Chromosomes condense during mitotic entry to facilitate their segregation. Condensation is typically assayed in fixed preparations, limiting analysis of contributing factors. Here, we describe a quantitative method to monitor condensation kinetics in living cells expressing GFP fused to a core histone. We demonstrate the utility of this method by using it to analyze the molecular requirements for the condensation of holocentric chromosomes during the first division of the Caenorhabditis elegans embryo. In control embryos, the fluorescence intensity distribution for nuclear GFP:histone changes during two distinct time intervals separated by a plateau phase. During the first interval, primary condensation converts diffuse chromatin into discrete linear chromosomes. After the plateau, secondary condensation compacts the curvilinear chromosomes to form shorter bar-shaped structures. We quantitatively compared the consequences on this characteristic profile of depleting the condensin complex, the mitosis-specific histone H3 kinase Aurora B, the centromeric histone CENP-A, and CENP-C, a conserved protein required for kinetochore assembly. Both condensin and CENP-A play critical but distinct roles in primary condensation. In contrast, depletion of CENP-C slows but does not prevent primary condensation. Finally, Aurora B inhibition has no effect on primary condensation, but slightly delays secondary condensation. These results provide insights into the process of condensation, help resolve apparent contradictions from prior studies, and indicate that CENP-A chromatin has an intrinsic role in the condensation of holocentric chromosomes that is independent of its requirement for kinetochore assembly.