Time-lapse Sculpting: The Process of Finding It

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


Thanks for reading.



Michael Stern

My work depicts, appreciates and honors the people who build. Their specialized equipment and stunning challenges are marvels I behold and get paid to interpret. Hope you enjoy this site.
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