10 Simple rules of street time-lapse shooting

Hi everybody,
My name is Alexander Didenko, and I’m a co-founder of New Photographers Burning Factory. I am Factory’s columnist for today. Subject under consideration: timelapses edited by V.I.K.T.O.R. Time-lapse, or zeitreifer, looks like this and this.

Professional time-lapse is usually made with sophisticated and expensive equipment, but basically it can be made even by an iPhone equipped with simple and convenient ReelMoments app ($1.99), which I have played all day long today and feel quite happy about it.

There are two reasons why the team assigned writing today’s column to me. The first thing is that I am the only one who is not flying somewhere right now. All others are well scattered around the world. Temporarily. The second reason is that I am the only one in the Factory who has nothing to do with making movies or TV. My work here is kind of a work of a monkey in a pharmaceutical company that develops a cure for baldness. Quite a logical end of a career though: beginning with the development of robots for stock trading and continued in portfolio management teaching at the university.

The rest of the team are: TV producer, film director, computer graphics and software developer, and a graduate of Suvorov Military School (Russian West Point), who finally happened to became our great designer, now busy with our next secret weapon:).  Looks like he is a part-time test monkey as well, soon to come up with his post in our blog too.

We – the Factory – made a decision that it would be a real time experiment. The goal is to shoot and edit one minute film with time lapses of native city having just one iPhone, one V.I.K.T.O.R. app, one ReelMoments app and a dummy – your obedient servant (well, here we are cheating to some extent: while preparing papers for a patent, I had to re-read the entire Eisenstein, and moreover, I can play all Rear Window roles by memory, just tell me where to begin. In other words, I am a complete cinema buff and my lifelong dream to make films came true only three months ago, when I edited first film by V.I.K.T.O.R.).

I spent one day in Moscow shooting footage and assembling it on the go; in the evening I sat down to write this text. I must say that due to religious, historical and official reasons, early-in-January Moscow is a perfect location for a film about nuclear winter. This year we failed with the weather though, with the temperature just around zero degrees by Celcius. From the 1st till 10th of January all Russia stays on a weekend as long as the Trans-Siberian railway. It provides a unique opportunity for time-lapse shooting, because, for example, the subway is relatively deserted and you can see the details that appear to be very beautiful.

My findings for today could be summarized as

10 Simple rules of street time-lapse shooting

Equipment 1.Take the tripod. No tripod – no gain. Well, almost. Only pain. Tested and approved by me.
Equipment 2. Mind the weather.
Equipment 3. Protective shield for iPhone is highly recommended
Basic Rule 1. Best story for time-lapse – movement, either progressive, stochastic or repetitive (see below).
Basic Rule 2. When shooting choose interesting angle, fix the camera (see Equipment Rule 1). Or place the camera firmly against stable object. Or an object which moves very smoothly, like train or London Eye.
Basic Rule 3. Be patient. Time-lapse is like fishing. You set up your equipment and then do nothing. 5 minutes of doing nothing = approximately 10 seconds of time-lapse. And for editing purposes 10 seconds is minimal requirement as a rule.
Editing Trick 1. If the fragment you like so much is too short to fit your film, you can splice it with itself several times thus producing repetitive visual pattern. For example you want to have 30 seconds of your face time-lapse-shot when moving on subway escalator. That means 15 minutes of real time, which in turn means that an escalator should drive you right in anti-nuclear bomb bunker situated under the other anti-nuclear bomb bunker. In that case repetitive splice is a cure. And an interesting effect too.
Editing Trick 2. Mind field size when splicing shots together. The best result is achieved when time-lapse of your face is followed by wide shot of sunrise time-lapsed, then mid shot of something, etc. Se below how to mind it when editing movie by V.I.K.T.O.R. in PRO mode.
Editing Trick 3. Music sets the tone. Choose the one that contains repetitive patterns thus resembling visual part on audio-layer.
Editing Trick 4. Color correction helps to emphasize emotional tone set by interaction of audio and video parts. Also it “kinda puts the things together”, like a rug in Cohen’s movie. Also it helps to override visual drawbacks caused by auto-exposition in iPhone cameras.

Now – about everything in details.

Composition. As i’ve said the process of recording time-lapse footage is very meditative. Time-lapse is kind of a photograph taken automatically every two seconds, thus comprising the properties of photography and video. It is very important to choose the right composition, and composition in time-lapse is determined by static objects. As well as the choice of subject for shooting. No one is interested in a time-lapse where nothing moves. Movement, changes, progress of anything is the best story for time-lapse. To select the right composition, seek for an interesting angle. Put the iPhone on the floor, on the roof of the car, on the shoulder of the monument, and all stuff like that.

To ensure consistency of composition, fix your camera. It is best achieved when you have a tripod. In fact, if you do not have – it is better not to go out at all, but I did and had the hell a lot of trouble and suffering. Anyway, shooting from hands does not work. The specific effect of time-lapse is the opposition of static objects and movements to… well, every other moving object. Slow pace of shooting transforms this movements into either stochastic blinking (people in crowds) or very smooth trajectories (the sun, trains, etc.) This usually drives me to philosophical mood.

To fix my cam, I made serious sacrifices to the spirits of Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov, sticking the iPhone in the wet snow, putting it on the wet asphalt and holding firmly at the stone and bronze surfaces. This is the only way to replace a tripod, and a case is strongly recommended (though I hate them, iPhone is beautiful in itself, without any shell). I hadn’t one too. If movie Gods do take bloody sacrifices, today they had a feast.

Length of videos. I faced a second problem with the length of the outcome. Clips where I was able to put my phone against the glass window of monorail and kept it in that position all the way appeared to be the most valuable ones, out of all footage. 10 minutes of shooting made 20 seconds material. That is why it is impossible to shoot from hands. All other footage is much shorter than this. In itself, it did not seem to be a problem until I loaded the footage in V.I.K.T.O.R. to see what happens.

Initially we developed the app so that it could give an instant result, without the annoying progress bars. And one of our little joys is that today we are the only in the market who have it: truly instant editing. On my way between points of shooting, I loaded all the footage with one hand, and could immediately see what footage I lacked, what should become an extra-shot, or re-shot, and how. With all this progress bars this would not work. To honor our colleagues who have made ReelMoments, their application also makes it all very quickly. Recorded films need one additional action to be transferred to CameraRoll but this happens quickly, which is consistent with our philosophy of “one hand editing.”

I suddenly found that the app often refused to mix some of my videos into final cut. V.I.K.T.O.R. just assembled the entire movie from 2-3 large clips, although there were plenty of short clips that I would really like to see in resulting movie. As it turns out, it’s because of the technology behind V.I.K.T.O.R., a robot-directed editing. An app acts like a real film editor, who needs not just videos, but clips of a certain length, and properties placed in a certain order. He cuts those videos from a user’s footage. If there are only two seats for a 2-second videos envisaged in his film and there are 22 two-second ones in the footage, he simply chooses any two by himself. And the rest will go to the basket. In this sense, longer videos in the footage have an advantage: you can cut out of a long video a piece of 15, or 5, or 2 seconds, i.e. it is more “useful”.

It’s not that obvious when you’re just shooting some video – as a rule it has enough length. But like I said, length becomes a bottleneck in the city time-lapse production when you do not have a tripod and it’s cold on the street, and you’ve already frozen to death.

I found a wonderful way to avoid this problem. Purists will say that the solution is a terrible editing sin and violation of anything, but we’ve got an experiment in real time here, and trench warfare, and we’re not in the mood for tenderness. So, here comes the trick from the trench number 1: if the material that you want to get featured in your movie is split into many similar short clips, just splice these similar clips together. After I spliced them together a couple of times, as it came upon me that you can splice the same pieces several times. For example, the moment where I’m descending on a subway escalator is made this way. A 10 seconds’ video, which V.I.K.T.O.R. puts an eye on for his purposes, is collected from three separate clips, 2, 1 and 1 second respectively. Although the Moscow subway was created with a perspective to operate even in case of thermonuclear attack, there is no escalators deep enough to record a time-lapse exceeding 2 seconds. You wont find it. It’s impossible. On a third second you are to meet the Earth’s core and as a scientist I know that it consists of a molten magma. I’m not going there.

For the trick of splicing any editing app providing splicing would suffice (like Vimeo for example). I used ReelMoments sister – ReelDirector app. I failed to understand in full its quite sophisticated interface, but it did not prevent me from doing one simple thing: stick together two or three videos or paste the second exemplary of the same video after the first one (it is important that these videos should be cyclical by nature. And naturally, they should be shot from about the same angle and capture the same object, otherwise the final result will be bad).

Editing like a PRO. The third issue that I resolved successfully during my quest is purely cinematic in nature. Often, when watching an amateur video you think: hell, something’s missing. Our brain gets bored when it sees no progress, something constant and stable for quite a while. Even different objects shot from the same point of view give an impression that nothing changes. The brain always responds to something new. That’s where editing comes into stage. We have to alternate distances when splicing one piece of a video to another. Our eye actually makes this “splicing” on its own, switching focus from one object to another, from general view to macro.

If we mechanically put together random time-lapse footage, chances are big that the result would disappoint us as something boring and monotonous. That is why I switched to PRO level inside V.I.K.T.O.R. This level allows you to take into account one of the basic rules of editing. You can sort videos by their field size shots.

Here you have to decide by yourself what is close-up, mid and wide shots in your case. The same distance taken to shoot a monument and a cockroach is a super close up for the former and a super wide shot for the latter. With time-lapse videos this is yet another story. Time-lapses usually consist of:
1. Huge and super huge objects shot from a big and super big distance
2. Monotonous movement shot from a moving object
3. Small objects shot from a small distance

I chose my trip on the escalator to the depth of the Earth to be a close-up. In addition, I had few close-ups of fragments of bronze sculptures from “Ploschad Revolucii” subway station. Although bronze rooster and a revolver of Nagant model 1905 have little to do with my face, they all are put into one sort in field size shots. Also, since I tend to experiment, I thought it possible to put to this category the shot of a Christmas tree, just to see what happens.

For medium shots, I found only time-lapse from a cafe, the only advantage of which was that it was as long as whole 7 seconds, an eternity by my today’s standards. Now I understand that the Christmas tree would fit here as well.

Finally, for a wide shot category I selected shots of embankment near the Kremlin with the clouds, sun, etc. The weather was not favorable, but I waited on the bridge for those rare 15 minutes a day, when the sun emerges from clouds over our native beautiful city.

The rest filled the Unsorted folder to which V.I.K.T.O.R. refers when he does not find enough material in the other folders. I put there everything else, only watched it to be at least 5 seconds long.

I also experimented with themes. Themes are very important, as they set the mood. A theme must match the mood of the video. I thought that the background music must contain the idea of time passing, eternity, and so on. Initially, I experimented with Kiss Of Life, tried out Lost In Translation, then chose Miss you. The latter is tearful enough to comply with the general atmosphere of transience, which, as I understand, should correspond to my movie. To eliminate any hint of joie de vivre, I chose Quite Cold color correction. Tapped Render, put the phone in my pocket, and put the key into the keyhole.

Here’s what i got:

Moscow, Jan 2012: testing timelapse with V.I.K.T.O.R.

God, I did it! Thanks for your attention, waiting for your comments. Off for a a warm bath. What a day.

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4 Responses to 10 Simple rules of street time-lapse shooting

  1. Rory Piatt says:

    Enjoyed looking through this, very good stuff, thanks . “Be not careless in deeds, nor confused in words, nor rambling in thought.” by Marcus Aurelius Antoninus.

  2. Ola! Alexander Didenko,
    This might be off topic, however, If you’re a keen amateur photographer or even a pro and want to have a go at time-lapse photography and time lapse film making, I’ve listed some top tips to help you get started. Don’t think you’ll be able to do what the time-lapse movie specialists do and time lapse in all sorts of challenging conditions for long periods of time. That takes very special know-how and equipment. However, for simpler applications, and just to get you started, I’m going to give you ten top tips. Here goes…
    I’ll be back to read more next time
    Trick Photography and Special Effects

  3. ranguagma says:

    Hello! Just want to say thank you for this interesting article! =) Peace, Joy.

  4. Josh says:

    I just added your RSS Feed on my RSS reader, it is so nice to read your blog

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