Understanding the collective growth of carbon nanotube (CNT) populations is key to tailoring their properties for many applications. During the initial stages of CNT growth by chemical vapor deposition, catalyst nanoparticle formation by thin-film dewetting and the subsequent CNT nucleation processes dictate the CNT diameter distribution, areal density, and alignment. Herein, we use in situ environmental transmission electron microscopy (E-TEM) to observe the catalyst annealing, growth, and deactivation stages for a population of CNTs grown from a thin-film catalyst. Complementary in situ electron diffraction and TEM imaging show that, during the annealing step in hydrogen, reduction of the iron oxide catalyst is concomitant with changes in the thin-film morphology; complete dewetting and the formation of a population of nanoparticles is only achieved upon the introduction of the carbon source, acetylene. The dewetting kinetics, i.e., the appearance of distinct nanoparticles, exhibits a sigmoidal (autocatalytic) curve with 95% of all nanoparticles appearing within 6 s. After nanoparticles form, they either nucleate CNTs or remain inactive, with incubation times measured to be as small as 3.5 s. Via E-TEM we also directly observe the crowding and self-alignment of CNTs after dewetting and nucleation. In addition, in situ electron energy loss spectroscopy reveals that the collective rate of carbon accumulation decays exponentially. We conclude that the kinetics of catalyst formation and CNT nucleation must both be addressed in order to achieve uniform and high CNT density, and their transient behavior may be a primary cause of the well-known nonuniform density of CNT forests.