Ep. 11 – Time-lapse filming

With Dan East (Site-Eye)

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Since the inception of photography, the technique of using time-lapse has been utilised by individuals wanting to showcase slow changing subjects transformed into an onslaught of activity. Now used across multiple arenas as varied as marketing, television, film and social media, time-lapse footage still proves interesting and engaging.

What started out as a small addition to an existing program or project has become a distinct discipline in it’s own right. With multiple cameras and technology now supporting and enhancing time-lapse the possibilities have become limitless*.

In this episode we discuss time-lapse filming; a technique where fixed camera rigs capture activity frame-by-frame, over a period anywhere from a few hours through to several years!

Our guest in this episode is Dan East, who is a Business Development and Account Management for Site-Eye Time Lapse.

Site-Eye are one of the most experienced time lapse film production companies in the UK, with over 300 cameras currently in the field working on over 100 projects in 3 continents.

I checked in with Dan at the Broadcast Video Expo in London…

Dan East

SL: Thanks for joining me today Dan, to start with the basics, what sort of industries are using time-lapse techniques, it’s not just for the entertainment industries or film, can you give me some good examples?

DE: The most common are long term construction work. Generally working for long term construction projects such as the Olympics, Battersea Power Station, The Shard, people who want to keep an eye on a long term project over a number of years.

SL: Is the big market construction and documentation (with arts and entertainment it’s often a stylistic choice)?

DE: For our purposes yes. For artistic purposes they tend to be shorter term time-lapse, from a couple of hours to a couple of days. Whereas we specialise in time frames from shortest at three months to our longest which is fifteen years. It’s a different ball park, a different game completely.

SL: There are a lot of different terms, time-lapse, hyper-lapse, tilt shift, what are the differences between these terms?

DE: A lot of those come in the creative industries, so you can do them on short term time-lapse projects when you’re there for the day. Time-lapse is simply taking a series of pictures which you stitch together to make a film and usually the camera is in a static position.

Hyper-lapse is more when you’re moving the camera, along a long dolly or a handheld gimble, when you’re moving through a scene and once again taking a series of images and stitching them together. Tilt shift is traditionally using a tilt shift lens, more often than not these days it is done with post production effects. It creates a mini world with the focus only on a section in the centre.

SL: Your definition of short term and long term, what are the parameters?

DE: For us anything over a period of three months would be long term, though for others this could be anything over a week. Beyond the week point you’re getting off using batteries and using either solar power or a permanent electric power supply.

SL: What range of equipment and camera set ups are available on the market then? We’ve seen people using GoPros for cheap time-lapses, but long term that doesn’t cut it?

DE: No, we’ve only used GoPros if it’s a day shoot that needs to go on something like a crane. If it’s something that’s active and you don’t want to put thousands of pounds on something moving through the air. With long term time-lapse that are two or three camera types that we would use, generally a Canon DSLR camera.

There are different levels of camera dependant on what the client asks for. We currently have an 8K camera filming a football build at the minute. Most often than not it’s a 4K DSLR based system, the next step down from that is a 4K IP based camera, used in internal fit out projects, which is much smaller.

Traditionally the quality has not been good, but in the last couple of years, the quality has come on significantly.

Site Eye’s London Showreel

SL: You have cameras in place for many months and years, do you back up the footage or do you go and collect it?

DE: All of our powered cameras have 3G or 4G connections and as they take a picture every ten minutes, they send it back to our servers. We split it and send it to three different servers so we have redundancy across three systems.

The client has a log-in to one server, the post production team has log in to another, which allows us to turn footage around continuously. It also means that our camera can keep an eye on the cameras and monitor them as well.

SL: In terms of the physical set up, what might it look like in terms of the housing of the camera, and the power set up?

DE: We have a solar power system, you do lose some of the backend functionality, because we’re trying to conserve as much power as possible.

We have DSLR front end then there is computer systems in there, 3G communications and our bespoke software in there as well, allowing us to keep track of the cameras. We get log information back as well so we know exactly what the camera is doing.

SL: In terms of the elements, how do you fight the weather and the climate?

DE: We have bespoke weather proof housing, completely weather tight and water retardant with self-cleaning glass on the front.

Site Eye Time Lapse at Botolph, London

SL: In your long term field, what are the factors to get great footage?

DE: For the long term especially, it’s all about vantage point that’s going to be static for the length of the project. One of the problems we often come across, especially in London, is that if it’s a five year project, over the five years all the buildings around it will probably be developed at some point.

You need to look for a location that will be static, that will have a constant power source and keeping on top of it over that period of time.

SL: What are the biggest challenges for a successful time-lapse?

DE: The biggest challenges are turning up to sites that are in the middle of nowhere, so that’s where you get power and communications being an issue. And the sheer remoteness of the site. It may be in the Scottish highlands or the mountains of Wales, it’s just off the map in terms of communications.

It’s where we lack communications that’s the biggest issue. With some projects we’ve ended up putting in satellite communications with the cameras because there is no 3G/ 4G connectivity in the area.

SL: You typically have 300 cameras in the field at one time, how do you go about completing maintenance on all of them?

DE: We’ve got a traffic light system. We currently have 350 active cameras over 160 projects, and they’re all on green. They turn amber if we haven’t heard from them in ten minutes and red if we haven’t heard from them in thirty minutes. So that’s monitored throughout the day.

We have just under twenty members of staff and the majority of those are engineers who are out and about, on site every day. We monitor them online, if there are any issues we get people to the cameras straight away.

SL: On the post production side then, what’s the process of getting those many thousands of stills and turning them into video?

DE: So are cameras upload images every ten minutes, allowing our editors every month to go through and do a process that we refer to in-house as ‘de-nighting’.

Every month they ‘de-night’ every camera and do a physical edit taking out all the dead time, be it weekend, or nights or even lunchtimes. That could take them anywhere from a week to two weeks to go through all that.

Site Eye Lapland and Aurora Time Lapse

Site Eye Time Lapse at London Gateway

SL: You want to make sure there are no blips on frame?

DE: The worst thing with construction is if someone stands in front of camera, or parks some equipment blocking the camera. There is a certain amount of de-flickering and colour saturation work to do in there as well.

For all of our clients we do films on a monthly basis, but when it gets to the end of the project you have the opportunity to be more creative. They may end up with forty minutes of footage but only want a minute and a half’s worth of film. It’s the process of going through 24 months worth of film and putting it into one usable marketing film.

SL: For clients looking to use this footage in some form of marketing or pitch material, typically what does a producer or project manager want you to deliver for the final product?

DE: It’s a mixture and for some clients we provide them with a variety of outputs. Traditionally it’s a marketing output, short films to be used on line to promote the finished project. In the past ten years, more project managers have got involved and they want to see everything that happened.

So that’s when you end up with a 10 or 15 minute film, so they can retrospectively go through and evaluate the project of what did and didn’t work, what they could tweak for the next project. Some projects want to record absolutely everything and see it all back, so they can look at where work wasn’t happening and why it wasn’t happening.

One interesting example would be the roof build for London Bridge station, they built the roof in an airfield in North Yorkshire, took it apart and rebuilt it again and again. Kept watching the video in between builds to make sure that when they went to build it properly on London Bridge they could be as efficient as possible.

SL: Have you ever been asked to install a full time permanent time-lapse?

DE: We have been asked to install that in a couple of manufacturing facilities, it went in for one project to film an industrial pump being built and stayed for six months! Went in for a marketing purpose, and the team found it very useful for planning how they were working.

SL: What advice would you give to video producers looking to commission time-lapse footage, for purely creative decisions? What questions should they be asking?

DE: If it’s for a creative purpose it’s how to tell the story. If you’re capturing a short term day event, time-lapse can often capture the amount of people there, the queueing systems, repetition which is great for a creative process.

If it’s a long term process, often the work we’ve done on construction in London, has been picked up by documentary filmmakers. They can come to us, or through the client, as they want to demonstrate how a large project was built over a period of time. In this case the footage can be intercut with interviews to tell the story.

SL: Thanks Dan, it’s been great to talk to you.