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Time Flies: The Art and Technology Behind Great Timelapse Videos

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Tempus fugit—Latin for "Time Flies." In the case of streaming production, though, it either flies or slows way down.

People have always had some desire to alter time, either by speeding it up, slowing it down, or by somehow altering their position within it. Storytellers—filmmakers specifically—have been altering their audiences’ perceptions of time with great success for years. Even the old cliché “Meanwhile, back at the ranch ...” represents an alteration of time that is otherwise impossible. Movie after movie has been made about time travel. It’s an almost universal curiosity that we share.

While we’ve challenged the industry about “Thinking in 4D” or “bending time” in previous “Streams of Thought” columns, this article will look at practical tips using currently available tools. Slow motion and timelapse give us glimpses of time that we can’t experience without the help of technology, and today the technology is more accessible and easier to use than ever.

Slow motion, once only available on cameras costing more than $100,000 and using specialized film, is now easily accessible in our pocket, thanks to advances in mobile phone video capture. Slow motion allows us to see rapid action in slower than real time, slowed down enough so we can study it in greater detail. Think of films you saw in grade school showing the flapping of hummingbird wings or even the “bullet time” effect made popular in The Matrix series.

Timelapse, on the other hand, compresses changes dramatically. With timelapse, we can see a process or event in a new way; some shots are of a sunset or sunrise, capturing a single frame every second or every few seconds, while other shots can cover an entire season, or even a year, in 10–20 seconds.

Timelapse capture hasn’t necessarily been as expensive as slow-motion capture, at least in terms of equipment, but it certainly has been, well, time-consuming. In recent years, slow motion has been mostly unchanged, except for the equipment capable of capturing it. On the other hand, timelapse has really hit its stride, and we want to detail the new options that are available for today’s cameras and mobile devices.

Nature documentaries, such as Wild America or more recent National Geographic specials, often dedicated several cameras for the entire capture period. Add to this the significant human resources needed to reposition a camera in the exact location a week or a month later, click a few images, and then remove the camera, and you can begin to see just how costly those stunning seasonscapes were to capture.

Fortunately, for those of you with less patience and a bit more advanced gear, getting a good timelapse shot for your production no longer requires such effort.

Now that we know the difference between these two types of time-altering shots, the rest of the article will focus on how to incorporate timelapse shots into your productions. We’ll briefly cover a Braintrust Digital production that uses timelapse and look at a few hardware and software timelapse tools for every budget.


Timelapse in Motion

Last year, we produced a promo video for a commercial printing company in Knoxville, Tenn. The company does mostly direct business-to-business custom-print work, covering everything from brochures to billboards to bus or vehicle wraps. The company, High Resolutions, values close relationships with customers and wanted a way to show clients the creation process—from robust printing technologies, unique to the region, to the skilled people making their projects a reality.

To do this, we could have used a straightforward documentary, detailing each step of the process in a How Things Work approach, or we could have come up with something more creative. We chose to use timelapse shots to emphasize not only the fast-paced printing production environment, in which hundreds or thousands of copies of Duck Dynasty promos had to be produced, but also to show customers just how many steps the production process involves—without boring them out of their minds.

The shot types we gathered attempted to reflect the values of quality and speed. That meant lots of close-ups of hands emphasizing “hands-on” projects, shots of graphics being used in intended environments—such as vehicle wraps and banners—and dynamic shots of state-of-the-art production equipment to emphasize the high-tech work environment.

A still from a timelapse production Braintrust Digital did for Knoxville, Tenn.- based print shop High Resolutions.

Timelapse comprised a crucial part of making the production equipment appear dynamic. The truth is, as anyone with print shop experience knows, the setup process is tedious and the mass-production equipment is pretty dull and slow. Timelapse made the long processes go much faster.

We added one additional dynamic, multiaxis motion, to the timelapse shots. This gave us the ability not only to speed up a process, but to move the camera around during the timelapse to emphasize particular features of the work process.

This combination of motion and timelapse, sometimes referred to as hyperlapse, requires a good deal of planning. It also requires some very specialized gear to hold the camera steady and allow a shot to be consistently replicated, so that content can later be intercut between takes.

One word of caution to anyone producing timelapse content: Don’t fall in love with a shot just because it took a long time to create. There will be trial, error, blood, sweat, and tears added to almost every timelapse shot you create. However, as with any other type of shot, you won’t want to overuse timelapse and hyperlapse too much in any one production, and if it doesn’t work in the production, save it for the outtakes or a demo reel.

The good news in all this is that you can often get by with a pretty basic setup for your timelapse shots. The rest of the article covers products that we’ve used in the past, or considered using. By the time you read this, we’ll also have a companion video showing some of the working benefits for each of the products listed below.

EMotimo TB3 and Cart or Slider

We’ve reviewed the eMotimo TB3, a programmable pan/tilt head, for Streaming Media Producer, but the company also offers a few products that are all specifically designed for timelapse.

In our review, we combined the TB3 programmable head with the Rhino slider, and the resulting video that accompanied our review showed the extent of what the Rhino could do on a single axis of motion during the timelapse.

The eMotimo TB3 is a programmable pan/tilt head that, when combined with the Rhino slider, can produce timelapse video on a single axis of motion. Couple it with eMotimo’s Turntable and Cart and you can create videos on two and three axes of motion. 

Since then, eMotimo has introduced a tabletop spinner, called the Turntable. It’s also just recently released the Cart, a small trike that couples with the TB3 to provide a third axis of motion over any smooth terrain.

Both the Turntable and the Cart can replicate a move and/or reverse it. Plus, with the smoothness offered by the ball bearing wheels on the Cart, it can be used for real time recording as well.

EMotimo is offering the Cart at $359 and the Turntable for $289 as add-ons to the TB3.

Joby GripTight and GorillaPod

Tim carries the collapsible Joby GripTight in his pocket and uses it to stabilize an iPhone, smaller Android phone, or an iPod. He combines it with the GorillaPod, a flexible tripod that wraps around small branches, posts, or even key balustrades at Parliament (field-tested and approved last year for this very purpose). The GorillaPod and GripTight Mount connect together with a standard threaded tripod mount, so the GripTight can be used on a monopod or traditional tripod as well.

Note that the GripTight does not move the way other equipment noted in this article does, as its primary goal is to keep the phone in a fixed location. In addition, as much of an engineering marvel as the GripTight might be, the recent iPhone 6 and iPhone 6+ are just too wide for the GripTight.

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