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What makes a killer timelapse, with Joe Capra

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In this time-lapse of Rio de Janeiro, shown during session 1 of TEDGlobal 2014, waves lap the shore of Copacabana Beach with a beautiful rhythm, and clothes on a line flap in the breeze in a favela. Meanwhile, steam dances off a waterfall, and ships pirouette through the city’s harbor. Below, we asked its creator, Joe Capra of Scientifantastic, a few questions.

How did you get interested in time-lapse?

I’d done regular photography for a long time. One day, I was looking around online and saw a time-lapse video by Tom Lowe, who was one of the first to do nighttime Milky Way time-lapses. It just blew me away. I thought, “That’s amazing. I want to go do that.” So I did some research. He had a forum that people would go to and share information on how to do time-lapses, because it was still very new then. I decided to use all my vacation days from my day job, and go to Iceland to shoot time-lapses. Once I put that video out, I started getting jobs to go different places and shoot time-lapses.

What are some of the most interesting places that you’ve time-lapsed?

Iceland, definitely. Greenland was also amazing — I took a dogsled trip out over a group of frozen lakes, a place where nobody really ever goes. I got to see some very remote places — like the Ilulissat Icefjord, where the glacier falls into the sea. I had just seen the documentary Chasing Ice, where James Balog time-lapsed glaciers for years so you could see how the glaciers are receding — and it was really cool to see it myself. I kept thinking, “Where I’m standing may be 20 miles from where a person 10 years down the road will be standing.”

What brought you to Rio?

Panasonic saw my Iceland video, and wanted me to shoot some time-lapse for their new 4K ultra-HD television sets. They asked me where I wanted to go, and Rio was high on the list. It’s a place I’d always wanted to see.

How did you go about selecting what places you wanted to capture?

I’m pretty crazy when it comes to planning and scheduling. I sit at the computer — I search Google Images, I search forums, and I look for all kinds of interesting places that might lend themselves to good time-lapse shots in addition to the famous stuff. I got a guide, and we went all over, to all the places on my list. Panasonic had wanted us to go to Iguazu Falls. It was beautiful, though not technically in Rio — which a few people commented on in the video. One thing I thought was really cool — we’d hired a production person and she actually got us on top of a rooftop inside one of the favelas. Not a lot of people get that type of access, so that was a wonderful experience.

That shot is great. The motion in it is so subtle.

There’s a lot going on, a lot of detail. When I was editing it, I was showing some friends. I had those shots in there fairly quickly, but everybody said, “Keep them up a little longer. You’ve got to give people some time to look around and notice people and little animals walking around.”

What is the process of setting up a time-lapse? How long are you at these locations? 

The process can be really complicated or it can be very simple. When I show up at a location, I’ve already gone on Google Earth and panned around to figure out where the sun’s going to set and rise, and get a general feeling about the type of shot I want. But when you’re actually standing there, things aren’t always as you planned — maybe there’s a big bush where you would have wanted to set up the camera.

Once I figure out the shot, then I figure out the gear to use. Sometimes it’s just a matter of tripod and camera, and setting the intervalometer — which is the thing that counts and does the time-lapse. Sometimes, I want to do a reveal shot — like to come out from behind a bush and suddenly show a big waterfall. That requires a time-lapse dolly, which is a six-foot-long rail with a little cart on top that’s all motor-controlled.

To get about 10 seconds of video, you need 240 individual photos. Most shots take about 20-30 minutes. But it depends on the motion you want. If you want to get shadows going across a mountain — that will take a couple hours. If you want the Milky Way to come from the left and go all the way to the right — you have to be out there for eight hours.

This piece has a lot of rhythm. How did you pace the different time-lapses?

I think music is the most important part of actually making a video. I’ll spend weeks and weeks finding the right music. The music that I initially chose, when I did an edit with it and sent it to my friends, they said it was too slow. They said, “Rio’s a lively city.” So I found something a little bit faster-paced. It’s still got a darkness — Rio has some pretty dark secrets. But overall, it’s just more upbeat and lively.

I’ve learned that you need to choose music that works best with the visuals, rather than something that you personally like. For this one, I just heard it, and I was like, “That’s it. That’s the song. That’s perfect for this video.”

Why are people so drawn to time-lapse photography?

I think it appeals because it’s something that you can’t see or experience with your own eye. Even if you stand in the same spot for three hours, you don’t notice the changes that happened in that time. It has to be shot, and you have to see it in video format to actually enjoy it.

It’s crazy. If you just set up a shot in your backyard, you’d be amazed at some of the things that happen — the sun, as it’s going across the sky, will at some point shine perfectly on a birdhouse. Time-lapse shows the things you don’t see and experience on a day-to-day basis — how things move and flow. Through time-lapse, you can see the earth’s motion. I don’t think it will really ever get old.