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News Development of time-lapse – use in film & TV

20 February 2017 Daniel Curtis

As a versatile application, it is not surprising that time-lapse is now creeping into more commercial mediated projects.

Drew Geraci, an award-winning photographer and lead multimedia producer at District 7 Media, suggests that a ‘timelapse movement is sweeping the globe.’ This certainly captures the recent high concentration of time-lapse that is now visible in high-end commercial projects such as film, television, and broadcast advertising.

The application of the technique is not simply a phenomenon of modern times, however.

The first use of time-lapse photography in a motion picture happened in 1897, credited to Carrefour De L’Opera by French illusionist and film director Georges Méliès.

Time-lapse was also been used in early British nature documentaries, pioneered by Frank Percy Smith in 1910 as part of his film The Birth of a Flower.

Throughout the years, time-lapse has been used extensively to document various biological and scientific phenomena and continues to be an important educational tool. This has paved the way for its continued use and development in more contemporary naturalist features, some of which we refer to here.

More recent conceptions

These developments have inevitably led to time-lapse becoming a familiar feature in contemporary popular visual culture.

Even the concept of time-lapse itself provides the perfect premise for a timely narrative. Bradley D. King’s indie film, Time Lapse (2014), for example, incorporates the manipulation of time into a science-fiction thriller.

The film follows a group of three friends who discover a machine that can take polaroid pictures of things 24 hours into the future, causing increasingly complex causal loops. Upon realisation that they must ensure events pictured in the photographs occur, or else they face fatal consequences, the friends are tested and things quickly get out of hand.

Of course, the ability to see so far into the future is not unique to this film. Other famous titles such as Danny Boyle’s Shallow Grave (1994) and The Twilight Zone (1959-1964), present time-lapse within dramatic storylines based on an unsettling time paradox.

Not all examples of time-lapse in film and television centre around such techno paranoia, however. Specific applications of time-lapse have taken various remarkable forms in recent television projects.

Cinematic television: House of Cards (2013- )

Geraci’s work is a prime example of this and something we have referred to briefly to demonstrate how time-lapse features in more creative pursuits.

Partly responsible for the creation of the gritty and stylish time-lapse footage in the opening credits of the Netflix Original hit House of Cards, Geraci’s work helps to set the dark and sinister tone of this series.

Set in present-day Washington D.C, the narrative follows the ruthless pragmatism of Democrats Frank (Kevin Spacey) and Claire Underwood (Robin Wright), and their greedy ascent from congress to The White House.

Produced by award-winning actor, Kevin Spacey, and established director, David Fincher, this $100 million political drama is shot entirely on Red Epic film – the next generation of digital cinema technology.

It took Geraci and his team six months to capture over 120 time-lapse sequences (that’s more than six terabytes of images!), over 30 of which appear in the opening credits.

Shooting on location did not come without its challenges, making the result even more impressive. Weather conditions sometimes made it difficult to capture at optimum quality and scheduled sanctions had to be secured by DC’s National Park and Police services before shooting could begin. Such scheduling limited the serendipity that can sometimes come from spontaneous shoots. As Geraci puts it: ‘with time-lapse you need to shoot when it’s available!’

The team worked around such restrictions, however, particularly when shooting at night. Three separate frames were captured along with three separate exposures, making the blending and transitioning between images much easier in post-production. These were all shot in HDR to ensure clear, crisp quality.

HDR image quality is now a staple asset in an era wherein the quality of television productions is increasingly enhanced by bigger budgets and cinematic measures. Consider HBO’s Game of Thrones and Westworld, both offering spectacle and epic visuals no longer only associated with the big screen.

Indeed, such cinematic conventions are not only prevalent in fictional stories, but are now changing the ways factual television is presented.

David Attenborough and Planet Earth

Today’s documentaries often feature a blend of video, time-lapse, and other professional photography techniques. BBC’s Planet Earth II is perhaps the most notable of recent examples – a multinational nature documentary, presented by Sir David Attenborough.

The original series aired in 2006, but the follow-up was the first television series to be produced by the BBC in Ultra HD (4K). The series is considered pioneering for its fresh uses of time-lapse, hyper-lapse, tracking shots, extreme close-ups, and aerial drone photography.

Cinematic in its delivery, the documentary series also features a musical score by German composer and record producer, Hans Zimmer. Famous for his works on films like The Lion King (1994), Gladiator (2000), and The Last Samurai (2003), Zimmer’s contribution alongside the incredible visuals displayed in the series puts Planet Earth in the same league as these blockbusters.

The combination of such ground-breaking visual and aural presentations revolutionises how we as viewers can experience the animal kingdom.

Other notable Attenborough-BBC titles like The Private Life of Plants (1995), utilised time-lapse sequences extensively to present details that would otherwise have been missed. As plants live on a different time scale, it is only through this manipulation of time that the human eye can see certain aspects of plant behaviour.

Time-lapse is not only revolutionary in terms of the technological advances that it presents, then, but also in terms of the awe-inspiring mediated content that it can generate.

Blending the creative with the commercial

Recognisable brands and sports entertainments companies, including Red Bull, Corona, TopGolf and NFL, now all utilise time-lapse in their advertising.

In these advertisements, time-lapse seamlessly blends with the rest of the visual narrative. Such high-end aesthetics are no longer merely associated with the cinematic, but it is now equally as important that advertising campaigns tell a visually impressive story.

Of course, a story does not need to contain a high intensity sport, or an epic landscape; time-lapse can effectively showcase even the most ordinary of products.

Take this recent advertisement by flat-pack furniture retailer, IKEA. Time-lapse is used to show the transformation of a dining table fit for several purposes, including eating, drinking, and studying.

Purposefully simple in its design, the time-lapse sequence shows the ease by which the dining table or, A Passion Project Table, can be adapted for any activity. Passion is easily personified by time-lapse which helps to bring these various domestic activities to life.


These are only a handful of examples that showcase how time-lapse has been creatively applied to enhance visual storytelling since its inception. This evolution remains one of the most significant in photography’s history and there seems to be no sign of it reaching its peak just yet.

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