With hundreds of thousands of photos and videos streaming past us each day on the Internet, it is a real challenge for photographers and filmmakers to make us pause and take notice visually. When someone finds a way to captivate us over and over with spellbinding visuals, then they truly are masters of their craft. One such photographer whose images have captivated me is Tom Lowe (www.timescapes.org). Tom is a filmmaker who is perfecting the craft of timelapse and film. Tom is well known in for his amazing timelapse skills combining earth and astronomy into a visual masterpiece and was recently named 2010 Astronomy Photographer of the Year.
I recently had the opportunity to spend time with Tom Lowe and his assistant Dustin Kukuk shooting part of his film,TimeScapes in Moab, Utah. I was living overseas for almost 14 years and now that I’m back in America I have been seeking projects that would help me rediscover this country. I could not think of a better way to reconnect with the scenic beauty of the U.S. than to drive down to Moab and spend time filming with Tom in Arches National Park. Tom and Dustin have been living in an RV a.k.a. “The Mobile Production Studio” for the last year driving the Southwest, capturing the the essence of the Southwestern beauty and landscapes.
With all the focus on types of photographic and film gear these days, I find it refreshing to see someone focused on the location and his image more than the best wiz bang piece of kit he has. For well over a year Tom has been not only been searching the Southwest looking for amazing locations to film, he has been living on-site to make sure every image is captured perfectly. This dedication clearly shows itself when you see his work.
Tom shoots a combination of timelapse on Canon DSLRs and full motion film on RED cameras. He takes advantage of the amazing exposure latitude from the modern HDDSLR to shoot his breathtaking time lapse images of earth and sky. One great thing about Tom is his openness to share his expertise with others.
His Timescapes Forum is one of the premier locations on the internet for people insterested in timelapse photography. The Timescapes.org site is also managed by Jay Burlage a.k.a. Milapse who is co-owner with Chris Church of the timelapse dolly maker Dynamic Perception. On the site Tom, Jay and others share techniques and information on lessons learned and how to make your own motorized timelapse dolly. Tom started on the same home brew timelapse dollies shown on the Timescapes Forum before his openness to sharing techniques and beautiful imagery caught the interest of filmmakers like Vincent Laforet and equipment makers in the industry. Now Kessler Crane, camBLOCK, Canon USA, Vinten, and Kata Bags have recognized his talent and are helping with equipment to sponsor his filmmaking. In turn Tom is providing feedback to manufactures to make their products even better suited to timelapse needs. Check out the new Kessler Crane SmartLapse function!
A key to Tom’s success is in scouting for inspiring locations. To find locations, he uses recommendations, Flickr and his own exploration to find the great spots. One night we went out to Arches national park to shoot one of the many amazing sandstone arches. Timing this month was key due to the full moon and the highly visibility of the Milky Way. Before the shoot we prepared gear, charged and checked batteries, cameras and the timelapse dolly. Because Tom shoots primarily at night, the locals at the trailer park get curious about the loads of film test gear and the odd nocturnal comings and goings of Tom and the Rastafarian capped Dustin. A few hours before sunset we loaded up our trucks and headed into the park. Tom and Dustin had already scouted out an amazing arch that was a short hike from the road. At evening we loaded our backpacks with cameras, tripods, rails, lighting sets, and bed rolls. We made several trips to get all the gear on site to start setup as the sun started to set. Continually exploring his craft, Tom uses a multitude of timelapse techniques from multi-axis motion rail system, truck lapse, and even boat lapse to capture his EPIC motion timelapse.
During the evening shoot we set up a timelapse rail system made by Stew Mayer, the inventor of CamBLOCK. The camBLOCK dolly is an ultra modular system that enables you to shoot amazing, repeatable multi-axis shots. We used a Canon 5D with the extended battery pack, and a Canon 14mm 2.8L series lens to capture the full sky and towering sandstone arch. Dustin made quick work of setting up and leveling the dolly then we got to work setting the keyframes for the motion dolly to pan and move while the moon arched behind us. Much of the setup time was calibrating the lights to properly illuminate the dark canyon just enough to give the motion track an amazing depth while the night sky moved above us.
After setting up the shot we fired up the CamBLOCK controller and started a 7 hour timelapse of the night sky which captured the moon rise and set passing into view under the massive stone arch. We moved locations to set our bedrolls on the other side of the canyon so no errant light might spill over and ruin the multi-hour shot. We fired up the iPod speakers with Pink Floyd Dub Side of the Moon (a Regaee remix of Pink Floyd), cracked open some beers and discussed the merge of cinema and still imagery with the advent of the HDDSLR. Tom is a avid supporter of the RED camera system and truly believes in RED crushing film and making celluloid’s days numbered. We both agree that the Canon 5D Mark II has been an amazing leap forward in the industry as a film making capability. As a still photographer I have found the new technology a great gateway to film. The ability to shoot a movie with amazing quality has brought cinema-quality filmmaking to the masses. I think the newness of the technologiy will soon wear off and it will come back down to a person’s skill in their craft of story making instead of just making a HDDSLR Vimeo short film with amazing depth of field. I hope that Tom’s film will create a great blend of the funtionality of the HDDSLR in film making while merging it with the RED footage.
After a few more beers, and a myriad of late night topics the sun started to rise and we started the tear down of the rails and cameras to pack back out to the trucks. A few more hours and we are back to the mobile production studio for a much needed rest. After a full nights (days) sleep, we got to work editing the stills using Adobe CS5 After Effects. Adobe CS5 has surpassed Final Cut Pro in its ability to ingest Canon HD video and RED footage without transcoding. AE lets Tom edit each 22 Megapixal image in raw format to get the best color and contrast and edit the time lapse timeline. After a quick edit we saw the fruits of our labor from the previous night. The scene we shot is amazing, I wish I could share it with you, but I am afraid you will have to wait for his film TimeScapes to come out.
To keep current on timelapse photography I recommend reading the Timescapes Forum and getting on Twitter and following:
Tom Lowe – @Timescapes
Tom Lowe – Timescapes Vimeo Page
Dustin Kukak – @drkanab
Jay Burges – @milapse
Check out Tyler Ginter’s Filming Astro Time Lapse with Tom Lowe
Follow me at @F9photo for encouragement to take your camera off the beaten path.
If you have coding experience help us with the OpenMoco.org project!
This is production footage I shot over the summer for my debut film, “TimeScapes,” a modern portrait of the American Southwest. I used Canon and Red MX cameras.
Follow the production of the film at: http://twitter.com/timescapes
Also here: http://timescapes.org and here http://timescapes.org/blog
A huge thank to my assistants who helped me film this, Dustin Kukuk (http://twitter.com/drkanab), Nilo Recalde (http://twitter.com/nilomr) and Chris M (http://twitter.com/visceralway). And, as always, my most sincere and humble respect goes to Ron Fricke, Mark Magidson, Terrence Malick and Godfrey Reggio.
Music by Nigel “John” Stanford: http://johnstanfordmusic.com
F9photo is the founder of ProPic ProPic, A Photographer, Serial Entrepreneur, Programmer, Innovator, Filmmaker, Foodie, Polymath with Extreme Wanderlust