Do me a favor. Danielle is a slow burn, but it needs to be watched in a single go. Set aside five minutes. Hit the play button. Watch a woman age from a little girl into an old woman, so imperceptibly that you're not even sure where the transitions occur. But don't skip around. Danielle's stillness is a paean to the grace of aging, and how it doesn't come upon us in fits and starts, but atom by atom, deepening beauty without eradicating it.
It's a remarkable work, but even more remarkable is the story of how Danielle was made.
A commercial video editor working primarily on music videos and commercials in Los Angeles, Anthony Cerniello made Danielle in response to an exhaustion with the constant franticness expected of him professionally. "I'm always asked to cut things in a very energetic, fast paced style, but my personal preference is to slow things down, to seek calmness, peace, and quiet," Cerniello tells me. "I was burnt out. I wanted to make something with no edits that would give me a broad canvas to tell a story in an unconventional way. I had also been thinking a lot about death for the previous few years."
The inspiration for Danielle came to Cerniello when he visited the real life Danielle at her home for Thanksgiving, accompanied by a photographer friend, Keith Sirchio. Although he had known Danielle since high school, Cerniello had only sporadically kept in touch with her over the years. "She had a face that I was always drawn to, I don't know why," says Cerniello. "She was always nice to me, though, even when she probably didn't know why I was bugging her." While he was at her house, surrounded by her large extended family, Cerniello decided to take portraits of her family members with a Hasselblad. "Danielle knew why I was doing it, but I don’t think her family members knew or cared." Cerniello then headed back to New York and scanned the negatives in a drum scanner at the U.N. He imported these files into Adobe After Effects in order to blend them together.
"From the very beginning, I knew I wanted the procession to be barely perceptible," Cerniello explains. "I picked the subjects that looked the most alike, looking mostly at their bone structure, but also their age." Once he had the correct order, Cerniello created a morph between each successive "Danielle," capturing in the process something of the slow inexorability of aging itself.
But the finished result was still just a collection of film stills of Danielle and her family, albeit stills that blended into one another. Cerniello wanted more: He wanted the aging gestalt of Danielle's bloodline to live and breathe. To accomplish this, he took the render and wrapped it around a 3-D model in 3D Studio Max to give the head depth. He then asked animator Edmund Earle to bring the model to life, adding blinking, head articulation, camera movement and some subtle expression changes to the film.
The visuals are only part of what makes Danielle such a haunting portrait of the aging process's own still beauty, though. What really sells it is the score. "When Danielle was completely silent, it felt almost like a medical film," says Cerniello. "For my original idea, I dreamed of this incredibly layered symphony of her life: Danielle might be an opera singer in her '20s, and snippets of opera would creep in, and then her dreams would disappear and take over." But in the end, Cerniello rejected the idea. It felt too specific a narrative to impose on such an evocative piece. Instead, he ended up turning to his friend Mark Reveley to create an ambient score from analog pedals.
Just 24 hours after it was uploaded to the web, Danielle was watched over half a million times. Perhaps what draws us into it is that it is life-affirming. It would be so easy to make a film that shows a young girl age into an old woman, but Danielle shows the truth about beauty: that beauty is something that belongs to all of us at every stage of our lives. Age doesn't ravage Danielle, nor does it kill her. It captures within her features the beauty of a life well-lived. And at the end of her time-lapsed life? Danielle smiles.