Being inspired by folks like Tom Lowe of Timescapes fame and Preston Kanak of, well, time lapse fame, I decided to venture into the world of time lapse cinematography. OK, I’ll admit it, I thought to myself, “You just point your camera at something for a long time, take lots of pictures of that something, throw it into After Effect (I’m an Adobe editor) and create a time lapse video that is the envy of my peers and friends. How hard can this be?” I like to call thoughts like these the A++++ moment, like the classroom scene from the movie “A Christmas Story.” You know, the scene where Ralphie is surrounded in the school room by his peers, hoisted onto their shoulders and paraded around the room like a victorious Roman conqueror coming back from battles in Gaul. (sound of needle being passed very quickly over an LP — scr-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-ch) Reality breaks in.
Somewhere in the middle of all of this is the spirit of Phillip Bloom and his recent tongue-in-cheek blog post about shooting video, making all kinds of money and becoming instantly famous. So, if your naive as I was/am and think that time lapse is one of those “easy” disciplines, stop thinking that way. Time lapse takes alot of thought about your subject matter, your equipment, the process (production and post) and a willingness to spend lots of time alone in locations that most folks don’t want to go (mosquito infestations, mud, cold, and the list goes on). Let me share some of my experiences so far (I’m still very, very, very new to time lapse so I’m speaking from a novice’s standpoint) and maybe save you some pain.
Not all of us live in or have the opportunity to photograph in beautiful locations like Alaska, the Florida Keys, Northern California and the like. I live in Central West Texas. There is not a great deal of raw beauty in our landscapes. This area is often described by those of us who live here as flat and dry. Appropriate. Wherever you are or live, start out small and don’t get caught up in the grandeur of a location or event. You will be spending most of your time working through the technology and process in the beginning. Take a time lapse in your back yard of the sun setting over the house. Take a time lapse in your back yard of the sun coming up. Shoot a time lapse of cars passing up and down your street. Initially, you are trying to get your process down. You are not trying to make a time lapse that will be the envy of the world.
OK, I admit that every once in a while some child prodigy comes along and just nails it from the start and has this really great location and does, in fact, become the envy of his/her peers. But that is a rare, rare exception. Most of us will get there with hard work. Once you get your process figured out, then plan on reaching out beyond your immediate location. All that said, if Tom or Preston call you up today and ask you to go on a gig with them, do it, of course. But, since that seldom happens to anyone other than people they already work with and know, start where you are. Every place, even a place as flat and dry and Central West Texas, has things of beauty. Focus on these and you will stay motivated. For me and my location, it is the sunsets. They are nothing short of spectacular. So for now, I’m focusing on that until I have the chance to branch out.
The short of it is that this process takes time … and lots of it. On location, you have to be the kind of person that can sit, stand or lay for hours at a time. I suppose if you are in the right location you can just go to sleep and let the camera do its thing. For me and what I’ve shot thus far, I take along a chair, something to read and my iPhone loaded up with my favorite tunes. The Forrest Gump soundtrack kept me entertained the other day while I was out shooting. Take all of these items along with something to drink and something to snack on. Sun block and mosquito spray may come in handy as well.
I shot an image every 2 seconds, which is just about as my 5DM2 could process and write the raw files I was capturing. Also, I was using a 32GB card and it filled up about every 30 minutes. In a couple of places in the video, there is a noticeable jump in the video because I had to stop recording to switch cards every 30 minutes or so. Once the new card was in the camera and capturing images, I would off load the images on the previous card to my laptop, getting that card ready for the next set of images. I need to figure out a way to deal with this issue. The easiest way, I think, is to allow more time between images so that the 10 seconds needed for the switch out doesn’t show up as well. But, I may not always have the time between shots. Any ideas?
Once you get your images captured, get ready for alot more waiting on the editing process. I went out the other day and shot over 4600 RAW images on my Canon 5DM2. You have to offload those images onto a drive somewhere. I’m still working on my process but in this latest instance, I used Adobe Lightroom to edit and grade the final images. Adobe Bridge works well with its Camera Raw editor but I just feel more comfortable in Lightroom these days. There are other options out there as well. The primary thing you need to accomplish at this phase of the project is to edit at least one image in your set of images to get the look and feel you want for the images in your final sequence. As you can see from the example in this post, I tended to push the colors beyond what is natural because that is just what I like. You might like something more natural and that is fine. The artist in your will tell you where you want to land. There is no right or wrong decision here … unless someone else is paying you to do the work and then you have to do it the way they want it done.
Once you have graded out a single image, you will need to apply those same settings to all the images you captured. In Adobe Lightroom (Adobe Bridge as well) you copy and paste the effects from this one image to all the other images in your set. For my purposes, this involved pasting the effects I had chosen to 4611 other images. That takes awhile. The good news: I was at home, could start that process and go do something else. This can take several hours to complete. Once the effects are applied, go to the first image in the set, hold down your right-arrow key and fly through all or a part of the pictures. You will get a sense of what you final time lapse video will look like. Initially, go fast to get a feel for the final product. But, then, as much as you can bare, go more slowly and look for anomalies in your images that make the time lapse look funny. This might include a bird or an insect that end up in front of the lens for one frame. There might be something else that causes a disruption in the flow of your video. You will want to take these out if you can. Be careful about taking out too many of these because they will cause a jump in your video. Ultimately, your hope for this video is that people will watch, enjoy it and will get lost in the flow of what you shot. One or a few jarring shots can ruin that effect.
Once all the images are graded and the evil ones deleted, you then export those images out of your photo editing software. These final images are the ones that will make up your time lapse sequence. By the way, be sure and rename all of your images as you export them (or before if that is how your software works). AE in particular and I suspect most software packages that you will use to create the sequence will want sequentially numbered images and only sequentially numbered sequences. If you have numbers that are skipped or missed in the filenames, then AE will bark at you. I won’t go into specifics about what to do in AE or another piece of software here. There are plenty of places that can teach you how to import photos as streams and create a composition (AE term) in that software. Once it is all in place and to your liking, you are ready to create the sequence that you will import into your NLE of choice. Once more, give yourself plenty of time for this step. My current project that is 2 minutes and 20 seconds in duration is taking almost 2 and 1/2 hours to render. I’m running on a 2011 Macbook Pro and suspect there are faster boxes out there to do this rendering work. There are also slower boxes. Just give yourself plenty of time while this is happening or do as I am doing, write a blog about your own experiences!
THE DREADED FLICKER!
Interruption here. When you shoot time lapse images with a modern DLSR, you will undoubtedly end up with flicker in your sequence. I’ve been working with my sequence to find the best way to reduce flicker. I tried the Color Stabilizer in After Effects and was able to remove flicker from some of the areas of my sequence but not all. I finally opted to purchase the GBDeflicker plug-in for AE and am very pleased with the results. Just taking a few defaults allowed me to clean up just about all the flicker in my video and get to the web. I suspect over time I will look more closely at the various options one can use in GBDeflicker and see if my time lapse videos are even cleaner.
Back to the main idea …
This is a big area to cover and I won’t say much other than what I have already said here … start small. Tom Lowe, Preston Kanak and others have lots of really sophisticated equipment to do their time lapse work and it shows. I have some of the equipment these guys have. I have a Kessler Pocket Dolly, a Oracle Controller (haven’t bought the camera controller yet), sticks and lots of other peripherals to make really cool stuff happen in my time lapse videos. But, I’m starting with what I can handle. I’m putting the camera on a pair of sticks and shooting static time lapse images (if that is the right term). There is enough to learn about the shot, the camera settings, the post product steps and all the rest of goes into this process without having to think about moving the camera during the shoot and all that entails. That will come for me, no doubt, but having the camera on a stationary tripod is enough for now. Again, start small and work your way into the more advanced stuff.
In the end, we all have a little bit of Ralphie in us. I know I do. Ya, I daydream about being carried around a room by my peers. I dream of creating that video that goes viral because its just that good (and not because its something along the line of “stupid people doing stupid things”). At one level, that is what motivates us. And that is OK. But, we all need to do as the good book tells us, count the cost of our decisions, know what we’re getting ourselves into and stay the course. The truth is, I don’t know how many time lapse videos I will do in my life. I hope some more because I think they are a great way to set the location for whatever you are shooting. But, they do take time … and patience … and decent equipment … and passion … and time (ya, I said that twice). If handled well, the results can be astonishing.
Here is the video. I hope you enjoy it.