As discussed in a blog post last year, time-lapse film production is a two-step boogie: data collection and data management. Now I’d like to discuss my artistic approach to this mostly technical photography genre…
Producing your time-lapse story is similar to a sculptor turning marble into something beautiful, thoughtful and engaging. Once the photographs, video snippets and sound effects are logged, identified and archived, reviewing the story arc begins. Based on my pre-production scribbles, shooting notes, observations and daydreams I imagine how the completed film should look, play and sound. And for how long. I look at and review dozens of pieces already published, (mine included) read up on new techniques and software advances to see what may be appropriate for your story.
These two frames depict the level of change in a 5-month time-lapse. The top image is the finished waterfall and below you can see where we began. Impressive. (a little bragging here, this film was selected for the 2016 Time Lapse Film Festival in Los Angeles. Click on the thumbnail to see the film)
Once these steps are in their stages of process and completion, multiple software “chisels” are brought into play and the process of carving out your story begins. First order of business is discarding the pieces that impinge. Second, discard the pieces that impinge. Third, discard the pieces that impinge. This takes a lot of “chiseling” time. Oy! But it’s the necessary step in getting from here to there: a logical and entertaining story that leaves your audience better informed and satisfied.
The next step is putting the chosen sequences into a timeline. A timeline is the order in which things occur. And they don’t have to be chronological! You’d think that in a time-lapse film, order is everything. Especially when it comes to a construction story. Most of your film will be in a chronological sequence but the way I direct and edit, it ain’t necessarily so. As long as the bits and pieces are recorded properly, changes in chronology are useful and necessary. Trust me. :()
For example, this time-lapse of tree trimmers working on my property was put together with a few ideas in mind: black and white, one sequence plays forward and back, a lot of quick cuts to cloud movement, sound effects and music were mixed in a way that makes the film short, sweet, jumpy and fun. And it’s ever so slightly out of chronological order. But it engages you to watch: Tree Trimming
After roughing out your story arc, the refinement process commences. Decisions about where to transition, when to transition, and why begins. Should it be a cross dissolve, jump cut or effects driven? I use ‘em all to great success. Absolutely love this process. Added into the mix are time-lapse sequences with organic movement, (or static sequences that have it added later). I spend a lot of time with this critical component. Quality demands it. My muse says so!
At this point the story is working at a level where rendering is required for further evaluation. This render, (output, video, etc.) is high-quality video and designed to work inside another software application where titles, other graphics, sound effects and music are added. After watching the film several times with music and sound in place, it becomes apparent that some transitions have to be changed. This happens because a particular dissolve, jump or effects transition isn’t in sync with the beat of the music. So it’s back to the prior application to make a change. Output another video file to replace the first one to gauge the accuracy of the change. If it’s good to go, cool. If not, the process is repeated until it works. This iterative process is part and parcel of how a successful time-lapse producer works: The Loop
I received an email from an executive at Mountain View Mortuary, the historic funeral home in Altadena, CA inquiring about producing a time-lapse video of the Radiance Corridor. This wing of the mausoleum is defined by a large stained glass window facing East and a series of skylights embedded in the ceiling. The way colors and shapes move through the space has to be seen, words fail me here. The photo provides some insight into the beauty of the space.
The impact upon me as I spent many hours there filming was significant. I felt as if I was being watched. Comforting and a bit strange at the same time.
What made this story particularly challenging was that it had no discernible narrative. Other than sun moving through the space, there is no story. I naively thought that just the sun would be enough to enlighten this film: I’d make all the time-lapse sequences in chronological order and cut the movie in a the same chronological manner. Wrong! It didn’t work or rather I could not make it work to my satisfaction because it was too limiting in terms of flow. A good time-lapse edit is akin to a jigsaw puzzle: smooth pieces that seamlessly fit together. The reality of putting beautiful time-lapse sequences together so they fit just right is the art form of time-lapse. What seemed like a good edit idea boxed me into a look that was unformed, lacked emotion and uninteresting.
My job after the photography is to put on my producer hat and make it all come alive. No pun intended.
So I just went for it and made it as fine arty as I could. Really pushed the order and intensity of the colors. Got way out in la-la land and stopped, evaluated and eventually pulled back to what you see in the finished film because after all I did have a client to satisfy. Smile.
In January of 2015, the U.S. headquarters marketing director of a German based supply-chain company hired me to direct and produce a time-lapse film about how they as a company transform empty warehouses into order fulfillment centers. From the jump it was envisioned as a stand alone film. Filming began in early February and ended in late April.You can see it here. Note the high view revealing the package conveyor system getting installed. It’s near the end of this film and is pivotal to the rest of this story.
Upon receipt of the film, the marketing director and the VP of sales applauded its’ style and message. I expected this reaction but it’s always great to hear. Shortly thereafter a conversation began about a new film, (part two if you will) depicting the order fulfillment process as Syncreon does it: with a lot of “product touches” that their competition does not. Fast forward to August of 2016 and we’re ready to roll cameras again. I was hoping to have begun this film much sooner but the delays inevitable when working with a large international corporation are numerous. The amount of patience I had to have during this time was enormous. Patience is something I struggle with personally and professionally. The upside to waiting was my skill set for telling stories improved with time.
This wait had its’ own unique stress. I chose to leave some gear in place from the first film. By doing so I created an incredible opportunity to film the sequence of transition from part one to part two. As a time-lapse film maker and story teller, it doesn’t get any better! I just didn’t think it would take as long a wait as it did. (26 months) The gear I left behind: one camera body, three custom built camera platforms, three tripod heads, four safety straps, two power supplies and 300’ of extension cord hung along the rafters. 100′ had to be removed in early 2016 by order of the fire department. It was restrung in August of 2016 right before filming. Oy!
The first day of part two was chaotic as we were shut down halfway through the day do to a perceived privacy issue with a smaller customer in the building. The concern was that filming the order fulfillment process of this smaller customer would make it easier for the smaller customer’s competition to benefit. This didn’t make sense to me but it wasn’t my call. I felt compelled however to negotiate an increase in the budget on the spot to cover the additional day of filming required and the reworking of the story design and shooting schedule. Part of the business.
My client understood the situation and agreed to the extra funds although obviously they were unhappy about it. After re-editing part one so it made more sense when cut together with part two, I delivered the rough cut. It was rejected for being too time-lapse heavy throughout and we agreed to do part two as 99% video shoot with the only time-lapse being the section I noted earlier from the high elevation looking down towards the conveyor system. This money shot ties the two films together and it was the big reason I wanted to do a part two. I saw this in my mind and knew it would work. The beautifully slow transition from empty building to bustling order fulfillment center makes the film work for me.
It took a lot of planning, phone calls, site visits, emails and thinking to get this project completed but it was worth it. The film leaves you with a good feeling about Syncreon and I was told in a phone call that is was by far the best video they’ve ever had produced. It was an emotional phone call for both of us as our 26 month journey finally ended with a huge win for all concerned.
The following short film depicts the transportation of an extremely heavy part for the worlds largest privately owned 60K press. It moved very slowly through the city streets of Long Beach, at night with a full compliment of Highway Patrol vehicles and personnel. This very mundane process has been livened up quite a bit through the manipulation of time, (speed ramping) dramatic music and my overwhelming love of things construction and industrial related…
The press arrived in 39 pieces at the port of Long Beach. Due to their tremendous weight, each piece had to be moved via a specialized transport.
This short film depicts the transportation of one of four specialized pieces called a guide cannon. A guide cannon supports the guiding tolerance of the moving press frame. The press frame is composed of the lower crosshead, the tie rods with the pressure sleeves, the foundation crosshead and the upper crosshead with a overall weight of 8,818,490 pounds.
I know too much lingo but the thing to remember is that each guide cannon weighs almost 610,000 pounds and as such requires a very special process for moving from the port to the factory.
While driving to an out-of-state shoot in December of 2015, I received a call from the marketing director at Mitsubishi Electric US. They were interested in having a time-lapse marketing video produced for them. The story they wanted to sell / tell was how easy it is to install, maintain and use their innovative new commercial / residential product: removable solar panels.
It was a difficult shoot in the sense that the location was on the roof of a 30′ tall warehouse with roof access from a single ladder inside the building. This ladder was attached right against the wall, surrounded by a cage to catch you if you slipped. Not easy to use properly if you’re carrying gear on your back. And you’re past the spring chicken phase of your life. I took a lot of gear, (about 125 pounds for this job) so getting on the roof was problematic. Fortunately I was able to get the forklift operator (who was lifting solar panels onto the roof) to help me bring most of my stuff to the roof too. He was a total lifesaver.
The end product as envisioned by MEUS and executed by me:
How I Evaluate What Shots Will Work
A Case of Stage Site
The Site Is Live Theater
For me, project locations are large stages, with the action (construction process) playing out during multiple, daily scenes, using specialized and off-the-shelf props (hand tools, concrete pumps, tractors, etc.) by the actors (workers and supervisors). Add in ever changing and dramatic lighting conditions into this mix. For a location photographer like myself, (who specializes in time-lapse film production) the lighting conditions make or break great shots. I cannot stress this aspect enough.
Speaking of the light, there are three qualities of light: direction, unfiltered sun (specular) or cloudy bright (diffused) light. You could add overcast conditions where the the sun is totally obscured as a fourth category. The mixture of light quality and activities happening makes or breaks a great day of filming. The way the light falls on the stage throughout the day should be taken into consideration. There are other light qualities to consider, (nighttime lighting) but that’s for a future post…
The Responsibilities of the Director
My job as the director is knowing how and when to blend the elements of light and action together, and to be able see the end product. Experience allows me to appropriately time these recording scenarios. These timed, varied scenarios give me coverage options in the editing phase that add immensely to the quality of the film.
get familiar with the activities/scenes for the time I’m on site
record it when the light is great, arrive early and stay late if necessary
time-lapse the majority of these activities/scenes 3-5 times each
vary the timing, composition and motion control settings each time
review in post-production to find the absolute best one
Quality takes time…and more time…
We’ve explored the light qualities but what about the speed at which the “actors” are working? Is there going to be enough change over the course of time cameras are recording or will it just be dramatizing a process? This is neither good nor bad but rather an evaluation of what exists, how to record it efficiently and (once it’s cut into the timeline) how does it play in the film?
An activity/scene has to depict a process that will be a good candidate for time-lapse recording. One question to answer is how will its’ time compression look when it’s processed? What are the options I can apply; Speed up more or in this case, slowing it down to a stop motion look:
When possible draw your audience into the scene with camera movement too. And what about moving the camera while it records? Is it some combination of panning (side-to-side movement), tilting, (up and down) or sliding, (left to right, vice-versa or low to high)? It can be just a single axis movement, but in every case we want to minimize 100% static shots because of the drag they create on story flow. Time-lapse camera motion during the recording process makes blending a digital move in post much easier. This scene is a combination of a panning sequence recorded live and a zoom out move in post-production:
The clip below is a good example of this. I wanted to get an isolated shot of a worker on the scaffolding and after awhile this fellow climbed up and began his assignment. I made note of the time it took him to insert a set of fasteners. A calculation was made taking in to consideration his speed and movement towards me. As the sequence progressed I zoomed my lens out and out until it had gone from a short telephoto to a wide angle point-of-view.
One of the benefits I receive from my construction time-lapse film work is getting to see cool equipment up close and personal. I get to know the operators a bit and sometimes as a result of this interaction, I can get as close as I need to for maximum aesthetic value. In this case, the crane was lifting these modular classrooms into position and I was able to roam freely to get the best angles:
“The thrall of great sweep and the poignancy of meticulous detail” – Jeffrey Fleishman
This quote is from a story Jeff did for the LA Times back in September. The story was about The Birth of A Nation and it was engrossing. At a particular point in the story, Jeff came up with the above quoted line when describing D.W.’s work. (And yes I wrote, asked and received permission to quote Jeff) What struck me about the line was how apropos it was when applied to my work: construction and industrial time-lapse film production. My projects occur at large active job sites, where men and women abound and an incredible amount of equipment (from items off the shelf at Home Depot to highly specialized gear that can cost upwards of a thousand dollars an hour to operate) is deployed…
I am absolutely charmed and mesmerized by life on a construction site: the noise, hard work, the specialty tasks that play out every day, it’s all good for me. From project managers, engineers and surveyors to the young guns just beginning their careers, it really fascinates me. It’s the scope of it all, the ultimate grandeur that results from meticulous planning and execution. All projects begin the same way: from dirt. Whether it’s demolishing something first or starting from pristine earth, every project deals with dirt, above and below ground. Then it’s pouring the foundation, building the walls, wiring, roofing, etc., (plus a ton more) until it’s all done. And the frequent scaling of men and machines on site is as tightly a choreographed dance as you’ll find anywhere. Add bad weather and seasonal changes to the mix and you’re in for quite a ride all righty.
If I don’t pay proper attention to the construction process and its’ inherent details, the finished time-lapse film will be boring. And my construction time-lapse films are not boring! Unfortunately many of the clients who call me first (because of the quality I deliver) sometimes turn to my less expensive (and less committed) competition. They find out too late that the thrill of saving money is cancelled out by a lousy film. I’ve seen and heard it many times, “We know it won’t be as good as yours but we can’t afford you.” My budgets are generally .005-1.00% of the construction budget, but it’s the answer they’re most comfortable with.
Just to be clear, the most common issues you’ll encounter with other construction time-lapse films are: poor camera placement, missing site coverage, jumpy footage, improper timing too much or too little contrast and lack of story arc.
Why Story Matters
An audience needs to relate to your story, I include aspects of the process that DIY’ers and laypeople can relate to: painting, digging, mixing concrete, hammering, sawing, etc. I set my cameras to ensure these qualities are present. The small, salient details I flesh out during the course of a time-lapse shoot makes it easier for your audience to relate to the work, even if they’re not familiar with the construction process.
The thrall of great sweep and poignancy of meticulous detail indeed.
As a kid playing make believe construction, one of my favorite things to do was constructing buildings and environments and the stories that went with them. Fast forward to my adult life and photography career and many times I desired to redirect what I was being paid to photograph to focus exclusively on industrial landscapes, especially large outdoor locations. The allure of oil refineries, manufacturing plants, construction sites and the like swirled around my mind constantly. If the work included travel, so much the better. I was studio bound for years and happy. Business was good. I look fondly upon those days.
Nevertheless as much as I pined for a different type of photography career, I couldn’t get myself motivated to produce a portfolio showcasing this desire beyond the occasional self-assignment. When the infrequent industrial assignment came my way, I didn’t build upon those opportunities. I couldn’t identify the issues at play for me to understand why I wasn’t heading towards my hearts desire. So I kept at what I was being paid well to do: products, architecture, copy work, lab services and headshots. In 2003 I went into teaching more or less full time, thoroughly enjoyed that career and found the answer…time lapse!
As a preteen I saw my first time-lapse film. It was a 366 frame, 16mm color film of the building of Sleeping Beauty’s’ castle at the original Disneyland. By then I was well into my journey towards photography mastery and knew enough about photography to appreciate the investment of time required to make a film over a 366 day period. Every day the photographer climbed up that ladder, took one picture, climbed down, repeated this 365 times and had all the pictures line up perfectly for the film! How did he do that? It was magical! I was hooked. Had the details completely wrong but I was in love.
I didn’t give time-lapse much thought after that because I had discerned after watching that film that it was too hard to do for me. Of course if I had bothered to find out how time-lapse actually worked, things could have/would have been different. But I didn’t. Funny how love works.
During my teaching stint at Brooks Institute, (2003-2009, now closed) a colleague showed me his time-lapse films of star trails, snail trails, water and clouds. I fell in love all over again and entered the time-lapse arena. Digital photography removed the film impediment, made it fun and offered infinite visual possibilities. Independent film making here I come! I was at the very beginning of the learning curve. And it was greased. But I was in love and went for it: fireworks shows were my first subject and I learned quite a bit about framing, timing, editing, music and playback speeds.
After a couple of years getting up to speed with the technical aspects of time-lapse, I went about optimizing my website for local time-lapse searches.
My best time-lapse client (to date) contacted me in early 2011. They are a non-profit world famous botanical garden and research library. And they were re-constructing the first tea house built in the US post WWII in their Japanese garden and the director wanted a time-lapse of the process. 10 films later and we’re still working together. I keep my clients happy.
Not Yet Ending
Since 2011, I’ve produced and directed 18 films. I think like an artist, shoot like a director and edit like a storyteller. I show up often, arrive early and stay late to capture the intricate dance that is the building process. Each one represents a fantastical journey that I get to tell through time-lapse, my preferred story telling technique. So the next time you’re looking for a great time-lapse film experience, hire the kid who still loves trucks and dirt.
For the most part when I get called to produce a construction time lapse film, the request falls into one of two categories: a) …“we’re starting tomorrow, (or in the next few days) can you set up a camera?” or b) …”we’ve already begun our project and would like you to come out ASAP.”
This presents a challenge because as a story teller I’m concerned about the beginning of each and every film I produce. At what point does your story begin? As a client you have to ask yourself how will our story begin?
Every film, book, play, song or performance’s beginning is used to set up the audience for the rest of the story. A good beginning gets you to the emotional spot where the rest of the story can be consumed easily while informing and entertaining.
It’s not just a construction project, it’s your carefully choreographed story waiting to be told by someone like me, a dedicated and enthusiastic professional with a deep fondness for all things construction.
Call Me As Early As Possible
When you contact me with short, (or no) notice my ability to access your projects timeline is compromised. I’ll get your audience interested in what you have to present to them because that’s what I do. But the more time I have up front, the better and possibly more clever the intro. And that’s key to getting the attention of your audience.
For example, I was asked to produce this film after the demolition and new foundation work was completed. Not ideal for me and I struggled throughout the shoot to come up with an opening fitting to the subject. I succeeded because again, that’s what I do but I would have preferred to begin the project with a time-lapse sequence of the existing buildings demise…oh well a fella can dream can’t he?
I have to brag a bit about my success. It’s such a sweet feeling to achieve recognition in a crowded field.
As I began my incredible journey directing and producing construction time-lapse films in 2011, I laid out several goals for myself: make a living, have fun, elevate the mundane, meet new people, learn new stuff and gain recognition for the work. I can now safely say that 100% of these goals have been achieved: two of my films have been recognized and accepted for inclusion in the premiere of the worldwide Los Angeles 2016 Time Lapse Film Festival.
Lingering Clouds Peak and Syncreon’s deliverables were well-defined by my clients. These two amazing people were guided by their instincts in commissioning me, they believed in my value proposition and trusted me to deliver results. The recognition of my work bears out their trust in me and I’m very happy and excited for all of us.
Because both films were photographed and produced under ideal circumstances for a commercial artist: 100% trust from the clients and just about as close as one can get to 100% creative freedom, we came up with winners by working towards common goals. That is one of my value propositions: that of a dedicated and thorough professional, who looks around corners you don’t even know exist. I am your eyes on a project. Deliver results, not excuses.