The twinkling red and gold lights of the El Capitan Theatre on an oddly empty Hollywood Boulevard, downtown streets missing all signs of human life, a vacant Venice Beach Boardwalk — these are some of the surreal sights captured by L.A. commercial director AJ Bleyer, who set out to document COVID-19’s impact on the city.
Shooting over three weeks in April, Bleyer compiled his footage of a seemingly lifeless city at sunrise in a short video, already an archive of the early days of a pandemic taking hold of the city.
After the initial shock of L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti’s emergency “Safer at Home” order in mid-March, shutting down Bleyer’s work and most of city life, the director noticed “there was this really special period of time ... that traffic really halted and everyone was just kind of staying inside as we were to learn more.”
A native Angeleno, Bleyer had a gut feeling that it could be an opportunity to record a once-in-a-lifetime piece of history.
“I’ve seen quiet streets on holidays and early mornings. And as a person in production myself, I know what it’s like and there are ways to shut down streets in downtown L.A. shooting something, but never had I seen it that empty all over the place,” he said.
He set out each morning at 4:30 a.m. with his equipment and mask and gloves, heading to iconic spots in the region including the Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Grove and the Santa Monica Pier. Bleyer estimated he shot about 30 locations, all at sunrise, to capitalize on natural light and low traffic.
He chose landmarks including the intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue, site of the Academy Awards, which encapsulates the “excitement, energy and magic that is Los Angeles,” but which in the pandemic era holds “an eerie peacefulness and sadness.”
The most striking location? The Southwest Airlines terminal at LAX.
Bleyer showed up extra early to shoot, expecting there to be some traffic. Instead, the only vehicles in sight were shuttles meant to ferry people to and from each terminal — and they were empty.
“That was the only location where I actually just stopped and really took it in,” he said. “There was not a single plane that flew overhead. There wasn’t a single person that passed me in the time that I was there. I was alone at LAX, and that was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before.”
About two weeks ago, Bleyer noticed that the opportunities to capture the emptiness were ending. The city had started to come back to life.
“With that in mind, I know that there’s kind of a timeliness to these kinds of things, and I just slapped it all together into a video.”
The project isn’t meant to be “overly political or partisan,” Bleyer said.
“This is an issue that’s affected everyone regardless of class and race and age and location.”
He ends his video with a short message for viewers: “This has been tough for everyone so as we slowly return to normal, let’s be kind to each other, we’re all in this together.”