Master Class: How To Make A Stunning Time-Lapse Film

Director Cameron Michael scored a hit with his arresting short film, The Manhattan Project, which shows, you guessed it, an accelerated day in the life of NYC. Here, Michael explains the creative choices behind this eye-popping art form.

It used to cost tens of thousands of dollars to shoot amazing time-lapse sequences, but the advent of digital technology has led to a new wave of affordable time-lapse rigs for the ever-expanding DSLR marketplace and expanded creative options for filmmakers.

New York-based photographer Cameron Michael recently shot his first short time-lapse film entitled The Manhattan Project. After many months of hard work the film was finally released and immediately went viral, receiving critical acclaim from photography experts and mainstream outlets including The Wall Street Journal and CBS News.

Michael decided to become a photographer when he was 12, working odd jobs at the milk shake stand (!) and the local grocery store to save enough money to purchase his first camera. He started working successfully as a wedding photographer before shooting for the Visitor and Convention Bureau of South West Florida. Fashion photography came next, as did a year off in 2011 to travel and photograph the beauty and mystery of Morocco, Paris and Rome.

Here, Michael shares some of the secrets to making time-lapse films as absorbing as The Manhattan Project.

The Basics

To make time-lapse photography I place my camera on a long, straight rail called the "Glide Track." It is six feet long and held up by two tripods, one at each end of the rail. This allows me to keep the rail horizontal or set it to any angle I desire, depending on the conditions and location where I find myself shooting.

The camera is then attached to the rail and also connected to a motion controller that moves the camera along the rail at a set speed, stopping at predetermined points for the camera to take a photograph. After the photo is snapped, the camera moves to its next designated spot for the next photo to be taken. The time between the camera moving and stopping to take a photo is called the "Interval Time." The longer the Interval Time, the more dramatic the time-lapse effect will be.

When you are done shooting you will have a succession of images that you can then load into a video program to create a time-lapse film.

The Inspiration

I wanted (The Manhattan Project) to be very different from other time-lapse films I’d seen. After some research I realized that nobody had shot people in time-lapse: you see the moon, the stars, various landscapes and beautiful sunsets but absolutely no humanity. This became my mission, to record the human side of Manhattan and inject intrigue into my sequences.

I also feel that time-lapse is a fascinating way to examine the world and human existence. It also shows life in a new, fresh and compelling way.

The Heavy Lifting

(The film took) about five months—and the first two times I went out I have to admit I was miserable. The gear was heavy and I was ill-prepared. I didn’t have the weight distributed correctly so only managed to shoot one sequence each day.

Knowing I’d be out there for extended periods of time I regrouped and looked for a better method to carry my gear. That’s when I tried out my backpack. It was perfect. Sure, I was exhausted after 8 hours of lugging around the equipment, but I was still able to keep on going.

I found what I considered to be the best place to capture motion for each sequence focusing on the people and architecture in the frame and I found what I considered to be compelling subjects and just experimented. As a general rule my environments all had good time dilation, meaning good light shift on the scene as the sun moves across the sky.

I also worked with variables. Everything was based on how much time I could shoot in one area. In some instances, I knew I’d only shoot a sequence for 20 minutes before I got heckled. On the other end of the spectrum, I’d camp out at night on rooftops for hours on end because I knew no one would bother me.

The Kit

I used equipment from Dynamic Perceptions, a new start-up company that sells affordable time-lapse equipment. I had the Stage Zero 6-Foot Bundle that included the rail for the camera to move across, a portable 12volt power source and the MX2 Controller complete with all the hardware needed.

My camera gear was the Nikon D3s and a bunch of fast prime and zoom lenses. I also carried two tripods, two sandbags and a good water supply for long days—all stuffed inside the hiking backpack that varied in weight from 120 to 130lbs

Taking It To The Next Level

You can create dramatic effects by varying the interval of time between shots. A good standard time lapse interval is 5 seconds, but you can go up to 30 minutes intervals for very dramatic effects—although you’ll be camped out for quite some time to get good results.

About that smooth color white balance adjustment during the sunset scenes:

I had my Nikon set to manual mode to avoid automatic shift in exposure while I shot each sequences. I also set the lenses to manual focus to avoid autofocus issues. The smoother transitions you see in the film were all adjustments made live in-camera that were later tweaked in post-production.

In short, it’s not just pressing the button! Shooting time-lapse is all down to personal expression because you are the one manually controlling the quality of the image.

The Building-Top Shots

Yes, the glide track was very close to the edge of the buildings. I even stood motionless in front of the camera for one rooftop sequence when I was shooting the 9/11 Memorial.

That location was really important for me to capture in The Manhattan Project. The location expresses the humanity and the beauty of the whole project to me. It was the perfect place to step in front of the camera as a tribute of remembrance to honor the men, women, and children killed in the terror attacks of September 11, 2001.

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  • J Matthew Gore

    Gorgeous images of New York... especially the subway and Bryant Park shots.

    However, if you think that: "After some research I realized that nobody had shot people in
    time-lapse: you see the moon, the stars, various landscapes and
    beautiful sunsets but absolutely no humanity."

    There are plenty, and some of them are truly breathtaking, like much of "Baraka" and Fricke's other movies. If you aren't familiar with it, do yourself a favor and watch Baraka, at least.

    - Matthew

  • mooseberry

     No people in a time lapse? Ever see Koyaanisqatsi or Chronos?Very nice work though. Thanks for the work and for posting!cheers

  • James Gilligan

     I found mine on under a bid for a project, kinda like a
    Kickstarter. Here's the link to see what my system looks like-
    (I lucked out mine was $450, for the bid- and yea I was doin hella online tweeting for his campaign to go off. But luckily his campaign was set to pay regardless and he ship to the purchasers- He might still be able to take orders- IDK)

    I have still, to purchase a camera intervalometer*, and possibly dbl
    check my tripod ports, as its DIY when he drilled it he didn't have my
    specs... so its a little snug. I'm doing a RTW thing perhaps.. not sure
    yet- But in August I'm flying from LA-Kauai, HI for 2mo. I'm picking up
    the remote* & and extra tripod.. or was even considering a guerrilla
    approach and making my backpack the base. and tripod for extra height. I
    will of course need the extra tripod as your angles can't all be
    floor.. but correct my if I'm wrong IT LOOKS like in your video the cam
    moved 6'' in height sometimes but at shoulder level.. so what kind-of
    ball-head? are you using to get such great degree of grip (cause my
    platform too comes without a mount for the camera-- just a drilled port
    for a screw-in from my bh* when I get one).

    I like the sand bags suggestion. But that's for wind- and night shots as
    your not gonna want low% of shots in all the sequences you did that
    night sucking.. the lighting will be different & the stars, so u
    can't use frames from other sequences.. It must be a good sequence and
    or have a higher number of 'keeper' frames right???

    Thanks for the bold step into the modern human public photography. Its
    something I fear our day and age will lose in certain respects. And in
    the future who's to say. However looking back throughout history -its
    actually well documented in the public. So I like the certain humanities
    aspect of your films approach. And as a US Marine Veteran from
    1999-2005, I served during 9/11. I was in Okinawa on my 2nd tour there
    (as a combat engineer). And would later go to the Iraq invasion in 2003
    return in May, had reenlisted- and changed MOS and redeployed with 3/6
    Wpns Co CAAT Plt infantry* USNBGTMO to stand fence line duty for
    6mo May-Nov 2003. Then 2004 I deployed with my unit to Afghanistan for
    May-Nov deployment cycle. I'm glad to be back. And sure thankful that
    you choose to include the 9/11 Memorial to include in The Manhattan


  • Juan Camilo Gomez

    Amazing! When we see something finished, it seems relatively easy, but once all the details behind it are revealed, it's clear that it takes a lot of time, dedication and talent. Nice way to see Manhattan