Action! Creating a Timelapse Animation (Part 1 of 2)

One of the nice little benefits of using the stacking technique to create star trails is  that you can take those many frames and animate them.  My first foray into animation looked like this:

Star Races” was created using the stacking features of StarTrails.exe (Windows program) and composed into a movie using the “Animation Feature” of that same tool. The vertical format works well with the portrait mode images. This video contains no music or titling as those are not supported by StarTrails.exe.  I will cover the technique to create this in Part 2.

A more elaborate effort with music, stacking and credits is this one created from 8 hours worth of images using the tool Picasa which is free and available for windows and mac:

Not all time-lapses need be created from night images, however. An early example of a daylight animation chronicles my son scaling a rock in Zion. I later did a similar animation using a tripod. The method used to create the animation will depend on the number of frames available and the intent. Let me start at the beginning however.

Shooting Time Lapses

A time lapse requires “frames” – individual pictures used to create the end result.  Usually pictures used to create a time-lapse will be at relatively low resolution (1920 x 1080 or smaller) so shooting them in large format, RAW means extra work will be required to assemble them.  On the other hand, my time-lapse are byproducts of my star trail shots and I always shoot those in maximum sized RAW mode.  An important consideration is the frame rate – that is the number of images shown per second. A movie typically consists of 30 frames per second, so to shoot 5 minutes of video one needs 30 frames per second for 60 seconds x 5 minutes. 30 x 60 x 5 = 9,000 images. Yes, that is a LOT!  However often a frame rate of 10-per-second is acceptable, so only 3,000 images are needed – still quite a lot.  Perhaps we shall start a little less ambitiously and collect 300 frames – enough for a 30 second animation at 10 frames per second. Assuming we are shooting these at night with 2 minutes each exposure it will take 600 minutes (a mere ten hours!). If that still seems like too much work, we can settle on shooting 1 minute exposures and have the shooting done in a 5 hours.  Clearly patience is required. Unfortunately when shooting the night sky it is unrealistic to expect exposures to take less than about 10 seconds even at high ISO.

The software used to assemble the video may also impose limitations. For example in Picasa’s time-lapse mode the minimum frame rate is 6 per second and the maximum is 24. In “Dissolve” or “Cut” mode, the minimum is 1 per second.  The Zion climbing shot is done in Dissolve mode.

Animation Software

Lots of tools exist for this. I’ve already mentioned Startrails.exe and Picasa (Mac or PC), but there is also Windows Live Movie Maker. Each of these tools is free!  Windows Live Movie Maker is the most versatile free tool I have tried with titling and transition options.

Non-free tools for the PC include Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Lightroom, Adobe Premiere. For the Mac there are iLife (iMovie), Final Cut Pro, and many others.

Music, Copyrights and Credits

While a simple time-lapse may be interesting adding music makes it more so. The free tools support music in some (small) fashion but sometimes just barely. Picasa for example will let you select an MP3 song. Unfortunately when creating a time-lapse it will not let you select where to start in the song and does not fade in or fade out – and only one track is allowed.  If you really feel ambitious you can use iTunes to create a segment of a song to include.   Search Google for “creating ringtones in iTunes” (which will help you figure out how to create a snippet), and “export iTunes as mp3”. Creating a snippet using iTunes is not particularly easy, fast or convenient, but it is free – and as a bonus you will discover that you have been wasting money paying for ringtones!

Copyrights and credits can be done in several ways. Live Movie Maker is actually pretty easy to use and allows different text effects. In Picasa you can use captioning (which is only modestly useful for a time-lapse) or text overlays using the Text Tool. The Text Tool is the most versatile but unfortunately in Picasa you can not say “repeat this frame for 5 seconds”, you have to make 5 seconds worth of frames from one image, or keep adding the one image into the movie. If your frame rate is 20 frames per second, you will have to make, gulp, 100 frames for that 5 seconds of copyright or credit!

Creating the Animation

In the next installments, we will show how to use Picasa from beginning to create a time-lapse with music, titles, and credits.

The first 180 images used in the time-lapse are these:

180 of the 675 frames used for the animation

While the title and credit frames looked like this

Title and Credit Frames

5 thoughts on “Action! Creating a Timelapse Animation (Part 1 of 2)

  1. Steven Christenson

    Tom asked me via email:

    May I ask what size/speed CF card you use/recommend for time lapse video of 30 second duration approx?

    The answer to card size is the biggest you can afford! Having more space increases the chance that you won’t fill a card prematurely. But as I note in the article above, you have to figure out “how many” shots you’re going to take. Then multiply that by the average size of the images your camera creates. 9,000 images at 20 Mb each = 180 Gb! They don’t make cards that big. So your choices are to shoot smaller JPGs at say 1.5 Mb each resulting in 13.5 Gb, or to back off on the aggressive high frame-rate timelapse as I suggested above.

    As I noted, I shoot star trails and get timelapses as a side benefit.

    What would you recommend as longest interval between shots for slow moving subjects like the rising moon or clouds at sunset – fast captures. I’m thinking 15 seconds may be acceptable, but could I go longer and still get a “seamless” time lapse?

    Slow is relative. If the subject is dark you can crank the ISO to get shorter exposures, but at some point you’ll pay in noise. I don’t think I can say where the compromise is since usually my aim is not a timelapse itself. I do know, however, that getting two or three times as much as you need makes it easy to discard frames and get a result. Ultimately the smoothest motion in a timelapse is achieved by “dragging the shutter” – shooting as long an exposure as you can so whatever you capture is smeared – exactly what you would do for a star trail.

    I can’t speak much about daylight timelapses since I have done very few. But again, motion is relative. You’d be surprised how quickly clouds can move!

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