A few months ago, I saw a short video of a TED talk given by Cesar Kuriyama, an artist/ad man who challenged himself to take a year off from his usual workaday life in order to re-charge his creative batteries. One of the ideas that grew out of his sabbatical was a concept he calls “One Second Every Day”. Here’s the basic idea: you take a one-second snippet from a video that you record each day, then merge the snippets together to create a kind of personal meta-narrative.
Kuriyama concedes that the artistic value of the clips is greatest for the person who created it. But, he contends, there’s an even greater benefit to the individual by way of the process. It takes discipline to capture video of your life every day. So in addition to the fairly straightforward result of helping Kuriyama not to forget the things that are happening in his daily life, it’s challenging him to do something every day that’s worth documenting.
Watch Cesar Kuriyama’s year in one-second snippets.
After a successful Kickstarter campaign, Kuriyama developed an app that makes it easy for anyone wanting to follow in the path of micro-documentation. I grabbed this app a few weeks ago, and the results for me so far have been predictably uneven. Nothing too spectacular. But even with just a couple of snippets under my belt, there’s a clear contour beginning to emerge around my daily life. After just a short time, I find that I’m now eagerly thinking about what I’ll shoot each day and how that moment might reflect the larger sweep of life as it is right now. And like Kuriyama, I’m motivated by the challenge to spend part of my day in a way that’s worth documenting.
It’s the discipline of daily documentation that is making the whole document more interesting and valuable.
The simple practice of it, day after day, is making it better.
But since this is a post about time lapse, let’s be clear about one thing. These clips are not time lapse. At best they are an intensely personal, reflective tapestry of scenes. An abstraction of daily life comprised of impossibly small moments, each one as small as a single brushstroke in a painting.
These clips are not time lapse because time lapse, by definition, focuses on a subject or scene through a single, continuous action. [There’s a case to be made on a philosophical level about the continuous nature of a human life, but let’s just concede the point for now and move on, shall we?]
If a time lapse shows something happening over time, the best time lapses use that time to tell a great story. If you don’t take the time to think about the story you want to tell, your first time lapse might still look cool. But it probably won’t be able to stand on its own. (Take, for example, Kuriyama’s own speed-through of a party in his Brooklyn loft. Watching it begs the question: if you put a GoPro in the corner and set it to take one photo every five seconds over the course of an evening, does that constitute a quality time lapse?)
Let’s be fair though: when you attempt your first time lapse, you’re just working out the kinks. It’s like swinging two bats in the on-deck circle. It’s a warm-up. So even though your first time lapse will probably be excruciatingly terrible, it won’t be completely worthless. You can still cut it into a montage.
Your second time lapse will probably stink, too. But don’t worry. Undisciplined storytelling is curable. Making a great time lapse is a skill. And creative skills, like technical skills, must be learned.
Think about it like this: if you bought a book on how to snowboard, you couldn’t just read it and immediately be able to go out and snowboard like a pro. It takes practice.
In our workshops, we like to get our practice in some of the most visually inspiring places in North America. Our time lapse workshop takes place in San Francisco, which the readers of Condé Nast voted #2 on their 2012 list of best U.S. cities. (Which city was number one? Grabbing solid, all-around scores in every category, this Palmetto State stunner beat out the likes of Cape Town and Florence for best city in the whole world.)
A story doesn’t write itself. You have to see it. Visualize it.
We talk about this in every one of our workshops. Knowing how to see. Anticipating the conditions. Using what’s available to create the most striking story possible.
Did you know it took one full day of storyboarding and planning to prepare to shoot this four-and-a-half minute Panama Canal clip?
To capture the story of transiting the Panama Canal, ten cameras were mounted around the passenger vessel MV Explorer at eight different camera locations. The eight-hour transit was broken into six zones, with cameras shooting continuously through all six zones. Bow- and stern-mounted cameras shot at 10 second intervals, while port- and starboard-facing cameras shot at 5 second intervals. Exposure changes at each camera location were timed to coincide with scripted camera cuts in the storyboard. In short, nothing was left to chance. If you’d like to know more about what went into the making of that piece, you can ask Michael Mariant, who is the instructor for our time lapse workshop (post your question in the comments below).
If you want to shoot a great time lapse, you’ve got to tell a good story. And storytelling, in any medium, takes practice.