Although you can’t fast-forward life (caffeine notwithstanding), you can speed up time in your movies with time-lapse photography. This video technique compresses hours of action into mere seconds—clouds roll overhead, the sun races toward the horizon, and flowers bloom before your eyes. Best of all, creating time-lapse movies is easy. Once you set up your camera, your Mac does most of the work for you.
Time-lapse movies are made up of noncontiguous exposures taken over an extended period of time. When you play the movie at normal speed, the action is accelerated because those individual exposures—which can span hours or even days—fit into the space of seconds. Apple’s iMovie HD 6, which is included with all new Macs (or is $79 as part of the iLife ’06 suite), has a little-known feature for capturing time-lapse video. For even more power—or if you want to use your digital still camera instead of a camcorder—check out Boinx Software’s $40
Set up your time-lapse studio
Follow these guidelines when you’re setting up your workspace:
Find a Steady Surface
Camera movement is more pronounced in time-lapse movies, so mount the camera on a tripod. If you’re shooting in a high-traffic area, place sandbags around the tripod’s legs to hold it in place (bags of rice work well, too).
Light Your Scene
If light varies dramatically from frame to frame, your finished film will look as though it had been shot under a strobe light. To prevent this from happening, try to keep lighting conditions consistent for the duration of your shoot. If you can, shoot your movie indoors, where you’ll have much more control over your lighting. For the best results, augment the room’s overhead lights with a two-light setup: a good directional light (such as a spotlight or a swing-arm lamp) as your main light source, and a softer fill light (such as a table lamp) to lighten shadow areas (see “Time-Lapse Studio”).
If you shoot outside, give your scene a more consistent tone by choosing an overcast day or erecting a temporary shelter, such as an umbrella attached to a tripod.
Since you’ll be shooting over a long period of time, make sure your camcorder is relying on its AC adapter—not its batteries—for power. If you’re using a laptop, make sure it’s plugged into a power outlet.
Prepare your camcorder
Most camcorders turn themselves off if they’re not actively recording. To disable this feature, remove the camcorder’s MiniDV tape. You’ll be saving your footage directly to your Mac’s hard drive, so you won’t need the tape for this project.
Next, connect the camera to your Mac’s FireWire port, turn your camera on, set it to recording mode, and launch iMovie. The scene you’re shooting should appear in iMovie’s monitor area. If it doesn’t, click on the Camera Mode icon beneath the monitor and select your camera’s name from the menu.
Using the image in iMovie as a guide, adjust the camera’s position to frame the subject, accounting for changes that may take place over the course of the shoot—such as expanding flower petals. Finally, turn on the camcorder’s manual-focus feature (if you use the autofocus mode, the resulting video may bounce because the camera tried to focus while shooting).
Shooting with iMovie HD 6
To activate iMovie’s time-lapse feature, click on the Camera Mode icon and choose Time-Lapse from the pop-up menu (see “Almost Hidden”).
In the dialog box that appears, click to enable the time-lapse feature, and then enter the rate at which you want iMovie to capture video frames. This will require a bit of math. Each second of digital video is made up of 30 frames. So if you wanted to capture one frame per second, you’d enter
here (that’s one captured frame for every 30 possible frames of video). To capture one frame per minute, you’d enter
To start recording, click on the Import button in iMovie (if you’re using an iSight, you’ll click on the Record With iSight button). iMovie adds each captured frame to a clip in the Clips pane. To stop recording, click on the Import button again. Then simply move the clip (or clips) to iMovie’s timeline and edit just as you would any other video clips. (You can also record directly to the timeline: open iMovie’s Import preference pane, and enable the Movie Timeline option in the Place Clips In section.)
Getting more options with iStopMotion
Although nifty, iMovie’s time-lapse feature is pretty bare bones. For more control, I recommend using iStopMotion. The program offers an intuitive interface and extensive controls for creating time-lapse and stop-motion videos. Unlike iMovie, iStopMotion doesn’t force you to pull out your calculator when you want to set your frame-capture rate. Instead, you just open the Options pane, enter a shooting rate, and specify if the value is in seconds, minutes, or hours.
Don’t own a video camera? You can add Boinx’s $20 Still Camera Plugin, which lets you use your digital camera to capture a time-lapse movie’s frames. This way, you can take advantage of your still camera’s higher resolution (a 5-megapixel camera can capture images at 2,592 by 1,944 pixels, while a MiniDV camcorder captures images at only 720 by 480 pixels) and advanced image controls for better-looking movies. If you’re willing to pony up $349 for the HR version of iStopMotion, you can even use that extra resolution to create HD-quality time-lapse movies. Otherwise, the program scales down the finished movie to standard DV resolution. (The Still Camera Plugin doesn’t support all cameras; download the free trial version to see whether your camera is compatible.)
After you’ve shot your movie in iStopMotion, export the masterpiece as a DV file (for easy import into iMovie) or as a QuickTime movie.
Share your time-lapse movie
Once you’ve finished your movie, share it with other people. One of the most popular ways to share video these days is through
To post your video to YouTube from iMovie, select Share: QuickTime, and then choose Web from the Compress Movie For pop-up menu. Go to YouTube’s site, sign up for a free account (if you don’t already have one), and click on Upload. Enter a title and description for your movie, and add any relevant keywords—include the keywords
to be sure your movie is included with other time-lapse movies. Choose a category from the list provided, and then click on the Continue button. On the next page, click on the Choose File button, locate your movie file, and then click on the Upload Video button. In a few minutes, your video will be available to the world.
What if you already have some real-time footage that you want to speed up? In iMovie HD 6, select the clip in the timeline and click on the Editing button. Open the Video FX pane and choose the Fast/Slow/Reverse effect. Drag the Speed slider toward Faster, and then click on Apply.
Even at the fastest setting, your scene still may not pass quickly enough to suit your needs. To work around this problem, export the speeded-up clip as a full-quality QuickTime movie, and then reimport the file into iMovie. You can now apply a double dose of the Fast/Slow/Reverse effect.
In my time-lapse film, a bouquet of lilies blooms in mere seconds. I posted the finished movie in the
Macworld channel on YouTube.
Jeff Carlson is the managing editor of
and the author of
iMovie HD 6 and iDVD 6 for Mac OS X: Visual QuickStart Guide
(Peachpit Press, 2006). He also maintains an
iMovie and iDVD blog.
Time-Lapse Studio: I converted one corner of a basement storage room into a time-lapse studio, using two lamps, some poster board, and a little masking tape.Almost Hidden: The control for invoking iMovie HD’s time-lapse feature is accessible from the Camera Mode pop-up menu (A).