We’ve all seen them – in the high school science film illustrating how a flower blooms in just ten seconds, or the fast-rolling clouds found in the dramatic opening sequence of a big-budget Hollywood spectacle. Since the beginning of the video era, and in fact since cinematography itself was born nearly a century earlier, time-lapse shots have been a staple special-effect in movies, TV shows, commercials and just about all other moving image forms. And, whether you knew it or not, you can create time-lapses for your videos.
Yes, with nothing more than a camcorder, a tripod and a healthy dose of patience, you can shoot time-lapse shots that will amaze and impress your audience. If you happen to have a computer-based editing system, you have an additional advantage. But as we’ll see in this article, it doesn’t really require much in the way of technical gadgetry to pull off time-lapse shots for a wide variety of video applications.
The Basics of Time Lapse
Boiled down to its essence, time-lapse videography is the art of making an event take less time to occur on screen than it did in real life. (If Stephen Hawking were writing this article, he might find this a good point to elaborate a bit about the modern physicist’s view of the nature of time in general. But alas, we’ll leave that topic for another publication and focus on how it all relates to a video enthusiast’s mechanical universe). In the days before video, cinematographers would accomplish the time-lapse effect by manually shooting a single frame of film at precise intervals, one frame per minute, or one frame per five minutes, for example. This type of time-lapse shooting is called in-camera time lapse, because the entire procedure is done within the camera, not in the editing bay.
In the video world, moving images are usually recorded as magnetic information on tape, and things are a little more complicated. The most complex, technology-intensive part of shooting time lapse on film is in the timing mechanism, which must shoot frames at very precise intervals. In video, however, recording a single frame at a time can be a difficult proposition. Few camcorders are capable of shooting single frames, and those that can perform this feat are prohibitively expensive. For this reason, most professional-quality time-lapse video is accomplished in the editing phase. This doesn’t mean time lapse can’t be done in the camera (see the In-camera Time Lapse sidebar).
Not all time-lapse video applications require a professional-looking, high-quality end product. Security time-lapse video, for example, is useful for cramming a day or more of surveillance onto a single T-120 tape, but it doesn’t achieve this without some sacrifice in the quality of the final product (see the Applications for Time Lapse sidebar).
Shooting for Time Lapse
Time-lapse video requires more careful preparation than most kinds of video production. In an ordinary video shoot, you can shoot a 10-second shot over and over until you get it right, whereas time-lapse video requires much more time to complete shorter segments of video. You’ll need to pay special attention to circumstances that surround a typical time-lapse shoot. Here are some things to consider before you begin:
Stability A rock-solid tripod is a must for time-lapse videography. The slightest camera movement can scrap the entire shoot and force you to start over from scratch, so don’t skimp on the tripod. In addition, it’s best to shoot with your camcorder on its widest-angle setting, to help minimize all potential camera movement. Also, make sure you have everything completely set up and ready to go before you begin, because making changes that require touching the camcorder might cause you to ruin the shot and have to start over.
Power Supply Make sure that you have enough power to keep your camcorder running for the entire length of the shoot, which in the case of time-lapse video could be hours and hours. Indoors, it’s usually best to rely on AC power from an outlet; outdoors, you might need to invest in a long-lasting battery supply or acquire a long extension cord.
Lighting Before you begin, it’s a good idea to think ahead about what your lighting might look like in a few hours. Unless you’re shooting inside a completely enclosed studio, you’ll probably have to think about what the sun is going to do while you’re attempting to capture your shot. Check the weather forecast for your area; you might find that it suddenly becomes cloudy in the middle of your time-lapse shoot. Of course, the movements of the sun and changes in weather patterns are among the more intriguing aspects of time-lapse video, but if that’s not what you set out to accomplish, these changes can be unwelcome.
Shot Selection The rules mentioned above about lighting and weather might help you determine the type of shot to attempt. For example, let’s say you’re planning to shoot a time-lapse sunset shot. Before you begin shooting, you’ll want to know whether the sun will be setting behind a nearby mountain range and what the shadows of those mountains will do to your shot. Similarly, you’ll want to know what precise portion of the sky the sun will be setting in. You may be required to shoot with a polarizing filter or an ND filter to cut the direct glare of the sun as it sets right in the middle of your shot.
Patience If your time-lapse video doesn’t work out exactly the way you want, don’t despair. Chalk it up to experience and try again.
As previously mentioned, creating time-lapse video in the editing process is far easier than doing it in-camera. Nonetheless, take special care when preparing to shoot for this type of edit.
All of the rules mentioned above apply when shooting to edit a time-lapse video. In addition, consider how you’re going to edit the footage. Will you simply fill a two-hour tape at normal speed, then adjust the speed accordingly with your editing software? Or will you shoot short snippets at regular intervals, then import single frames into your editing software and arrange them from there? (Hint: the latter method, while sometimes required for longer shoots that span over multiple tapes, can be extremely tedious and nerve-wracking).
Once you’ve captured your time-lapse video onto tape, the next step is to capture it onto the hard drive. This can be problematic, since time-lapse shots are usually very long and can take up a lot of hard drive space.
If your time-lapse shot is on DV tape, for example, you’ll be capturing a file over 2GB in size once you hit the 10-minute point. Some computer editing setups cannot handle files over 2GB in size. What can you do? Well, you can either keep your time-lapse shots short, or you can use a different method to capture the video. A wonderful shareware program exists called (appropriately) Time-lapse Video. This software (available at www.mediabuilder.com, as well as many other shareware sites) will capture single frames of video at regular intervals, from 1/4 second to 24 hours. You can either play a tape of your previously-captured time-lapse shot or you can capture live time-lapse clips directly from the camera.
Unfortunately, there is no general rule-of-thumb regarding the speed increase required for time-lapse videography. It will vary greatly with the type of shot you’re after. A sunset, for example, looks pretty good when sped up 60 times (one frame for every two seconds of real time). A shot of traffic running through a busy intersection might require that you speed it up only a little bit, say, 10 to one, or one frame every 1/3 second.
Go For It
Now that you’ve got the knowledge you need to create your own time-lapse effects, it’s time to get out there and start making your own. You might be shocked and amazed at the quality you can achieve with just a minimum of effort and patience. The final results can be more than just impressive; they can be downright spectacular.