Me (Left) Red Dragon (Centre) and Pierre (Right)

For roughly the past two years I've had the pleasure of working with the expertly talented documentary film-maker Pierre Deschamps.   'Twas a cold January afternoon when he contacted me explaining the sort of shots he was after for his new Documentary about René Redzepi and having never worked on an Indie Doc before, I jumped at the chance!

The initial part of my task was to document the kitchen rebuild at the multi-award winning restaurant Noma, in Copenhagen. Two dusty cameras and a few weeks later, Pierre described another shot he was after, a seasonal timelapse of a wooded area in Denmark which would take place over the course of a year.

Now there's a couple of ways to do this.  The first is to set up a camera and leave it shooting throughout the year on a daily basis.  The only issue with this is that you will, undoubtedly, get huge variations in exposure levels due to cloud cover and because the sun will be at different angles during the shot.  Although it's not technically impossible, it's not currently the best option available until there has been some advancements in technology.

The second option is to place a rig or tripod in a fixed position and re-visit the location to re-capture the shot multiple times.  You then layer the individual shots in the edit timeline and fade between each one.  This was also the option I decided to go for because we were panning during the shot as well using an eMotimo TB3 Black - the precision from this bit of kit is mind-blowing for lining up shots!

So how do you go about capturing all four seasons in one shot?

Planning

A curious cow can kill your shot

As you may have read in my other blog posts, I'm a bit obsessive when it comes to planning.  One missed detail can bring the whole project to a standstill or worse, render it useless and having to repeat a shot or wait to start again is normally not an option.

You'll need to find a good location - either somewhere out of the way or, preferably, on private land.  You'll also need to figure out the potential hazards, future changes that might interfere with your chosen position.  If you're placing your camera in a farmer's field for example, does it contain curious cows?  You need to be aware that if anything should move your pole / tripod / camera support then your shot will mostly, be unrecoverable. 

It is possible to create this shot without burying or attaching a support at all.  You can make a mark around the base of your tripod legs or as I have done in the past, knock three short scaffold poles into the ground leaving an inch above the surface to place your tripod into. Bear in mind though that you will spend a lot more time lining your shot up in the long run.

Installing

One of the suppliers for Noma is Søren Wiuff and he has a farm about an hour's drive away from Copenhagen.  This man is a living legend. His knowledge of food, farming and everything in between is second to non and he's a genuine gent.  Due to busy schedules and the need for a fairly decent dusting of snow on the ground, I left for Copenhagen with the intention of placing a tripod and shooting the next day.

There are many ways you can leave a fixed rig over the period of a year (or longer).   If you want absolute peace of mind, you're going to have to donate something to the cause be it a scaffold pole, tripod or a wooden construction as it will probably never be usable again.  Pierre had an old tripod that was out of action and we decided on the option of burying it in concrete in a small forest on Søren's land. 

One thing to be aware of is your choice of location.  If you place your rig in the summer, do you know if the land is likely to flood in other seasons?  One of my first 'buried' rigs was installed during the summer but when I returned three months later, I struggled to line the shot up again and realised that the ground was saturated.  There was a lot of support under the tripod but with heavy rain, the whole area had sunk down and the tripod and huge concrete block had moved with it.  Luckily we'd managed to re-align the shot in post as it had only tilted slightly but a lesson learnt!

Once you've buried / drilled / attached your rig, it's now very important to measure everything! With fingers crossed that your camera support isn't going to move, you'll need to place your camera, line up your shot and once you're happy, note down everything you can. For example:

  • Base plate - does your camera plate slide or move? If so, mark it's position
  • Tripod head - are you leaving it attached to the rig? If not, again, mark positions.

 

Shooting

So you'll shoot a standard shot as normal but again, you'll need to take a note of every setting on your camera - especially your aperture setting as you don't want the depth of field changing during the shot.  During the course of your next visits, the lighting may change but you can compensate for that with ISO changes or shutter changes.

It's best also to make a note of your focus setting.  I normally try and find something within my focus range and focus on that using live view then when I return, I can focus on that again.

Subsequent Visits

 The 'buried' tripod.  A minute's silence was held shortly after in respect.

The 'buried' tripod.  A minute's silence was held shortly after in respect.

Now this is where practice pays off! Before you head off to shoot your 2nd, 3rd or 4th season, you'll need to format your card in-camera, then transfer the first picture from your first shoot back to the card so you can use it to line up the shot. For this shot, we were panning so I copied the first and last shot back to the card so I had my start and end points.

Whatever I'm shooting be it landscapes, urban or anything in between, I'll always try and use something that's unlikely to move much in the foreground so it's a little easier to line up the shot. 

If time permits, I'll do a couple of runs of shots as inevitably, cloud cover will influence lighting and you might find with a second pass, your shot is less flickery.

Editing

Out of everything you've done so far, this is the simplest! Once you've rendered your shots, place them in the timeline on top of each other and fade in and out of each shot.  You could take it a step further by 'painting' each season in but that would require a whole new post!

Top Timelapse Tips

  • When choosing your location, consider the changing environment.  A dry river bed may look tempting in the peak of summer but try and find out how deep the river flows when it's the wet season or you may need an underwater housing and a snorkel!
  • I've rigged a single scaffold pole and it works but your safest bet is a burial.
  • Measure everything and take plenty of reference photos.  Unless you've got a photographic memory, you'll have forgotten most of the important details when you return.
  • Don't forget to pre-load your camera with the original shots.  Even if you've set aside a dedicated camera to use, it will show you if there's been any movement in the shot.
  • Respect the environment and remove every trace of the equipment once you've finished.  If you've captured something truly astonishing, consider selling the tripod with a block of concrete attached to an avid ebayer once your video has gone viral or recycle as best as you can.

I've been asked recently why I don't include an example video in my blog posts.  This is something I'm working on and on this occasion, I can't as the doc isn't finished yet - you'll just have to wait until the premiere I'm afraid! In the meantime, here's one I made earlier for 'The Great British Year' - the most complicated seasonal shot I've ever done to date with a lot of variables on return visits - here it is in a two-season form:

Thank You!

Me, Søren, Pierre and the dogs I kept waking up at random hours

I'd like to say a huge thank you to Pierre and Etta Deschamps at Documentree Films for involving me in this project.  I've enjoyed my frequent trips to Denmark and getting to grips with the Danish folk! I'd also like to thank Søren for his invaluable help with everything from digging holes, cooking amazing food, letting me 'taste' his home brew, putting up with my unusual sleeping habits and for being a great all-round guy!

I'd strongly recommend you go and watch the Doc when it comes out.  Pierre's been showing me clips all year and I've been around whilst he's been shooting and it looks amazing as well as having a very interesting story. It's due out in 2015, possibly Spring.

Here's a few links:

Follow the Doc on twitter

Have a look at Søren's site

Documentree Films

Go to Noma in Copenhagen - you can't argue with a title of World's Best Restaurant!