Time-lapse has made a remarkable journey.
In this two-part blog, we trace the names of those who helped to pioneer this extraordinary medium since its inception almost 150 years ago, right through to its present-day applications.
Part I 1870s-1930s
Although the inception of time-lapse in its photographic form is difficult to pin down, one of the earliest recorded uses is by Eadweard Muybridge. An English photographer, Muybridge is renowned for his pioneering work in the study of motion.
He reportedly used photography to document the construction of the San Francisco Mint, capturing changes to the build over the two-year period, which collectively formed a sequence of the progress.
Muybridge’s sequence photography also came in useful elsewhere to settle the much-debated question of whether a horse ever had all four hooves off the ground at the same time when trotting and galloping.
The Horse in Motion was the title given to the study and consisted of Muybridge setting up 12 cameras along the edge of the track, with each of the shutters triggered in order by a thread. The images were copied onto a disc that were then viewed through a ‘zoopraxiscope’, a machine that Muybridge himself had invented.
The human eye is unable to break down the action of the horse but through these photographic means pioneered by Muybridge, the movements are divided and thus clearer to see. It is evident where the origins of time-lapse came from – and that, in fact, a horse is ‘airborne’ while trotting and galloping.
It is not unusual to see time-lapse used in conjunction with other visual mediums but the very first instance of this photography form used as part of a motion picture is credited to French illusionist and film director Georges Méliès and his silent film Carrefour De L’Opera.
It is perhaps also important to note that Méliès’ larger motion picture credentials involve pioneering early special effects, such as double exposure, split screen, and the first dissolve.
His discovery of manipulating and distorting time and space in these various ways is an indication of what time-lapse would go on to enable in terms of accelerating the natural progression of time in effective ways.
In the early 1900s the application of time-lapse gave fresh impetus to how documentaries could illustrate certain natural processes, still used extensively today.
The Birth of a Flower is the text thought to have pioneered the use of time-lapse in this way, produced by British naturalist F. Percy Smith.
As with Muybridge’s study in the 1800s, Arthur C. Pillsbury’s application of time-lapse to record the movement of flowers through their life cycle, was also incredibly informative from a scientific standpoint.
Pillsbury’s interventions, including building his own camera and capturing 500 varieties of wildflower in Yosemite, ensured the survival of the rapidly shrinking numbers of these flowers in the meadows.
Through his time-lapse recordings, Pillsbury identified the reduction of these flowers as a responsibility of the Calvary, who were harvesting the meadows as food for their horses, and called for this to be stopped.
This use of photography in order to obtain the preservation of natural resources in this way was a first. Pillsbury’s work was hugely influential in educational spheres, the impact of which can be gauged through the incorporation of his time-lapse films as part of his lectures at various institutions, as well as in their capacity to inform tourists in Yosemite.
The following quote is taken from one of Pillsbury’s later published works, Picturing Miracles of Plant and Animal Life (1937). He provides a rather eloquent description of the process of capturing flowers using what he refers to here as ‘lapse-time’:
Man looks at a flower in passing; the eye would soon tire in trying to watch its growth or change of position, but the lapse-time camera, running at a speed to record in the time we have to see it, registers every change of position day and night with a tireless lens eye, and all from the same chosen position, writing on the film what happens in lines, expressing position, growth and color until finally…its parts have fulfilled their life’s duty, passing on into another form.
In the creative vision of German film director Arnold Fanck, time-lapse provides a bridge between his documentary work and his first film with a plot-based narrative.
Der heilige Berg, translated as The Holy Mountain, made a departure from the mountain documentaries that had earned him considerable fame as a director at the time. The film’s plot is centred around the relationship between a female dancer and an engineer living in a beautiful mountain setting. The film features significant natural changes which serve as a symbolic reflection of the tempestuous relationships in the film.
Fanck was known for his impressive cinematography and his meticulous editing techniques, so it is not surprising he is among those who are considered to have pioneered time-lapse in this particular motion picture form.
Fanck’s work indeed marked a turning point for time-lapse as it began to creep into use in more popular cultural sites. His status as a popular film director helped to open out time-lapse to bigger audiences in film theatres around the world.
Dr. John Ott furthered the development of time-lapse in this way and is credited for popularising the medium more so than anyone before him. Working as a banker by day, Ott’s fascination with time-lapse began as a hobby. He then began to build and create his own time-lapse equipment, which he predominantly used to film nature and the plants growing in his own greenhouses.
As part of his investigations, Ott discovered that varying the amount of water given to the plants, as well as modifying the colour-temperature of lights in his studio, allowed him to manipulate the movement of plants. Some colours caused plants to flower and some to bear fruit.
Through time-lapse, this growth could be recorded in all its detail, with the movement of the plants accelerated when viewed in sequence to appear as if they are “dancing”. Ott extended this metaphor by synching footage of these plant movements to pre-recorded music tracks.
To demonstrate the sheer impact of Ott’s influence on the medium, his methods continue to influence contemporary time-lapsers. ‘Disco Cucumber Time Lapse’ by RealVinceSamios is an excellent example.
Such techniques are common-place today but decades ago Ott’s work was considered as just the beginning.