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How to Add Motion to Your Documentary With a Timelapse

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Read Time: 7 mins
This post is part of a series called Documentary in Motion.
Visual Vocabulary: How to Add Motion to Your Documentary Shots
How to Use a Jib to Add Motion to Your Documentary

In this tutorial series, we’re looking at ways to add creative motion to a documentary, with a specific eye for practical and portable solutions that don’t infringe on your ability to tell a good story. One of the simplest ways to add dynamic motion to your documentary edit is with a series of time-lapses. So, while your camera might be absolutely still during recording, the ability to speed up hours of footage into a short clip can give your story a much needed visual break from a typical sequence.

Here are some simple examples:

Stitching Photos for a Timelapse Versus Long Video Takes

If you shoot video with a DSLR or mirrorless camera, you have the option to shoot a photo timelapse with your main camera. The benefits are that your photos can typically shoot in much higher resolutions than video, and at slower frame rates. That means you can shoot a time-lapse at night, for example, with long exposures that bring out the details in a night sky. Or do exposure ramping, to incorporate changes in ambient lighting. And because your photos are high resolution, you can zoom in and crop them for a standard HD video timeline. Essentially, shooting photos can give you a lot more options to work with for your video time-lapse.

One disadvantage with shooting a photo time-lapse is that you have to stitch the photos together later. But there are simple software solutions to help you do that quickly (including in Adobe Photoshop and in After Effects), so it’s not a major concern.

More importantly, the major disadvantage is a time-lapse ties up your camera for hours at a time. If you’re only shooting with one camera, committing it to a time-lapse means you can’t be using that camera to shoot your primary video story at the same time. So if you’re shooting video during the day, much of your time-lapse will be taken at night, which can limit your options for the kinds of shots you want to achieve in a short amount of time.

Shooting a timelapse out a windowShooting a timelapse out a windowShooting a timelapse out a window

With a video camera, you can simply set your camera on a tripod and record a long take, and later speed it up in your edit. You don’t need any special stitching software, and you don’t need to bring any other equipment along. But you still have the issue of not being able to use your camera while it’s shooting a time-lapse. And most video cameras don’t do well at shooting during the night. 

The best solution is to have a photo camera along with you that can be dedicated to capturing long time-lapses. You can leave this camera mostly unattended, while you’re out shooting your video story on your dedicated video camera.

Where to Place Your Timelapse Camera

The low hanging fruit for time-lapse is to set up your camera in your hotel room, and hope you get a good view. You can leave the camera on during the day while you’re shooting, or turn it on when for a sunset, sunrise, or overnight time-lapse. 

If your hotel doesn’t have a balcony or windows that open, the main battle is avoiding glare when shooting through a window. There are affordable “lens skirts” out there that tackle this specific issue, or you can adjust the curtains so that they hug your camera. The other concern is hotel housekeeping mistakenly closing your window curtains while you’re away. A simple hand written note taped to the camera can ensure that no one messes with your time-lapse while you’re away.

GoPro camera on a home-made kitchen timer pan mechanismGoPro camera on a home-made kitchen timer pan mechanismGoPro camera on a home-made kitchen timer pan mechanism

If you want to get out of the hotel view, while still leaving your camera unattended for hours, you’ll want to find places such as rooftops and out of the way places you can set your camera in. To be extra cautious, you may want to set your time lapse camera somewhere near your shoot, where you can keep an eye on it from time to time. It’s also advantageous to use something like a Gorillapod to attach your camera high up on a light pole, for example, where it won’t get in the way of foot traffic.

Of course if you want a really good time lapse, you have to work for it. Busy city scenes, natural landscapes, and time-lapses of your subject in action usually mean you have to stand by your camera and ensure you get what you need. But the waiting part can be intensely time consuming, so only commit to a long time-lapse shot if you don’t have other shots you could be getting with your regular camera. 

ND Filters For Timelapses

If you have an ND filter, it’s a good idea to use it for a time-lapse. Why? You can decrease the amount of light hitting your camera, which enables you to slow down the shutter speed. In this way, you can achieve motion blur from people, vehicles, and other moving objects in your scene. In fact, if you set your shutter speed slow enough, you can even remove people from your scene altogether. They just become blurry objects that are barely visible in a sped up time lapse. 

Motion blur achieved with a neutral density filter and slow shutter speed Motion blur achieved with a neutral density filter and slow shutter speed Motion blur achieved with a neutral density filter and slow shutter speed
A neutral density filter allowed me to use an extra slow shutter speed, blurring the motion of people moving through the lobby.

Adding Motion to the Timelapse

Once you’ve sped up your long video, or stitched together your photo time-lapse, you may also want to add slight motion to the overall frame. With photos it’s especially easy because you have so much resolution to work with. For a standard HD video timeline, you can move around in a photo quite a lot without losing pixels. 

After you zoom in and crop your time-lapse, it only takes a few moments to apply a few animated keyframes to pan across the video, or tilt, or a combination of both movements. Or you can use the “Ken Burns” effect, which makes it easy to zoom in or out a little during your time-lapse. Both methods should give your time-lapse a little boost in visual interest.

GoPro camera capturing a time-lapse outdoorsGoPro camera capturing a time-lapse outdoorsGoPro camera capturing a time-lapse outdoors

Alternatively, you don’t have to wait until your edit to give your time-lapse some dynamic motion. The easiest method is placing your camera on a simple kitchen egg timer which rotates 360 degrees, enabling your camera to pan throughout a scene as it captures photos over a long period of time. The DIY kitchen timer only gives you about an hour as it goes all the way around, so you may want a tool specifically made for time-lapse photography if you want to achieve a slow pan over several hours.

A pan is nice, but it’s not very dynamic. A motorized or motion controlled slider, however, can achieve amazing perspective shifts as it slides forward and backward or side to side over several hours. It does make your time-lapse setup a lot more complicated, but the results can give you breathtaking time-lapses that add a lot to your documentary story. You may want to check with your slider’s manufacturer to see if they already have a motorized accessory. And some motorized slider units can also pan during a slow slide, giving the traditional straight slide track a more lively arc to its movement.

Finally, the most dynamic and powerful time-lapses out there aren’t made with a slider. They’re made with your feet. Whereas a slider can only move your camera a few feet, you can pickup the camera and move much further. This is called a hyperlapse, and the results can be stunning. It’s like a really good gimbal move, but you can see clouds, people, cars, and the world zipping by in seconds. 

It does take an incredible amount of work to execute a really smooth hyperlapse shot, including measuring out and marking the spots to move your camera (on a tripod). But even a slightly jerky looking hyperlapse, while walking through a busy crowd can add a lot of production quality to your documentary.

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