Conversations Jay Rosblatt: On “How Do You Measure A Year?”

For 17 years, filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt filmed his daughter Ella on her birthday in the same spot, asking her the same questions. The resulting short film is titled, How Do You Measure a Year?

In just 29 minutes, we watch her grow from a toddler to a young woman with all the beautiful and sometimes awkward stages in between. Each phase is captured fleetingly but makes an indelible mark. Her responses to her father’s questions are just a backdrop for a deeper story of parental love, acceptance, and ultimately, independence.  The film is streaming on Max.

Jay Rosenblatt discussed his touching short film with SCINQ.

When you first started the project, what did you think or hope that you can get in the end?

This was the fifth film I had made with Ella. We’d completed four other projects before she turned five, and I had high hopes for this one. At the very least, I knew I was creating a sort of archive, a time-lapse history that extended beyond simple birthday recordings.

I didn’t review any of the footage until the COVID pandemic hit, so I was unsure about how it all turned out. However, I was pleasantly surprised once I started editing. As the film progressed, there were some striking transitions from year to year. It wasn’t always a yearly change; sometimes, it took three years for a significant transition to occur.

Some of the changes were subtle shifts in perspective on various topics, like understanding fear or processing emotions – the building blocks of growing up. But the changes that truly stood out were in the way she spoke, her intonations, phrases, and how she interacted with the camera.

Going over the footage, some transitions were more striking than others. For instance, when she turned 11, there was a noticeable difference in her appearance and demeanor. At 14, there was a challenging day – her mood was visibly downcast, like night and day from the previous years.

The transitions became less drastic as she aged. From age 15 onward, she was fairly consistent from year to year. One notable change at 15 was her frequent use of the word “live,” which started to shift by the time she was 16. Through all these changes, what I captured was the beautiful progression of her growth, captured frame by frame.

There was a point in the film where your daughter mentioned watching the videos when she turns 25 and I think there’s one point where you mentioned doing it until she’s 21. Ultimately you ended up at 18. Why?

I was curious to see what advice she would give to her future self. So I asked, “What advice would you give to your 25-year-old self?” I chose the age of 25 somewhat arbitrarily; it wasn’t that I intended this project to last until she was 25.

Initially, she seemed a bit confused by the question. It was a challenging concept for her to grasp: the idea of speaking to her older self. I had to repeat the question a few times to ensure she understood.

Reflecting on the process, shaping the questions was a crucial part. Over time, they evolved. Some were asked annually, while others were introduced as she grew older. For instance, I didn’t initially ask, “What do you want to say to your 25-year-old self?”

Some questions, like “What’s your favorite food?”, dropped off the list over time. Such questions were easier for her to answer when she was very young, and it became more challenging as she grew.

In retrospect, I don’t think my questions were particularly outstanding. But the answers were exceptional. In the end, the questions themselves didn’t matter as much as the natural maturation process that unfolded. I find that aspect truly fascinating.

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Were there any points you thought you’d be skipping a session?

There were points when she was eager to wrap up the filming due to birthday plans with friends. Even then, she stayed committed to the project. I’m a serious filmmaker and she was willing to play along, something I’m truly grateful for. It was, after all, her birthday that we were dedicating to this endeavor, and she harbors no regrets about it.

In some years, her attitude was very much a case of “let’s get this over with”. This sentiment even appears in the film. As she grew older, there was a point when she wanted to speed through the process. Nonetheless, she remained engaged and committed throughout the years.

When you started reviewing the footage and editing, how well did the how well did the video footage match your actual memory of each session?

Each birthday brought a new surprise, which was quite exhilarating. What’s remarkable is that I didn’t review the footage from one year to the next. I might glance at the end of the previous year’s tape to ensure consistent framing, but that was it. I had no idea if everything was captured correctly, as I was using an old camera. I didn’t want to change the visual consistency, so I stuck with the same, potentially malfunctioning, camera.

I was concerned about the sound, as the camera seemed unreliable in that regard. But when I finally watched all the footage, it was much better than expected. In fact, the sound remained consistent over several years.

We had to invest some time in post-production color correction because the visuals appeared washed out, but in the end, it all turned out well. It was like watching it for the first time, which was quite a treat. I was pleasantly surprised.

Given the length of this project, I didn’t remember every detail. I recall a few isolated incidents, but for the most part, the content of each year’s footage was a surprise. Even the questions were forgotten, as they had been written down and revised each time. Some questions were added, others were removed, all part of my iterative reviewing process.

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This is essentially your film. You’ve pieced it together and edited it. In a way, it’s an expression of… I can’t quite find the right word. It’s as if it represents your memory or how you perceive things. Through editing, you impose your point of view on it. What has been your daughter’s reaction to it? Does she see those years in the same way you do?

She truly appreciates this film. We finalized it during COVID when she was home from college. I shared with her a few versions, including a rough cut and a final one, to get her approval and reaffirm her consent. We started this project when she was very young, and I wanted to ensure there was nothing she was uncomfortable with me including.

In some ways, it might be challenging for her to watch this film with an audience, considering its personal nature. But overall, she’s pleased that we created it. Personally, I can’t imagine having done something similar with my own parents. So, I give her a lot of credit for being so open and agreeable to this unique endeavor.

And lastly, how has it been received by other people watching?

The response to the film has been overwhelmingly positive. People seem very touched by it, as it captures a broad range of emotions including humor and poignancy. One of the incredible aspects of the film, from my perspective, is the visual passage of time. It’s a rare opportunity to witness time unfurling in such a tangible way.

The short film format enhances this effect, making the transition from childhood even more poignant. The feedback has been extremely positive, especially from parents. But I believe everyone can connect with it, since we’ve all experienced childhood.

I’m particularly grateful to those who have shared their personal experiences after watching the film with their families. Witnessing Ella navigate her difficult years seems to provide a sense of reassurance. The film has not only met, but exceeded, my expectations, which is truly fantastic.

IMAGE CREDIT: Screenshot.

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