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Feature “Nightscapes” - A Look into creating a timelapse film on a minimal budget
 

About Phil Arntz:

Phil shot his first timelapse film "Nightscapes" in 2011. You can contact him via email (contact@philarntz.com) or follow him on Twitter.
 
http://www.philarntz.com

“Nightscapes” is a piece i dedicated to my friends and family. The reason for this is, that our family really started to love London, but we are not sure, how long we will stay! Very uncertain times at the moment, so this is a great memory for what we have/had in London. I also dedicated this to my friends, because i go to a german school in london, thus meaning that many people only stay here for a year or two and I want them to treasure the London memories too!

Shooting Nightscapes was an experience, which changed my views on city-life. I have never experienced London, like I did when shooting the movie over the last months. The city comes alive at night, but it’s not all sparkly at night. There are many parts which should be avoided and you really see some strange things too!


Shooting the movie required an awful lot of dedication, sleepless nights and warm clothes. The main problem I had was, the cold. Even though it might not seem to cold in the UK, at around 0 degrees, it really starts to get to you when you are waiting an hour for your timelapse to finish on Millenium Bridge in high winds! I have met new people, made new connections and friends and overall, it was an experience, I am happy to have had! The movie is certainly a first chapter in regards to shooting a timelapse film, with a planned structure and loads of work! I am sure there will be other films around the corner, but for now, I have to take a break from the cold nights and get my head around narrative work, to build up my experience in actually shooting people, lighting scenes, directing actors and generally everything in a planned working environment! That doesn’t mean this is my first and last timelapse film, no, completely the opposite! I want to relive what I did, just in a very very different way! I want to invest in some new gear and make a trip around the country side and create a movie of the british countryside and show the stark contrast in Britain! This is a thing which needs loads more planning, but it would be a lengthy trip with film elements in it too, so not just a timelapse film!

Back to Nightscapes. Like I said, shooting was a straining experience, but I am very happy with the results and amazed how well my kit performed under these working environments. The gear wasn’t always as neatly packed away, as it maybe should have been, but then again, i needed to get as many shots as possible, so cameras, lenses and especially the tripod got knocked around like crazy!


The kit I used to shoot consisted of:

  • Body: Canon 550D/T2i/Kiss X4
  • Lenses: Samyang 14mm F2.8, Samyang 35mm F1.4, Samyang 85mm F1.4, Canon 24-105 F4 L
  • Support Gear: Sachtler ACE - Ground Level Spreader Version
  • Batteries: Knock-off Canon LP-E8 x 5, original Canon battery
  • Media: Integral Ultima 16GB Class 10 SD Cards x 4
  • Timer: Cheap Ebay Intervalometer, £15
  • Occasional bits and bobs: Merlin SynScan Skywatcher as improvised Pan and Tilt Head, Lens Skirt

As you can see, it is not the most expensive kit which is out there! The body is cheap, the lenses are cheap, the cards are some of the cheapest you can find and the batteries are nearly free! If this isn’t a motivation to get you out and shooting, then I don’t know what is. If you really want to dig into the technical details of timelapse, read-on, if not, you probably pause it here and scroll down a bit to know some additional details!


There are a couple of essential tips when shooting timelapse!

  • Very stable tripod
  • Manual Settings
  • High Quality lenses (Samyangs are great for the price)
  • Memory Cards with a good speed buffer
  • Loads of batteries - extremely long sequences, use a battery grip
  • Always double-check before you start shooting!
  • Dress comfortable and warm
  • BE SAFE!! (Very important in cities where criminality is not uncommon!) Take an assistant if you have doubts!

You never want your timelapse to shake around and wobble about! You can avoid that by placing your tripod on firm ground, making sure its all locked down and shelter off from the wind if at all possible! Use a tripod with a spreader if you can, as this adds stability! Also weigh down your tripod, by using your camera bag (Very unlikely that you are carrying a couple of sandbags, right?).

Second thing is to use manual settings for a timelapse whenever possible! When there are no light changes at all, there really is no reason at all, to use any other setting than manual (M) mode on your camera! The reason you do that, is to avoid inconsistency in exposure times and get rid of flicker, introduced by inconsistent settings!

When shooting sunsets or sunrises, you can also shoot manual, but you would have to factor for the change of light and see which part is most important for you and expose for that! Another method is to use AV Mode, which is aperture priority! You can use that and it will adjust for the changing light, although you will loose certain control over your image and will have flicker in your timelapse! The so called flicker, which is introduced by inconsistent exposures (some brighter or darker than the others) can be removed in post production however, but don’t forget to factor in the time, this takes!Another thing are lenses. I have used my kit lens for some of the first timelapses i did and got mediocre results. I really like the Canon L Lenses, but I can’t tell you how much i love my Samyangs! They are amazing! I vote for Samyang to bring out more lenses (and no I am not being paid by them :P ). Another great feature of the lenses is, that they have aperture on ring, so you get no inconsistency in your aperture at all, because they have no electric contacts! This gets rid of any aperture flicker! I mostly used my 14mm and 35mm, but there were occasions where the 85mm was great!

You always want more cards than you would normally think are enough on you! Especially when shooting RAW Timelapses. These suck you out of memory so quickly, you wouldn’t believe it! Crazy! I shot everything in JPEG, because it works for what I did and wanted, and shooting HDR RAW sequences is just plain nuts!!! I tend to be alright with 64GB’s of Cards on a night! Another thing to consider is using cards with a high speed rating, so you don’t fill the buffer of the camera, which essentially stops your camera from shooting or going very slowly and thus ruining your timelapse!

Betteries - Not much to say! Always charge them and if you have any doubts, about a battery running out in a timelapse, don’t risk it. Change it before you start to roll. Changing a battery in a timelapse won’t work! You just have to knock your camera a little and get some intervals longer than the others and it’s ruined! Very important thing this, especially if you got an amazing sequence, which you won’t be able to get another time!


Reading all the tips above, it’s easy to mess something up! ALWAYS double check everything. Am i exposed right? Do i have the right Interval? Are my batteries full? Are my cards formatted/do they have enough free space? Do I have my tripod locked down? Are all the settings dialed in manual, have i factored for change of light? Have i considered certain events at given time? And a very important one: Am I critically focused on what I want to be my main focal point? Use the 10x punch in focus on the DSLR’s to check critical focus!

After you have done all that, you are ready to shoot!

Now the rest is about you! Bring some warm clothing when you are shooting night time stuff, or especially in winter! Bring warm shoes, bring warm socks and maybe some ski-underwear or something as warm as that. Bring a hat, bring gloves. Even if you think it’s not too cold, just bring them. Trust me, you will start to freeze and you WILL wrap early if you don’t feel comfortable shooting! Have you brought some coffee or tea to stay warm or have you brought emergency money for hot drinks/food? It’s the small things which get you to stay awake and keep you shooting!

Most important of all, stay safe! Please don’t ignore this tip, as it is the most important tip of all, because your gear and more importantly your health is at risk! Big cities like London have a relatively high crime rate and you can be easily mugged ( Verb: Attack and rob (someone) in a public place). Stay out of troublesome areas and don’t display your kit, wherever you are. Only take out what you need! Put the rest back in the bag, zip it up and watch it all the time! A slight distraction can come costly! Finally remember, safety is in numbers! Take people with you if they are up for it! Not only is it safer, but also more fun, if you get together as a group and shoot some timelapse together!

HDR Timelapses

Now this part might not interest everyone, but it’s still here, for those who want to know more about it! If you don’t want to know how to shoot HDR Timelapses, skip to the post production workflow down below!


I will only very briefly cover what a HDR Image is, because there are many explanations on the web. Do a quick google for HDR Images and you will find something in a few seconds! Basically, a HDR image consists of a normally, under-, and overexposed image. These are then merged in post, to create an image with amazing latitude, meaning you will get loads of details in the shadows, mid tones and highlights! Creating HDR Timelapses takes some more work, especially in post, but there are some scenarios where i just wouldn’t shoot normal timelapses anymore, just because I want all that detail!


Shooting HDR timelapses isn’t that much more work! It requires you to trick your timer into thinking it was an HDR Timer.


This is what you will have to do:

Camera settings:

  • Set your camera to continuos shooting mode (symbol: stacked frames)
  • Set the bracketing in your exposure compensation window by using the top dial!
  • Set your base exposure for the midtones, you are happy with!

Timer Settings:
I will refer to the time, between the all of the 3 exposures as Interval, whereas i will refer to the time between every single HDR exposure as HDR-Interval.

  • Your exposure time, which you can dial in on your timer, commonly marked as “LONG”, will become your Interval
  • The HDR-Interval between each exposure of your HDR Images will be the interval setting on your timer, normally marked as “INT” - always set it to the lowest number possible (1)

That’s basically what you will set on your timer. That’s it to be honest. Not much more behind it!

Make sure to have your Interval long enough, to factor for all 3 HDR images to be taken. If your base exposure is around 1 second long, your under exposed image will take approximately 0.5 seconds or less to take, whereas your overexposed image can take up to around 4 seconds or more. That means you want an Interval of at least: 1s + 0.5s + 4s = 5.5s ~ 6 Seconds.


If you have change of light, like a sunset, be aware, that the time to take the underexposed and overexposed image might change, so your Interval can be “over-run”. You ideally don’t want that to happen, but if it does, it isn’t the end of the world!

Post Production

Before you start any post production, make sure you have enough space on your hard drive or use an external one, like I do (G-Technology GRaid 2TB).

What’s very important as well, is to have a neatly organized folder structure, so you can easily find your sequences. I use my finder to drag and drop, but will probably be getting Forklift on recommendation of a friend, to make it all a bit easier!

Programs I use are:

  • Quicktime Player 7 Pro --> Image sequencing
  • Photomatix Pro (HDR Only)--> HDR Tonemapping and Batch Processing
  • FCP X for the final edit --> Use any editor of your choice! I get on with FCP X superb!

What you want to do, is use Quicktime Player Pro 7 to turn your single images into a film. It supports a massive amount of frame rates, but i convert them all to 24fps. I can still speed them up in post if i need to!

It’s all easily done: Open Quicktime Player 7 Pro --> File --> Open Image Sequence --> Select first picture of timelapse --> Open

Then you just hit the export button and make sure all the settings are correct! The timelapse doesn’t play in Quicktime Player 7, as it’s basically a whole bunch of full size images jumbled together!! Put’s loads of strain on the program!

I export my timelapses in 4K, ProRes 4444 and edit them in 4K, so i can step down the resolutions if I need to!

What I then do is load them into FCP X, to give them a color grade and to edit the final movie! FCP X allows me to edit the sequences in full quality 4K and scrub them in Real-Time. I have all the features I need and it makes for smooth editing!

HDR Post-workflow only

This is not a whole lot different, but requires a step, prior to image sequencing! You load 3 of your images into Photomatix Pro and Tonemap them, to your desired liking. Then you save the settings of what you have just done and just close the window again. Use the Batch Processing/Bracketing feature and select your pre-made settings, choose a source folder and location folder, name them to what you like, I only use things like “IMG_01, IMG_02,IMG_03...etc”. Select the format you want to save them in. I use JPEG for this.


After you have done that and have a full folder of your tonemapped timelapses, you can go ahead and start sequencing with Quicktime Player 7 Pro. Follow the steps above!


That’s it for the technical part. I tried to make it all as clear as possible, but I do understand if there are problems and if you have any questions at all, do get in contact with me, so I can help you out!

Thank You!

I would like to thank every single person who has supported me on the film and on my journey as a film maker!

 

The INCREDIBLE Soundtrack was done by the hugely talented Mr. Laurence Owen, who knocked this thing up in a few days! So impressed by his work! As far as I know, this is the first film he worked on, but he has loads of musical experience, so this guy is the way forward if you are looking for someone to do the music for you! I had the pleasure to film a music video for him and we went from there! Very impressed by what he has done!

His website: mrlaurenceowen.com

The track:

Download or Buy the song on corporaterecords.co.uk

 


The awesome animated title sequence for Nightscapes, but also my Ident are made by Yann Simard at Atrakt Studio in Paris. It was such a pleasure to work with him and he has such an indescribable dedication! I would like to give him a big thanks for everything he has done! He nearly killed off his machine, to render the 4K sequence at the beginning, but he has done an incredible job, don’t you think?

His Website: blog.atraktstudio.com

 

My last shoutout is to Greg Richters of Filmmakers United. He kindly let me borrow his motion head for a couple of timelapses and let me shoot with his 24-105 F4 L lens by Canon, but what was really fun is, driving through London with him, picking up Timelapse shots. This guy is nuts! He is currently working on his new feature film “51 Degrees”

51 Degrees Website: 51degreesfilm.com


This has been a huge sucess in terms of collaboration and I really hope that you have not only enjoyed my timelapse film, but picked up a couple of helpful tips and techniques!

I like to thank every single reader of this blog post and everyone who has been so supportive!

Thank You, For a very successful 2012!