A few weeks ago a group of “film buddies” from around the United States got together and spent a few days shooting remote locations in beautiful Northern California’s raw landscape. I was lucky enough to be invited on this trip and got to hang out with some of the best photographers in the business. The collective gathering was coined, “Timefest” and Eric Kessler of Kessler Crane sponsored the event. Check out the Kessler University blog about our trip by clicking here.
Eric brought some beta Kessler gear to Mammoth Lakes so that the filmmakers could try it out. The new stuff included a killer update to the Oracle system Smartlapse software and a prototype computer-aided encoded motor system. This cutting edge kit will now let you do 4+ axis moves. You can even pull focus, aperture, or zoom in a timelapse!
Since the advent of digital SLR cameras, shooting timelapses has become very common. Everyone seems to be doing it, and with the long shutter exposure capabilities, people are setting out into the night to capture the stars. One guy is making this activity a lifestyle, and with the help of a select few, he is bringing back images from the American South West unlike anything I have ever seen. The guy is the next Ron Fricke and his name is Tom Lowe.
Timefest was a chance for me to get to know this creature of the night. And maybe, just maybe, get the first ever sit down interview of the elusive artist as he attempts insane motion control timelapses for his upcoming film, TimeScapes.
Tom Lowe is a mysterious character. Before attending Timefest, I had only met him a few times at NAB in Las Vegas. He flies below the radar and lets his work speak for itself, and I must say, it screams! And now I was gonna try to document his secret lifestyle, and I couldn’t wait to get on that airplane to Reno.
The trip was amazing and the only thing that topped the incredible environments were the people. I spent sleepless nights under the most epic skies and the conversation was life changing. As we spoke, I got so lost in a wicked bright milky way that spanned the horizon end to end like a rainbow. The people who have chosen this line of work are free spirits and on a few occasions the idea of a stress free “world without lights” was discussed.
I am not going to into detail about the new Kessler kit or the locations we captured. This it covered in depth in the documentary at the top of this page. I will talk about the gear I used to shoot the project and the techniques I deployed to help get my readers out into the wild timelapsin’ with Tom Lowe. But you don’t have to brave the cold, fight miserable bugs and deal with lack of sleep!
I decided to travel very light. No big cameras, no DSLRs, no sound guy. Just me and two tiny consumer Sony SR11 handycams. I use these $500 gems to shoot all my video blogs and love to tell people that “I am shooting 1080i”. Yea, interlaced. I love how smooth it looks in this choppy world of 24p. The SR11 is discontinued, and the new model is the Sony XR550v.
The camera is the paint brush, it is what you do with it at time of acquisition and in the edit that tells the story. Not the size of the sensor or the amount of stuff you have hanging off your carbon fiber rods.
I went with the SR11 over the DSLR for another reason, night vision! A DLSR needs light to shoot, even at ISO 6400, it can’t make pictures in the dead of night without help. I knew that from my own astro-time lapsing adventures, even a spark from a match can kill a 30 second long exposure. So I was going to need to shoot the Timefest documentary using infra-red light only, in utter complete darkness.
I actually did get my sitdown interview with Tom Lowe for the documentary and I shot it without any lights in the middle of a moonless night. I don’t think Tom even knew I had a camera pointed at him!
For audio, I keep things very simple since I was operating alone. I used the built-in stereo mic on the SR11 when I was close enough to get good sound. When I could, I pinned a Sony UTX-B2 wireless lav on anyone who would wear it. Tom did not like having a mic on for more than a few minutes, so I used a “spy” strategy. I placed the wire on Shawn Reeder and told him to get as close to Tom as possible. This worked out quite well.
I did very little direction on this documentary. I wanted the scenes to play out as very real. This was a real challenge because I had only one shot to get the coverage I needed for the edit. Plus it was kinda scary asking Tom Lowe to do things over again. Tom is not accustom to a cameraman buzzing around his personal space as he does his thing in a super secret spot.
As far as the edit goes, I knew from the beginning that my voice was going to drive the documentary forward. I was sure to capture key sound bites with the major players as the adventure played out. I would then write a script to tie things together and shoot a ton of b-roll to cover up jump cuts and help tell the story.
The edit took a long time. This is not because it was super difficult, but because I have not had a day off from shooting. I had the entire project on a USB2 500GB external Western Digital Passport drive. I find these to be super reliable and fast enough for Pro Res LT. I took the edit with me and did most of it (an hour a time each day) during my lunch breaks. I carried the Sony wireless with me for voice overs.
I know the audio is all over the place and sometimes over modulated, but it is a consumer camera with no manual sound controls. Or VU meters. Just a 1/8 inch mini input. So under the conditions, it is as good as it gets!
Eric Kessler did a funky little edit with some of the timelapse footage captured on the Kessler gear during Timefest 2011. Check out the video below, this got the attention of many on the internet and goes to show that people love astro-timelapsing and whatever type of music that is…
The only thing this trip was missing was Philip Bloom. But I joke with Eric that if Phil had been there, it would have taken me 3 months, not 3 weeks to edit the documentary. Phil would have made things a bit dodgy. And for those of you who follow Phil’s twitter feed, he is saying he has the lost “Timefest Tapes”. According to him, he has an extended cut of the “night in the back of the SUV on the air mattress”. These tapes do NOT exist.
The TimeScapes Trailer. Rapture. Check it out and be sure to go to timescapes.org and pre-order the film on Blu-ray!
This trip was a blast and I am looking forward to working with the TimeScapes guys shooting more behind the scenes for the Blu-ray release. The thought of going to some of the most remote and beautiful places on the planet armed with Canon DSLRs and Kessler moco kit is a dream come true for me. Plus they said they are gonna bring beer next time.
Special thanks to Eric Kessler for putting this trip together, taking stills, shooting BTS of the BTS and his warmth on a cold Cali night. I can’t forget the hilarious Carson Garner for the watermarked “F9 Photos” in this blog post. Oh wait, Vincent. Mr. Laforet, thanks for providing me some killer cranelapse and shuttle pod moco timelapses for this documentary. Too many to thank…. Shawn Reeder “the cook”, “rally car” Flores and Dr. Kanab.