How are time-lapse videos made?

Time-lapse is a technical process which relies on specific timings and frame rates. We look at how both of these go into the making of a time-lapse video.

What is a time-lapse video?

A time-lapse video is the result of multiple photographs taken at regular intervals which are then played back in a sequence at a much quicker frame rate than was used to capture them. Thus, the subject of capture as well as time, by extension, appears to be moving faster – or ‘lapsing’.

In this way, time-lapse videos are an ideal way of visually documenting progress or change. The construction of a multi-storey building across a few months takes place within minutes as part of a time-lapse sequence. Even the subtlest of changes, those which are impossible to perceive in real time, appear more pronounced and exaggerated.

In other words, time-lapse allows us to mould the speed of change to a speed that our eyes and mind are able to understand.

A brief history

The technique has progressed significantly since its inception back in the 1870s.

Photographs taken at regular intervals in order to record the construction progress of the San Francisco Mint building over the course of two years was thought to be the starting point for time-lapse photography. The person responsible for this was English photographer, Edweard Muybridge.

Muybridge also went on to capture The Horse in Motion using a mechanised set-up of 24 cameras along the edge of a race track.

The Horse in Motion-anim.gif
By Eadweard Muybridge, Animation: Nevit Dilmen – Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division; [Public Domain].
Through the years since then applications of time-lapse have developed in remarkable ways: from its uses in Sir David Attenborough documentaries to computer-animated Disney films and music videos.

Other current applications include the capture of construction & demolition progress, leisure activities & events, as well as sports in various capacities. Time-lapse photography is also becoming an increasingly prominent feature on television broadcasts.

Balancing the basics: timings and frame rates

Looking at the specifics, at its core, time-lapse photography is a mathematical process.

Ultimately, time-lapse is made up of individual photographs captured at regular intervals over a particular amount of time (both short-term and long-term time-lapse is effective). But there are some technical decisions to be made if a time-lapse video is to actually ‘work’.

Typically, like video more generally, time-lapse videos are projected at 24 frames per second (fps). To make capture worthwhile in this instance, then, the camera will need to shoot once a second for at least 24 minutes, to produce a one-minute video of around 1,500 individual frames.

The perceived speed, then, is calculated by dividing the projection frame rate with the camera frame rate.

For sectors such as construction, time-lapse capture is needed for much greater lengths of time: weeks, months, even years.

Laptop displaying a major construction site through the iRis 4.0 viewing portal
Above: the best of professional time-lapse providers enable constant access and surveillance of their clients’ projects via an online viewing portal.

For projects of this duration, camera systems should capture an image at least once every 15 minutes for 8 hours a day. But interval rates may need to be increased during periods of intense activity.

For professional time-lapse providers, it is standard practice to utilise remote capabilities so that sustained capture during such periods can be guaranteed without the need to physically operate the camera system. With the incorporation of secure online networks, frame rates can be managed just as strictly from a remote location.

Plus, being able to work manually with the camera system is absolutely necessary as it guarantees the highest quality results. Auto settings can cause a number of problems if left unattended, particularly with exposure levels and focus.

The end result

Capturing images is only the beginning of the time-lapse process; a fully post-produced video is the desired end result.

But this is not necessarily a case of playing back all of the images captured in a sequence (although there are plenty of software packages available that will do most of the work for you). Editing a time-lapse sequence, particularly for commercial purposes, is a very meticulous, skilled process.

Sorting through hundreds and thousands of individual images takes time and not all images will make it to the final edit. For professional editors, their work will be subject to strict specifications from clients which will dictate the length and speed of a video.

Depending on its particular function – whether it will be used in a marketing campaign or as part of social media output – there may be other elements that will shape a finished time-lapse video. These can range from additional video or photographic content, to other text and/ or branding aesthetics.

For big contractors, a time-lapse edit showing the culmination of months of work in under three minutes is an incredibly efficient way of marketing themselves.

 

Looking at one of our own examples (above) – which documents the demolition of an old office block to make way for the construction of St Edward’s flagship residential build, 190 Strand – each element that goes in to this build can be observed through time-lapse.

Preliminary ground works, basement coverage and concrete pours are part of a long-term project which can be seen in a matter of minutes.

The demolition is also a key phase in the development of 190 Strand and the inclusion of this work helps to shape the narrative of the build in its entirety.

As a relatively short-term process, demolition tends to be quicker in relation to construction progress. As we have already discussed, time-lapse is equipped to effectively render both short-term and long-term progress providing that frame rate and intervals are adjusted accordingly.

Rapid capture refers to the quicker frequency of capture intervals. In other words, the more frequently the camera system captures an image, the more images (and more activity) will be recorded. For demolition purposes this is ideal.

Not all short-term works involve demolition, however. Although some projects tend to be smaller in size or duration than flagship construction builds, there is much to be gained from the detailed and focused perspective that time-lapse can bring to such work.

 

We time-lapsed the construction of the Star Wars Miniland display at Legoland Manchester Discovery Centre for Merlin Entertainments. In order to produce a high quality time-lapse (above) for our client, we had to carefully manage capture remotely.

The display took 2,000 man hours to create and we had to constantly change settings and capture rate, selecting the most appropriate relative to the indoor conditions which housed the project.

Read more about more of our short-term time-lapse projects, here.

 

So regardless of the duration, subject, or purpose of a finished time-lapse video, this vibrant visual mode is flexible, consistent, and engaging. It is remarkable to think how much the technique and its uses have developed in its relatively short history.

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