A Crash Course in Time Lapse

In reference to my last post, my most recent project for Ben-Gurion University was released yesterday so I now have the pleasure of publishing it here and sharing a little about the process. Every once in a while, I take on a project that promises to push me to my creative limits. What Screen Shot 2014-04-10 at 1.00.29 AMthis essentially means that it that the entire process is predicated on a leap of faith. That leap of faith arises from a very real awareness that I have neither the experience, technical understanding nor the conceptual framework to pull off a task that I have just agreed to accomplish. And someone has just agreed to pay me money to pull off said task. The leap comes from the hope that between now and my deadline I can figure out what experiential and technical gaps need to be filled and tackle the job of remedying the situation in tandem with the the actual execution of the project.

In this case, I pitched the idea of a compilation of time lapse videos of the Ben-Gurion University campus in Beer Sheva. The idea was a Passover holiday greetings video highlighting the change in seasons, the new colors and energy on campus. While time lapse videos have been an interest and a hobby for a long time, this was the first time I was putting together a series of them that had to fit together and communicate a particular message. Rather than put the video at the end, it might be better to watch it now and then have a context for understanding the details that come after. Also, if you prefer just to watch the videos you can rest assured that after this point it gets very technical. If that's your thing.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HSNBiIpKcNE] For the one-and-a-half-minute video I shot 35 different time lapse sequences using an array of equipment. Most of the heavy lifting was done by a Canon 60D and a Canon 500D (both on loan) and a selection of specific shots were done by my Canon XA10 and my Pentax WG-3.Each of these cameras ended up filling an essential role for specific types of shots that I needed for the video. Achieving motion blur was especially difficult during the blazing desert sunshine of Beer Sheva and on most of the shots with overhead sun, I at least an ND2 filter in front of theScreen Shot 2014-04-10 at 12.58.57 AM lens if not a circular polarizer and a graduated filter as well. Even with three layers stacked (often taped) on the end of the lens, the 20mm wide angle I used for many shots only went down to F28 so I had to overexpose the shot quite a bit in order to get a slow enough shutter speed to blur the movement of people. I want to create a flowing effect and that meant aiming for a half-second exposure. I don't think I was ever actually able to get there during the day but I was usually able to shoot a 1/10 or 1/8 and recover the highlights in Lightroom.

A couple of the shots that made it into the final video utilized a ramping effect from very fast to slow motion and back. They were by no means orchestrated shots but in each what I was able to do was set up either the XA10 or the WG-3 shooting at 30fps or 60fps (respectively) at a place of high traffic and wait. Then I scrubbed through all the footage later and selected moments that had the motion I was looking for during which time to make the momentary change from time lapse to slow motion. It's without a doubt a dubious example of spraying and praying (and Screen Shot 2014-04-10 at 12.58.01 AMshooting secretly in most cases) but it more or less captured the energy of motion combined with the tension of shifting perception.

But what makes a good time lapse?

This was the question I struggled with throughout this project. Obviously over the last few years I've shot and collected time lapse sequences from a variety of places and settings focusing on a wide range of subjects, but I feel like this project really helped me focus in on what makes a compelling time lapse really pop.

In the end, I think that a compelling time lapse has a lot to do with illustrating patterns. When you see a time lapse of a flower blooming or a sun setting, there is no particular part of those sequences that would necessarily strike you as a remarkable if you saw them on their own. Sped up, however, you see the synchronized movement of flower petals and the smooth, arc motion of the sun. The key there is changing the perception of the viewer so that observed chaos is transformed into a visible pattern. When you see a time lapse of a building being constructed or a room being decorated, the constructed elements take on the appearance of a living, growingScreen Shot 2014-04-10 at 12.59.14 AM object while the people fade into the texture of the scene. The before and after shots of the same scenes could certainly be interesting, but a time lapse allows you to observe an otherwise invisible sense of order.

I shot a few sequences for this project that involved shooting images over the course of six or seven hours with the idea of capturing the movement of the shadows over the course of an afternoon. The only problem was, the scene was chosen poorly so in the end the eratic, random movement of people through the scene distracted from the movement of the subtle shadows. It just looked like a normal scene being played back quickly. On the other hand, sequences that I shot near main thoroughfares or building entrances illuminated patterns and flows in the movement of people in and out of the scene. The best sequences, however, utilized the movement of people to indicate to the viewer the speed of the sequence but then utilize prominent areas of light and shadow to illustrate the dynamic and changing appearance of large structures.

In the end I found that understanding what a scene will look like under various time lapse executions requires a level of pre-visualization that I am still developing. Not only understanding how a scene will be rendered through a lens but also understanding how the motion will be rendered by the camera settings and how the scene will change based on available and controlled lighting is a huge amount of data to process. It was an incredibly stretching project and when I am paid to get an education, it makes me love my job even more.