If you’ve ever seen a scene on television or in the movies where clouds race overhead at a supernaturally fast rate, or where a flower appears to blossom in seconds, then you’ve witnessed a cinematic technique known as “time lapse.” Often used to show the passage of time or for some other dramatic effect, time lapse consists of recording a few frames of film or tape, pausing for a certain amount of time, then recording a few more frames, and so on. When the sequence is played back, it appears that the action recorded is happening much faster than it does in real life.
In many ways time lapse is similar to animation, utilizing the technique of taking a succession of very brief shots to create the illusion of a steadily moving sequence. However, instead of fooling your mind’s eye into thinking that a collection of still images are moving as animation does, time lapse compresses a lengthy event into a short space of time.
There are several means to do time lapse and animation videography, depending on how smooth you’d like your effect to be, what equipment you have, and how much time and effort you’re willing to put into it. However you choose to do it, there are a couple of constants you should be aware of:
For smooth recording, be sure your camcorder doesn’t move at all during the sequence you’re shooting. Otherwise, your footage will come out looking jumbled and unwatchable. This is best done by mounting your camcorder securely on your tripod, and tightening the pan and tilt screws to make sure the camcorder doesn’t move (known as a “locked down” tripod).
It’s a good idea to switch the microphone off while recording a time lapse or animation sequence. If you don’t, you’ll end up with a quick snatch of this sound and that sound distracting viewers from the sequence itself. Disabling the mike can be done fairly simply if your camcorder has an external microphone jack–simply stick an adapter that’s not connected to anything into the socket, and your camcorder mike will automatically switch itself off.
It’s probably wise to switch over to manual focus while shooting a time lapse or animation sequence. If you don’t, your camcorder’s autofocus will “hunt” for what it thinks to be the prominent feature in the shot to focus in on. If anything within the autofocus’ range momentarily becomes more prominent than what you intended to shoot (i.e., a bird flying past while you’re shooting the clouds), it could spoil the entire sequence.
If your camcorder can manually override its automatic light meter, you’ll probably want to switch over to that as well. First make sure the manual level it’s set on leaves enough light for your shot but not so much that it violently overexposes. It’s also a good idea to make sure, before you even start shooting, that the light you’re shooting with highlights what you’re recording. After all, you wouldn’t want your time-lapse sequence of a flower growing to be all in silhouette, would you?
Most importantly, keep a close watch on your camcorder! If you’re shooting out on the street, there’s always the risk your camcorder could be stolen, or broken by a clumsy passerby. Even if you’re in your own backyard, there’s a chance your camcorder could get jostled by a child of pet, or simply pitch over lens-first due to uneven weight distribution.
Calculating Time Lapse or Animation Lengths
Calculating the length of time needed for either a time-lapse or animation sequence is pretty simple, once you know what you and your equipment are capable of. Since NTSC video always plays at 30 frames per second (“fps”), a single time lapse/animation shot of, say, 1/5th of a second will go for six frames. Five of those shots will equal thirty frames–one second of your completed video.
Let’s say you want a 30-second time lapse sequence of clouds going by, and you’ve decided that one shot every half-minute will give you the desired effect. Assuming the five shots a second mentioned above, that means that 5 (shots per second) times.5 (minutes of real time) times 30 (seconds of video time for the sequence being shot) equals 75 (minutes of shooting time).
Being able to calculate the amount of shooting time needed has a number of uses. If you’re shooting outdoors with battery power, for instance, it’s vital to know just how much time you’ll need to get the sequence you want, or if it’s even possible given your batteries. Even if you don’t need to calculate for battery time, it’s useful to know just how long in real time getting the sequence you want will take.
Why Are More Shots Per Second Desirable?
You may have noticed that I’ve gone to some trouble to distinguish between “frames per second” and “shots per second” when talking about time lapse and animation videography. That’s because, as I said above, NTSC video [always] plays at 30 frames per second, no matter what images you may have playing during that time. Ideally, the closer you can come to 30 shots per second the better, since your results will look a [lot] less choppy.
While a second doesn’t seem like much time, it plays havoc with the smoothness of a time lapse or animation effect. This is because both video and film rely on something called “persistence of vision” to convince you that a long string of still pictures is moving. Since your mind can’t assimilate a series of fast-moving still images [as] still images, it assimilates them instead as one continuous moving picture. The instant this collection of images slows down to the point where you can mentally register each single picture as such, the illusion’s blown.
If you’re using time lapse simply to show the passage of time (for instance, a shot of people setting up before a play or concert), then one shot per second will probably work perfectly fine. On the other hand, if you’re hoping to do a sequence where a smooth flowing of the shots is essential (like in an animated sequence), then you’re probably not going to be satisfied with anything less than 10 shots per second, and would probably prefer 15 or even 30 shots per second.
In-Camera Time Lapse
The easiest way to perform time lapse or animation is by using a camcorder with an interval timer function built in, like Panasonic’s full-sized S-VHS PV-S770A, RCA’s VHS-C CC620 or Sony’s 3-chip Hi8 CCD-VX3. Using these camcorders are very easy–you simply mount them on a locked down tripod, switch the interval timer function on, and the camcorder does the rest. Depending on which model camcorder you have, interval timers can record as little as 1/10th of a second (3 frames) or as much as a full second of video each time.
If your camcorder doesn’t have an interval timer feature, you can still do a reasonably effective in-camera time lapse or animation sequence–provided your camcorder has flying erase heads (most models manufactured during the last five years do), and you’ve got the patience for it. Set up your camcorder on a tripod, engage and then immediately disengage the record feature, wait for the amount of time you want between shots, and then repeat the process until you have the sequence length you want. To ensure that the camcorder doesn’t shake when you hit record, you might want to use your camcorder’s remote if it has one.
Depending on how well your camcorder responds to your pushing the record button twice in rapid succession, and how fast you are on the trigger, you could easily get individual shots of as little as six frames (5 shots per second). While not as smooth as 30 or even 15 shots per second, it’s still surprisingly effective.
One last technique that may or may not work for you is to utilize your camcorder’s edit search feature if it has one. What you do is record a couple seconds of video, utilize edit search to get to the beginning few frames of the last shot, and then repeat until you’ve gotten what you want. Keep in mind, though, that this is an extremely labor-intensive process, and difficult to do if your camcorder’s edit search function can’t jog search.
Postproduction Time Lapse
If you want a bit more control over what your final product looks like, you might choose to eschew recording time lapse in real time altogether and attempt to perform the feature in postproduction instead. The advantage to this is that you can experiment with the time between shots to find what works best far more easily than you can “out in the field.” The disadvantage is that for a decent sequence it requires a great deal of time and some fairly high-end editing equipment.
First, you’ll need some footage that you can edit your time-lapse sequence from. Place your camcorder on a locked down tripod, just as you’d do if you were shooting an in-camera time lapse sequence, and roll tape normally for as long as you’ve calculated you’ll need for your sequence.
Remember the technique utilizing edit search on camcorders above? Well, it also works if you’re using a VCR with edit search, jog shuttle and flying erase heads as a record deck, like Mitsubishi’s high-end consumer S-VHS VCR the HS-U770. What you do is record a couple seconds of video, engage the edit search, then utilize the jog wheel to creep back to a few frames right after the first frame of the last shot. It’ll require a little practice to figure out just how far you’ll need to advance the tape to leave just one frame, and a great deal of patience, but you can get 30 shots per second time lapse or animation this way.
If you’re using an edit controller to run your playback and record decks, how close you can get your cuts to each other will vary depending on the quality of your setup. Controllers that utilize LANC or Panasonic 5-pin edit control protocols for playback control and infrared remote for recorder control (like Videonics’ Thumbs Up!) probably won’t be able to much better than one or two shots per second. This is due to these edit controllers’ inability to respond quickly enough for the extremely short cut-ins and cut-outs that time lapse and animation require.
Controllers that use LANC or Panasonic 5-pin protocols to control both player and recorder, like Videonics’ new EditSuite, can get much closer–10 shots per second, if your playback and record decks are calibrated properly. By contrast, a professional editing setup utilizing time code and frame-accurate decks can give you true 30-shot per second accuracy–if you’re willing to pay for them.
So What Are You Gonna Do With It?
Okay, I’ve told you a couple ways to do time-lapse or animation recording, and I’ve even covered why the more shots you record per second, the better it’ll look. But what’s it really good for?
I’ve already mentioned the most popular use of time lapse, compressing a lengthy event like clouds rolling by or people setting something up. So what else can you do with this technique?
Stop Motion Animation: This is the sort of animated sequence where an object that doesn’t normally move, like clay or an action figure, appears to be in motion. You’ve seen this a lot on television and in the movies, like those “California Raisins” commercials where clay models of raisins dance around and sing, or the original KING KONG movie, where Kong was an articulated doll that appeared to be a fully moving giant gorilla.
To perform stop motion animation, you’ll first need to create a space where you can set up your lights, camcorder on locked-down tripod, and whatever you’re going to animate. The advantage to this is that, once you’ve gotten everything set up, you can easily control the lighting and background so that all you need to worry about is animating your object.
Once you’ve gotten your object where you want it to start, turn on your camcorder and take your first shot. Remember that, for the animation to be smooth, you’ll probably want to get at least 10 shots per second, and 15 or 30 would be even better. Then move your object slightly and take the next shot, and so on until your sequence is finished.
Keep in mind that for animation to look convincing, the audience has to get the impression that they’re seeing the process of motion. For instance, if you’re animating an action figure throwing a punch, you can’t simply have your first shot with the figure’s fist up, and the next with the punch fully thrown–you have to have the fist moving forward with each shot so it looks like it’s getting there. To help you get some idea of how things move, it might be a good idea to watch a video of something you’d like to animate one frame at a time so you can see how it looks in real life before you try animating it.
Pixillation: A sort of variant version of both time lapse and stop-motion animation, pixillation is the process whereby a person seems to move in unusual ways. The music video “Sledgehammer” utilized pixillation so that Peter Gabriel appeared to slide around the room and even at one point seemed to be hovering above the ground.
To accomplish this, you have your performer stand in one position while you take your first shot, then move forward slightly and stand still again while you take your next shot. If you continue this long enough, the person will appear to move across the room without walking. If you want to duplicate the hovering effect in “Sledgehammer,” have your performer jump up in the air each time you take your shot, timing it so that you catch him or her in mid-jump. Make sure that whatever movements your performer from shot to shot aren’t [too] radically different from each other, or the sequence won’t look like a smooth movement.
Once you’ve gotten the hang of time lapse and animation, you’ll start to come up with a number of ideas on your own. The great thing about these techniques is that they don’t require a lot of expensive equipment that you wouldn’t use for anything else–even high-end editing equipment, should you choose the postproduction option, will be useful for all your videos. All time lapse or animation takes, really, is time–and the results will certainly be worth it.
Computerized Time Lapse–Cheap!
Performing time lapse or animation sequences utilizing a nonlinear editing system is surprisingly simple. Unlike videotape, digitized video can easily record one frame at a time. You simply lift the frame off your digitized video file, drop it onto the editing software’s timeline, and look for the next frame you’d like to use. Once you’re done, you save the results, turn your VCR on, and “print” your edited file to videotape.
Several companies, including Fast Electronics, have recently begun offering complete nonlinear video editing setups in the under-$1,000 price range. Fast’s Movie Machine Pro is capable of doing everything described above on any 486/DX50 or better computer with 8 megabytes or more of RAM and a 500 megabyte or larger hard drive. Even better, just about any new computer you can buy is at least capable of meeting, if not exceeding, the Movie Line Pro’s system requirements.
Amazing as this inexpensive nonlinear capability is, I think I’d better interject a few words of caution. First, the output quality of nonlinear boards like Fast’s Movie Pro has been described as “roughly VHS quality,” which means that it isn’t [quite] as good as VHS–you may notice some “artifacting,” which is what they call it when things that should be round seem to have little squares in them. Second, video files take up a [lot] of hard disk space–the specs for Fast’s Movie Machine Pro with Motion-JPEG caution you to expect each minute of video to take up 10-15 megabytes, and other nonlinear boards may take up even more. Third, if you’ve got a lot of other boards or peripherals on your computer, there’s a chance your computer will freeze up on you from time to time.
Or, You Could Always Cheat…
You might want to consider shooting a time lapse or animation sequence on your old Super-8 movie camera. Most Super-8 movie cameras have a single-frame option built in, which will guarantee a much smoother effect than you’d probably get with a camcorder or lower-end editing equipment. Some, like Minolta’s better Super-8 cameras, even have an automatic interval timer.
To utilize your Super-8 movie camera for time-lapse photography, you once again set up your camera on a locked-down tripod, just like you would if you were using your camcorder. Take one frame using the single-frame option, wait for a specified period of time, and take another frame, continuing until you have enough footage for your needs. If your movie camera has the option of manual override of the automatic light meter, it’s probably a good idea to utilize that so that your frames don’t become darker or lighter abruptly. It’s also a good idea to use Kodachrome 40 film instead of Ektachrome G, since the former is less grainy.
While it’s harder than it used to be to process Super-8 movie film, Kodak can still do it out of one of their California plants. Your local camera store should have mailers for sale that cover the cost of processing and return postage in the purchase price. You simply stick the appropriate postage on the mailer, drop it in the mail, and wait for about two weeks. After you get the film back, you can either transfer it to video yourself if you still have your Super-8 movie projector and one of those film-to-tape transfer units, or you can have the job done professionally at your local camera or video store.
While this method requires both more money and a few more steps than any of the direct-to-video methods recommended in this article, it’s worth considering if the effect is important to you; say, for a title sequence you intend to use more than once. It’s obviously not to be used casually; still, you’ll probably get smoother results with less [tsuris] this way.