You probably know what a time-lapse movie is, and maybe you have also heard the term hyper-lapse. These types of movies typically span several hours or days. But for obvious reasons there don’t seem to be too many time-lapse movies around that cover multiple years. So, we are definitely in need of a new name for this rare breed of time-lapse movies. I call them ultra-lapse movies.
The Story Behind the Movie
You’ve probably never seen a time-lapse movie from me. But a couple of years ago, I was experimenting with several time-lapse techniques, and when we moved to a new home, I decided to start a special project. I had an old Nikon S1 Point-and-Shoot camera with a time-lapse function that could shoot images in intervals of up to one hour. We had a room that was rarely used and that room had an awesome view. So, I put up the little camera and programmed it to take a photo every 30 minutes for… well… as long as I would manage to change the memory cards when they were full. 2 GB was the limit for this camera which meant that roughly every 30 days, I would have to switch cards to avoid losing images in the sequence.
I was fascinated by the idea of making long-term changes and processes visible – processes that range way beyond the usual span of a time-lapse. But I had no idea what to expect from the finished movie. I thought that I would be shooting maybe for a year. As it turned out, this became three years.
Between March 2009 and April 2012, the little camera took exactly 50,074 photos before I decided to wrap it up. Then it took another 2 years before I finally got around to taking up this project again and take on the challenge of turning these 50,074 photos into an ultra-lapse.
Doing the Math
Now, I know that some of you will be grabbing their calculators to verify the bold claim that this is 1 million times faster than real life. And before you uncover the places where I took the freedom to round a few numbers, let me do it myself. 😉
The total number of days shown in the movie is 1043. I took one photo of each day, so that makes 1043 days. A day has 86400 seconds which means that the number of seconds covered by the movie is 90,115,200. Since the time-lapse sequence is a little over 100 seconds long, that means one second of the movie covers 901,152 seconds of real time. In my books, that’s close enough to a million. 😉
How to Create an Ultra-Lapse Movie
This is obviously not a weekend project, nor is it something that produces quick results. It’s the sort of thing that you start and almost forget about, except for the frequent switching of memory cards. But if you’ve got the stamina, here is how you do it.
Things you need
- A still camera that you do not need anymore. This camera will remain where you set it up until it is hopelessly outdated. Period!
- A permanent power outlet (unless you enjoy changing batteries every few days).
- An intervalometer capable of shooting at intervals upwards of 30 minutes, either built into your camera or external.
- A place in your house that has a nice view and where the camera does not become an obstacle for anyone. Remember that the camera should not be moved at all over the next few years.
- A schedule for changing memory cards. You need to stick to that schedule. If you are away for an extended period of time, you have to plan for that.
- The discipline to keep your schedule no matter what. If you ever forget to change cards in time, your ultra-lapse will be ruined (or at least cut short).
The interval, the storage, and the image size
You don’t need your Nikon D800 anymore? Cool! But this may not be the ideal camera for an ultra-lapse. Above all, you need to make sure that the size of each photo and the size of your memory card are such that you can leave them alone for some time without having to change cards. I would suggest that you give it at least three weeks, 30+ days is even better. This leaves enough room for an extended vacation and other, more unexpected incidents that keep you from attending your ultra-lapse shoot.
Most cameras will let you choose between different image sizes and quality levels. Since your final movie will most likely be in HD or Full-HD (1920×1080 or about 2MP), you do not need a monster resolution. However, leaving room (in terms of resolution) enables you to zoom and pan in post-production. I would suggest anything between 10 and 5 megapixel is more than enough. This also means that you should shoot only in JPEG format. RAW images are too large.
When you’ve found a good setting, do a test shoot for a couple of days and calculate the average size of a photo. Remember that the size of a JPEG image file depends on its contents. So looking at a single frame is useless here. Then check how many of these images fit onto your memory card when you leave about 10 percent safety margin.
Use the longest interval you have available in the time-lapse function on your camera. In general 30 minutes is a good choice. Using a shorter interval will produce too many images, using a longer one reduces your choice in post-production.
Check how long you can shoot with that interval before your memory card is 90% full. Will you get to the 3-week mark? If not, reduce the image size, increase the interval, or buy a larger memory card.
Make sure you have the perfect composition before you start the ultra-lapse shoot. Changing compositions after you start is possible, but should be avoided for the sake of stable footage. Also make sure your overall setup is as simple as possible. This reduces the number of things that could go wrong.
Creating enough choice
For the movie above, I was using an interval of 30 minutes. At first glance, this seems like an overkill if you only use a single image per day in the end. But keep in mind:
- Your ultra-lapse may be over a shorter period of time, and you may need multiple images per day to fill a decent amount of time in the final movie.
- Even if you only use one image per day, you need to be able to select the right one. In the end, you will pick one hour and use the image from that hour of every day. The hour you pick depends on how good and consistent that series of images is throughout the entire shoot.
Handling the image files
Make sure you save the batch of images safely each time you change cards, and make a backup frequently. You should create a chronological folder structure with a subfolder for each batch.
This is the easy part. The hard part comes when you need to select the right subset of images for the final movie.
So, you’ve been able to create an extended set of photos over a long period of time. Great! You have 30, 50 or 100,000 photos laying on your hard drive. And now what?
Selecting the images
The first thing you need to do is to cull those tens of thousands of images down to the ones you’re actually going to use. The principle I was following for this ultra-lapse was to use the photos from approximately the same time of day for every day. This will ensure that the lighting is consistent across all images. There are other, more complex selections of images. But this one generally works quite well.
What I suggest sounds simple at first. But the big question is: Which time of day do you choose? The best way of finding this out is to isolate several hour batches and check them carefully. For example, the 12-o’clock batch consists of every photos taken at 12 o’clock on the respective day. You may want to put the 10-o’clock, the 12-o’clock and the 14-o’clock photos in separate batches and check which one is the best.
You can, of course do this manually. But depending on the number of images, this can take quite a while. A better way is to automate this. Here is a PowerShell script for Windows that may get you started. It goes through all your images and selects the ones that are taken at a particular hour of the day based on the EXIF data. It then copies all of these files into a destination directory and appends the time stamp to avoid conflicts.
Renaming the images
When you have all you images in a single directory, you need to prepare them for loading them into a video software as a batch. For example, Adobe Bridge can do this for you:
- Navigate to the folder and select all images
- Right-click on any of them and select “Batch Rename…” from the pop-up menu.
- Enter a base name and a sequence number in the Batch Rename dialog and click “Rename”.
The reason why you need to give the files a sequential number is that most programs that can turn your images into a video will let you load a batch of images at once. But they only do this if the numbering is sequential.
Next, load all the images into an image editor that lets you change basic exposure settings and the white balance. I used Adobe Camera Raw for this. Once the images were loaded, I told ACR to set the white balance automatically because my camera would not let me set it manually. The result were vastly different color casts that would lead to a flicker in the final video. Using ACR’s auto white balance function worked quite well here, but in some cases you may have to readjust the white balance of individual images to match the other images.
I also adjusted the colors and the exposure such that the entire series of images would be as consistent as possible. Then I saved the entire batch to a new directory.
I imported the images into VirtualDub, a free video production software. In VirtualDub, I added a deflicker filter and a motion blur filter. Deflickering is evening out the exposure differences between the images, and motion blur blends adjacent frames. Both filters are essential to make the final video look smoother. Since the images where taken a day apart, simply playing them like a normal image sequence would cause very harsh transitions, making the final video unpleasant to watch.
After exporting the images as a plain video with 10 frames per second from VirtualDub, I imported it into Adobe Premier Pro to add the bells and whistles (titles and stuff) and give it the final look.
Looking forward to watching your ultra-lapse video
That was the crash course in creating an ultra-lapse. Will you take on the challenge? Do you have the stamina, and discipline and the determination it takes? I am looking forward to watching your first ultra-lapse video… in a couple of years. 😉
If you need more specific information, write a comment below!