Timelapse is a beautiful tool if you want to show change, emphasize progress over a longer period, or capture some precious moments flying by. But what if we could add camera motion to it and literally move through space, underlining the smooth flow of passing time? In the freshly added Part II of the MZed course “Cinematic Timelapse”, photographer and filmmaker Drew Geraci focuses precisely on this technique and talks us through the basic key points of how to master a motion control timelapse. Heads up, magic ahead!
If you’ve ever seen the opening credits for the series “House of Cards”, then you’re already familiar with Drew’s work. He is a master in cinematic timelapse, working for such clients as HBO, Sony, Apple, Discovery Channel, and others. Fortunately, he generously shares his knowledge with us as well: from how to choose the right timelapse intervals to what gear and best post-production workflows are out there.
Below, we share several snippets of what motion control timelapse offers for leveling up your cinematography. You can watch the whole comprehensive (and beginner-friendly) course on MZed.com.
Visible benefits of motion control timelapse
But first, back to basics. There are different ways to bring motion into your timelapse, and the one we’ll be talking about here involves motorized systems (different sliders and heads). Among them are the ones that offer multi-axis control, as well as the roll-axis. (If you’re a beginner, please don’t let those terms scare you off). Of course, nowadays you can even use drones like the new DJI Inspire 3 to make repeatable motion-controlled movements, but that’s not the point of today’s discussion.
So, let’s imagine you set up a camera on such a rig, and let it flow through the scene while capturing thousands of photos – why? What benefits do motion control systems unlock? Clearly, the following:
- smooth and fluid camera movements with a level of control and precision that are not possible to achieve manually or on a tripod;
- complicated timelapses that feature vertical or parallax moves;
- consistency and the possibility to repeat one exact movement bit by bit. For example, with motion control, you can create a sequence, which contains several timelapses shot during different times of the day and seamlessly blend them together in post-production;
- the longer the movement, the more details unveil in your timelapse – it can be a storytelling technique, after all;
- obviously, it’s eye candy. Don’t you agree?
Movements possible with motion control rigs
Okay, we established that these timelapses are all about motion. Now, let’s explore some examples of the various movements you can get using motion control systems, featuring Drew’s favorites.
The push-over. It’s an impressive technique, which defies gravity and makes your camera feel as if it flows over the scene – an angle that viewers rarely see for themselves.
The rise. Your camera goes up – the vertical movement we just talked about.
The reveal. Starting your timelapse in front of an object and then backing away, revealing a spectacular location behind it. This is a great option for, say, establishing shots.
The push. This one is a handy, simple, yet impressive movement. It gives a sense of stability (something gimbals and tracks are usually responsible for) while moving the viewers through space and time.
The parallax. It makes the scene look much more dynamic and complex. To achieve this effect, we let the camera slide in one direction and pan it in the opposite one.
How to choose a motion control rig?
Choosing the right gear, especially something as complex as a motion control rig, could be a science in itself. Obviously, the decision depends on the specific shot you want to achieve. Drew Geraci presents two of his go-to setups and gives us some tips on what to look out for.
For most timelapse productions, the first type of rig a unit filmmaker uses is a CineShooter from Kessler. One of its biggest advantages is that it offers up to 5-axis control, including the roll-axis. So, you don’t only pan, tilt, and slide, but can also spin your camera, for example. And the more axis you have at your disposal, the more creative and complicated movement you can construct.
Additionally, CineShooter is very robust. You can put up to a 20-pound / 9 kilogram payload on it (15 pounds, when you use the roll-axis), meaning, you are not so limited with which camera body or lenses to choose. Yet, the whole setup is heavy, so you will need a helping hand on set. Also, because of the weight on the platform, it’s not really suitable for vertical motion.
A further important feature, which you should consider in choosing the right gear – this rig has two power sources: D-Tap and V mount battery. The latter can be easily switched in the field while the camera is rolling. And, according to Drew, they last forever, and he can sometimes shoot two to three days on a single V mount.
Though to be fair, for the outside shots, oftentimes you can take something simpler. Another rig Drew favors for 1-person use, particularly during hikes and travels, is a Kessler Second Shooter. It allows 2-3 axis control (which is often enough for beautiful timelapse), and has around 6 pounds / 2,7 kg of total weight. So, you cannot load an, let’s say, ARRI Alexa on it, but you can easily put this system on a vertical slider or rail for an upwards motion.
Of course, nowadays, you will find all kinds of setups on the market. But if you are looking for a cheaper option, Drew recommends checking how fluid and smooth the motor is because that’s the most crucial point about motion control rigs, and some cheaper ones tend to have problems with it.
A few tips on composition for motion control timelapse
However, it’s not enough to have the best gear to get a stunning timelapse in motion. Drew shares a few significant composition rules you should consider. First and foremost, definitely place some foreground objects fairly close to the lens (between 2 to 4 feet away at the most). It will create a more dynamic shot and emphasize the perspective motion. This is important because it clearly demonstrates that the camera is in motion.
Also, use wide lenses: from 12 to 35mm. It will allow you to capture both the ground and the middle of the frame moving, which will again help to sell the motion. And remember, sometimes the simplest move can be the most effective. In Drew’s example below, he opens up a spectacular view of the sky and the trees, by shooting a full 360-degree spin, just using the pan axis and a wide 12mm lens.
In general, try out different setups. Drew Geraci encourages us to start simple, and then go over to more complex motion control timelapses. And if one particular movement doesn’t work for your specific shot – well, there are plenty of others. Experiment!
Multipass timelapse shot and more
Multipass timelapse. That’s next level movie magic! Thanks to the ability of motion control rigs to create accurate and fully repeatable shots, you can capture the same subject in multiple places at the same time – and that, while the camera is moving!
If you want to get a step-by-step guide on how to set up a sequence like this on set and then merge those layers seamlessly in DaVinci Resolve, head over to the “Cinematic Timelapse: Part II“ course on MZed.com. In the other modules, Drew also explains the difference between shoot-move-shoot vs. continuous modes, elaborates on choosing the right FPS for motion control shots, and gives us the full overview of his postproduction workflow. So, don’t miss it!
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Have you ever done motion control timelapses? What is your go-to rig? Are there any important rules you always follow when setting up a timelapse with motion? Leave your tips in the comments section below.
Feature image source: Drew Geraci / MZed.
Full disclosure: MZed is owned by CineD