Timelapse - capturing the speed of life

28 January 2014 posted by: Rosie Pook, WPY Comms Officer

No. of comments: 1

To introduce our new TIMElapse category, competition chair Jim Brandenburg and world-renowned photographer, director and filmographer Neil Lucas share their creative and technical expertise. 

Since the 90s, Jim and Neil have been collaborating on timelapse elements for award-winning series such as the BBC's Life and The Life of Mammals, and are today working together on an experimental feature film ... details of which are strictly under wraps!


Could you explain the concept of timelapse, and how it came about?

NL: The timelapse technique records motion at a much slower rate than normal film: capturing one frame an hour, a day, or even a week, for instance. When images are edited together, and the film is played back at a normal rate, it illustrates time in high speed.

Timelapse techniques have been around since the mid-nineteenth century. The spinning zoetrope, the flip book, and the bellows camera all employed timelapse methods that are still used today.

JB: The practice was then developed by twentieth-century innovators. At the turn of the century, the motion picture Carrefour De L'Opera was shot by Georges Méliès using an early timelapse technique. But enthusiasts, such as American banker John Ott, really pioneered modern timelapse methods, building his own motion control systems to follow the growth of plants.

This led to Disney experimenting with stop motion techniques in their animated films, and to some of the better known timelapse movies, like Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi.

And Neil's recent work for television, specifically BBC's Private Life of Plants, brought timelapse to a new mainstream audience, and refreshed and modernised the approach.



Koyaanisqatsi was one of the earliest feature films to use modern timelapse techniques


When is it appropriate to use timelapse technique?

JB: It should be used to show us what the eye can't see; things we never knew occurred. Like the electron microscope and the Hubble Space Telescope, it shows us what's really there and elements of life that we would otherwise miss out on. 

NL: I agree, it's best used for any activity or motion that is impossible to see with the naked eye, so for anything that moves incredibly slowly. Slime mould, weather changes, how glaciers move and recede, for example, can be presented in a way that enables us to better understand the world around us.

What sets it apart from stills images or normal moving image?

NL: As Jim says, timelapse allows us to see the unseeable, and enables us to venture into dimensions we're not able to go to with normal film work. It's increasingly being used in feature films, which utilize multiple layers, speeds, angles and frame rates. Timelapse is a method that enhances standard moving image, and is truly embedded in the digital world.

With stills, photographers are often on the quest for that one perfect shot, whereas a winning timelapse sequence can require 250 ‘front-cover worthy' images.

JB: Stills capture moments that can be unbelievable; the perfect freeze. Timelapse can reveal the hidden, it can help us comprehend. It takes us further from the literal, to the aesthetic. Timelapse can be poetic, and can demonstrate exceptional artistry.

But it's also technically complex and requires extreme patience. You could spend a whole day capturing a sequence, only for your tripod to move and throw the whole process off. In that respect, you can't control timelapse in the same way you sometimes can with stills or film. But, there is always that overarching element of luck that is shared with all methods of photography. 

What first captured your imagination with timelapse, and why are you interested in this particular method of photography?

JB: The human brain is always searching for something new, and we're barely getting started in terms of where timelapse can take us, which draws me to it. I love to explore the aesthetic of timelapse and am excited to see the method evolving into the realm of art. 

NL: I've always been a keen photographer. I love cameras, and the fact that pictures can capture a brief snapshot of time. I then became aware that these snapshots put together allow us to enter into different worlds, that speeding things up or slowing down the frame rate can turn simple images into artwork and truly tell a story. You can't do that with a regular camera.

My introduction to timelapse came when I directed The Private Life of Plants series for the BBC. Before that series timelapse typically just showed a flower opening quickly. It was only when we started thinking more about plants in motion, when we changed the angle, the speed, and we started storyboarding, that we could begin to make sequences 10 minutes long.



Neil's work on BBC's Private Life of Plants bought timelapse to a new mainstream audience


And what are you using it for currently?

JB: I'm working on a project at Mont Saint-Michel, which has one of the largest tidal ranges in the world and has recently experienced its highest tide in 15 years. It's a piece about light, and the movement of the tide.

NL: I'm currently doing some work with a movie company; we hope the project will be based in the Eastern Europe region. That's all I can tell you for now!

So, what do you need to create a great sequence?

NL: For me, primarily, multiple camera angles, different frame sizes, a lot of detail and well thought out camera moves.

But don't over complicate things. Just because you can do it, doesn't mean you have to. Imaginative content can often be far more effective than complex sequences. Reflections in a window, a shadow on a tree, for example, can create impactful timelapse films.

Fundamentally you need creativity to push the boundaries and create something we haven't seen before.

JB: You need incredible discipline, fresh, surprising content, beautiful composition and great editing. You can capture incredible beauty if you have a good eye and an excellent sense of frame rate.

And what would make a winning piece of timelapse for you?

JB: There are two themes that I'd love to see. I would like the big reveal - something scientifically or behaviourally remarkable. Content that is startling and riveting, such as an animal being eaten by insects, the act of decay, the recycling of life, the reclaiming of urban landscapes by nature.

But I also want poetry in motion, something that isn't necessarily revealing, but is beautifully graphic and difficult to capture. Light across a leaf, the movement of shadows on a tree, the gradual freezing of a lake, patterns of nature.

NL: For me, something simple but well thought out; a piece that stops you in your tracks. First you marvel at how beautiful it is and then you suddenly think ‘how did they do that?!' Something hard to get your brain around.

In the same way as film, it should play with tight, wide and medium shots. The timing of moves, panning and tracking should be perfect, and the sequence should start and end on beautiful images with perfect exposure.



An example of Jim's early timelapse work


Any last top tips for entrants into this new special award?

NL: Plan and practice whenever possible. If you're filming a landscape, for example, get there the day before to see what's likely to happen throughout the course of the day. You need to see where the light falls and you need to see the speed of change with cloud movement, etc.

Some of the best stories are simple, but they all start and end somewhere. It's the same when compressing time in timelapse. Make sure you start and end on a meaningful frame, and don't lose the storyline!

JB: Almost anyone can do it. You might be surprised what you can capture in that quiet little place near your home. Lots of digital cameras have in-built timelapse functions, and you can easily get by with self-made equipment; I've used cameras mounted on egg timers before to capture movement.

Lastly, break out of the box and get our attention. Use your camera as a paintbrush, instead of a machine. Timelapse can be very mechanical because it's technically complex. But think of it as music and it will become art. Consider the rhythm, speed and colour of your sequence and you can create something magical.




http://www.nhm.ac.uk/resources/natureplus/wpy-blog/wpy49/Jim.jpgJim Brandenburg

Jim is a multi-award winning wildlife photographer and filmmaker with a rich career history including 30 years as a contract photographer for the National Geographic Society. He has been the recipient of countless honours including the Lifetime Achievement Award from North American Nature Photographers Association, and the World Achievement Award from the United Nations Environmental Programme. Jim has chaired the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition since 2012 and is currently working on several high-definition movies. http://www.jimbrandenburg.com/ 



Neil Lucas

Neil worked as a producer with the BBC's world-renowned Natural History Unit for over 20 years. During that time he made many international award-winning productions, including Sir David Attenborough's Trials of Life, The Private Life of Plants, The Life of Mammals and Planet Earth.

Neil is now a freelance film director and photographer, specializing in state of the art filming and photographic techniques, which he has devised, and for which he is recognised worldwide. http://www.lucasproductions.com/index.html


Stuart J Arnold


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