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Manipulating Time

It all started back in 1872 at the race track. Leland Stanford, the governor of California, had made a wager that all four feet of a galloping horse simultaneously lift off the ground. It was a hotly debated topic at the time, but impossible to verify with the naked eye. To prove his point, Stanford hired the visionary British photographer Eadweard Muybridge, who set up a series of cameras along the track with threads to trigger their shutters. When the photos revealed a fully airborne mare, Stanford won his bet … and cinematography took another step forward in its evolution.

Today, we can watch a flower blossom, a blank canvas become art, a wintry landscape morph to a summer meadow, or a starry sky give way to a morning sunrise: all within a minute or two. That’s the gift of timelapse photography.

What Does It Do?

Timelapse photography can suggest a mood. Imagine a character standing motionless while the world races all around them. This communicates a feeling of loneliness and isolation, even if – and perhaps especially because – the person is surrounded by activity.

Similarly, timelapse can establish the ambience of a setting. For example, we produced a corporate video for the Centre for the Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine (CCRM), which takes gene therapy from lab to bedside, potentially managing and curing deadly diseases. The opening timelapse sequence leads the viewer to CCRM’s prime location at Toronto’s MaRS Centre, creating an aura of urgency and progressiveness reflective of the organization’s profile. By showing the daily hustle and bustle right at their doorstep, these shots position CCRM as a pivotal hub, uniting the diverse worlds of scientists, researchers, investors, entrepreneurs, industry, and government together in a common cause.

Whether encapsulating a brief segment of time or recording a project over several months, we have used timelapse photography for many clients, catching the dynamics of a day at the office, tracking the ongoing construction of a large building, or observing the traffic patterns on a busy city street. Hold on to your hat and enjoy 10 surreal seconds of time manipulation by Big Red Oak:

How Does It Work?

Simply put, the camera captures the film frames at a lower rate than the intended playback speed, producing a faster version of the action. Shots can take place over minutes, hours, days, or months, and be sped up by factors of 10s to millions; and the photos are then combined into a continuous sequence.

Many current cameras support the technologies as part of their function, with features that can add layers of complexity and interest to a timelapse. Motion-control units, such as motorized camera sliders and camera stabilizers, can move at extremely low speeds calibrated to the duration of intervals that would make up the timelapse. The end result adds movement or changes perspective to the passage of time.

Shutter speed is one of the primary technical and artistic considerations when filming timelapse. A faster shutter speed will retain the edges of moving subjects in the field of view, whereas a slower one blurs these edges. A timelapse with higher shutter speeds show any movements in frame as more frantic or staccato in appearance. A slower shutter speed timelapse appears smoother even as time passes very quickly, because the motion blur helps soften the perceived motion. As the shutter speed gets increasingly slower, the motion blur can become so extreme that any moving object is entirely blurred out, making any motion flow appear seamless.

Timelapse photography is a highly useful device in the videographer’s toolkit. Cinematically, it tells a story and delivers a message by conveying an atmosphere or emotion. Timelapse techniques move us rapidly between then and now, chronicling and compressing the action and transcending the reality of our senses.