Godfrey Reggio was hooked on Philip Glass doing the music. He approached Glass through a mutual friend, and Glass replied, "I don't do film music." Reggio persisted, and finally the friend told Glass that the tenacious guy was not going to go away without at least an audience. Glass relented, though he still insisted he wasn't doing the music. Reggio put together a photo montage with Glass' music as the soundtrack, which he presented to Glass at a private screening in New York. Immediately following the screening, Glass agreed to score the film.
Godfrey Reggio originally wanted an uninterpretable symbol as the title of the film, but instead settled on "Koyaanisqatsi", from an obscure language (Hopi) that he said "had no emotional baggage attached to it" due to its obscurity.
Philip Glass divided the film into 12 different sections and wrote music for each. However, once Godfrey Reggio heard the music, he completely reassembled the film, cutting to the feel of the music and not its structure.
The choral piece near the end of the film, "Prophecies", is sung in the Hopi dialect. The translation is: "If we dig precious things from the land, we will invite disaster. Near the Day of Purification, there will be cobwebs spun back and forth in the sky. A container of ashes might one day be thrown from the sky, which could burn the land and boil the oceans."
The film contains a total of four frames (two frames each in two different places) of someone who appears to be adult film actress Marilyn Chambers. These appear during the "channel surfing" montage within the segment titled The Grid. In three of the four frames, she is visibly topless.
Approximately 34 minutes into the film, a series of ground-level and helicopter shots depicts an abandoned public housing project, which is demolished by implosion approximately 2 1/2 minutes later. The project is Pruitt-Igoe (misspelled in the DVD menu as "Pruit Igoe") in St. Louis, Missouri, which was completed in 1956 and torn down in 1972. The architect was Minoru Yamasaki, who also designed the original World Trade Center in New York.
Around the halfway point in the movie, there's an iconic shot of a stern-faced pilot, standing unblinking in front of his jet's air intake. The jet in question is a Ling-Temco-Vought A-7 Corsair II, and the pilot appears to be wearing Tactical Air Command insignia. (Specifically, the partially-visible patch on his chest.)
Although most of the film was shot in the US, some of it is stock footage of Soviet military operations. The tanks in long lines are recognizably of Soviet manufacture, and only the Soviets used rockets to soften the landing of equipment in an airdrop.
Godfrey Reggio did a series of short films for the Institute of Regional Education, consisting of a stream of images to the theme of the invasion of privacy. It was here that Reggio met cinematographer Ron Fricke. An attempt to bring these films to national attention failed, thus the next logical step was to create a feature film - "Koyaanisqatsi".
The rights to the video and DVD release were complicated. As the film was "presented by" Francis Ford Coppola, the original rights were owned by American Zoetrope. When that company went bankrupt, it was bought up by PolyGram. When it went bankrupt, the rights were snapped up by MGM.
Rockstar Games used Koyaanisqatsi as an inspiration (particularly New York & Pruitt-Igoe scene) for the Trailer #1 of Grand Theft Auto IV (2008) video game. Trailer shows time lapses, similar to this movie, from various places in Liberty City (fictional city that resembles New York). Music track that is playing in the trailer is Philip Glass - "Pruitt Igoe" from Koyaanisqatsi soundtrack.
The film cuts abruptly to a helicopter shot looking down at skyscrapers, then to night-time satellite images of a city, then to computer components. In fact this is pre-integrated circuit and pre-microcomputer technology, probably from an IBM mainframe or DEC PDP minicomputer. One element of older computer technology that can be clearly seen are twin panels of ferrite core memory, a couple of inches square, probably containing no more than 8k bytes of memory each.