How to time-lapse Part I

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What are time-lapses?

Practical thoughts on the time-lapse technique - Part I

Since the documentary movies “Baraka” (Ron Fricke, 1992) and “Planet Earth“ (BBC, 2006) the magic of the time-lapses caught the attention of many photographers and filmmakers. The viewer perceives differences by time-lapses, which are otherwise hardly discernible because the movements alter very slowly in real time. Good examples are a sunset, the growing shadows or the clouds running in the sky. Many of us became aware of the spinning starry night sky or the dancing of the northern lights only by the time-lapse technique.

Devils' Garden

Image 1 Screenshot6.png: The digital era oft he DSLRS opened completely new worlds fort he time-lapse photography. Screenshot taken in “The Devil’s Garden”, Grand Staircase –Escalante National Monument, Utah (Short film “Petrified Life”

Yet, this way of capturing movements is nothing new. Already in 1987 Georges Mèlies used the cinematographic technique of the under cranking in his movie “Carrefour de L’Opera”.

Another stone mark in the time-lapse history was the BBC documentary series “The Private Life of Plants”:  very costly set-ups with lots of cameras under the controlled conditions of the glass houses made it possible to reveal the growth of the plants. 

A normal video camera records 25 pictures per second (or thirty if the camera was bought in USA). By under cranking images are recorded at a lower rate than the actual play rate of the movie. You may capture a landscape picture every second for ten minutes (that means a rate of one picture per second) but play all the captured pictures in the finished video at a rate of 25 pictures per second. Thus you obtain a smooth movement with a quick pass of time (instead of the ten minutes of the recording you get twenty-four seconds of playback). This effect lets you convey a certain message of your story. You can literally feel the hectic pulse of the mankind while watching the time-lapses in “Baraka”.  Time-lapses suit well for introducing a new theme showing a rapid progress of time (a new day, a new season, a new stage in life etc.)  or for depicting the rhythm of a city.

This film technique was reserved for a long time only to filmmakers with access to large budgets. For producing time-lapses they would use large amounts of expensive film rolls, high-end cameras and several survey teams. Special control devices would send impulses to cameras to record images at certain preset intervals over days and weeks. For shorter periods of time the cameraman would simply film in real time and in the post-production cut out images from the film at certain intervals.

The broadcaster BBC used forty film teams over a period of five years to produce “Planet Earth”. Only by international cooperation they could cover the high production and distribution costs.

But the new digital era of the visual arts allowed the development of inexpensive alternatives. The time-lapse technique became quickly accessible also to amateurs and professional filmmakers with tighter budgets.

Nowadays even the consumer video cameras have a time-lapse function (often called interval recording) and the DSLR photo cameras open completely new worlds in this field. The light sensitive DSLRs with large sensors allow the capture of raw images of the rotating stars in the night sky or the dances of the northern lights. 

This was not possible in the analog time of the film cameras – at least the results were not comparable to the present possible outcome.

Thus the digital time-lapse technique links the photography with the filming: the single raw images of a series are first edited in a photo-software and afterwards stitched together to a video clip in a NLE (non linear editing) software. Especially the video portal Vimeo hosts a huge amount of short films that are apparently a mere sequence of time-lapses. A photographer capturing time-lapses will probably concentrate more on a good picture-framing  and the light situation. A filmmaker will pursue more the story and the action in the scene. In order to create a successful time-lapse video or to insert it as a dramatic effect into a film both the photographic and filmic perspective are essential. Before I go into details I will list shortly the various time-lapse possibilities available on my documentary travels. 

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