex and time-consuming.

“I am shooting one frame every 15 minutes, that means I’m shooting four frames an hour, times 24, is 96 frames. 96 frames is four seconds of film,” he explains.

Schwartzberg has a custom intervalometer that not only triggers his camera but also his grow lights as well as his photo lights, which he uses to create his scenes. He is able to program the lights to mimic different times of day. The reason he needs to have his grow lights connected to the intervalometer is that he needs to simulate a real environment. If the lights are on all the time, for example, the mushrooms will die.

Because the mushrooms are always expanding during their growth, Schwartzberg has to imagine his composition and framing before they rise out of the ground, which complicates the process further.

“I would say roughly the ratio of success to failure is about one out of six, maybe one out of ten,” he says. “It’s extremeluy difficult to do.”

For more from Louie Schwartzberg and the film, make sure to visit the Fantastic Fungi website or stream the movie on Netflix.