Capturing a country: Timelapse treasures

Joseph Michael

King of timelapse, Joseph Michael, tells Jade Price how he spent three months in New Zealand, encapsulating the country in a timelapse bubble.

JP: What drew you towards timelapse photography in the first place?
JM: I have always been interested in cameras and motion, viewing ordinary events or objects in a unique way. Even the most mundane event can be portrayed to show the excitement going on behind the veil. That’s what drew me to timelapse. When I was younger I experimented with speeding things up and slowing them down, first using video cameras then progressing onto DSLRs. The progression of digital technology has given me the ability to discover some really exciting things about the world around me.

JP: Why did you decide to do a timelapse project in New Zealand?
JM: I was born in New Zealand. Growing up here I always wondered why people made such big deal about its attraction. I guess the experience of overseas travel showed me how unique it actually is. For such a small island it has some stunningly beautiful landscapes and a remarkable diversity. You can literally climb the peak of a huge mountain and surf at a rain forest covered beach all in one day. But what drew me most to filming a project here is the lack of population.

Many people that visit New Zealand ask “Where have all the people gone?” Sometimes that can feel a bit isolating, but generally NZ’ers are a friendly bunch – if you find one! I wanted to do a project on our incredible landscapes and see how many places I could film without any man-made infrastructure. Even in NZ that is a challenge but I’ve managed to find some breathtaking spots that show virtually no sign of man.

JP: How long did it take to prepare to film the project Dark Cloud: White Light?
JM: The project has been on the go for about three years. I had been bouncing the idea around for a while, shooting time-lapse and pitching to different people. One day I showed it to Darcy Nicholas, who was the director of a large public gallery in Wellington. Darcy thought the project was spectacular and offered to back me with some development funding and helped gather further interest. Shortly after that Nikon NZ came on board with a camera sponsorship. I could see their excitement for the project right away and they have been incredibly supportive right through the process. From there things kind of snowballed. It evolved into a real collaborative effort with many friends and work colleagues joining me on the ground.


JP: What challenges did you face?
JM: First of all I wanted to create an experience where the viewer could see these spectacular landscapes over 24 hours. Initially I had no idea how we could accomplish this, so we started experimenting with timelapse devices, brampers and bulb ramping devices. The vision was to create a Holy Grail timelapse over 24 hours. Most of these devices limited me in some way, restricting me to the use of shutter or one parameter that could be changed on the cameras. To achieve what I wanted I needed to find a way to expand all the settings of the camera from one end of the spectrum to the other.

Eventually I discovered a guy called Gunther Wegner, who had created a fantastic program called LR timelapse, which uses the latitude of the raw camera format to create smooth exposure changes over time. I also wanted to capture the landscapes in 3D, so with the help of some talented friends we experimented building various 3D rigs and controllers. On top of that, I was experimenting with weather proofing, power supplies, sync shutter remote controllers, camera cooling systems and lens heating devices, all of which provided many challenges (and failures!) before we came up with a camera package to deliver what we needed.


JP: What are some of your most memorable moments out there?
JM: So many fantastic adventures. I guess the times that stick out most are the best and worst. The Routeburn track near Queenstown seemed like a good place to start one of our big location hikes. It was the first time we had carried all our gear into a relatively isolated spot. We chose this location because we knew it was a good track and had a hut to stay in. Of course, things didn’t go according to plan. First of all, we went totally over the top with the amount of gear we attempted to carry in and the track was extremely steep in parts. Just getting up there was an absolute day from hell.

Once we reached base camp it was a 30 minute walk down a track and up a slippery cliff face to the camera set-up location. Every four hours I did this track and of course the predicted weather front came in early. I had filmed for about 48 hours but still didn’t have the footage for a complete 24hour loop. We were wet and cold, running out of food and morale.

When we were just about to pack it in and head home, the weather changed and started snowing. The kindly warden at the hut informed us that once the snow comes in good weather generally comes in behind. I calculated that I had enough battery and data to keep filming for one more day. While we were doing paper, scissors, rock to see who would walk the 10-hour return journey for supplies, the warden offered to share some of his food with us. We made it work and it’s one of my favourite shots in the exhibition. You can literally see a snow-storm blanketing the valley then melting away the next day. (Routeburn photo attached)


JP: You say it took three months to film, how long did post production take?
JM: Filming was scheduled for three months but it actually took closer to five. Post production is ongoing and will total about five to six months. Each frame is recorded in 7K Nikon Raw so we have about 20 terabytes and close to 300,000 frames to deal with.

JP: What software do you use for post production?
JM: For Post-Production we use Adobe Lightroom, LR timelapse, Adobe After Effects, Final Cut Pro, Nuke, Mystica.


JP: What kit did you take out there?
JM: The Camera Kit varies depending on location but I have:

•5 x Nikon D800 camera bodies
•5 x mb-d12 battery packs
•30 x enel15 batteries
•6 x 128gb hi speed lexar CF cards
•6 x 128gb hi speed lexar SD cards

Lenses include:
•AF Fisheye-Nikkor 16mm f/2.8D
•AF-S Nikkor 14mm f/2.8 ED
•AF-S Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8 ED
•AF-S Nikkor 24mm f/1.4G
•AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.4G
•AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.8G
•AF-S Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8G ED
•AF Zoom-Nikkor 70-300mm f/4-5.6G

Other kit:
•2 x Manfrotto MT057c3 carbon fibre tripods
•2 x Manfrotto 057 Magnesium Ball Head with Q5 Quick Release
•2x Manfrotto 055XB CLASSIC TRIPOD
•4x MC-36 controllers
•1 x custom built sync 3D controller
•Various filters. ND’s, Vari ND’s, Polarisers
•1 x Kendrick DigiFire 10 dew heater controller
•2 x custom built rigs and camera support
•1 x Custom Fan /weather controller
•2 x 6v SLA batteries
•2x 12v SLA batteries


JP: How did you go about choosing the music to accompany the video, and how important is it to the overall project?
JM: I’ve approached a few different musicians and composers to create soundtracks to accompany the artworks. This is a remarkable process and it will dramatically affect the response to each of the landscape works. The video in the link to is a collaboration with the supremely talented Rhian Sheehan, we share a love of landscape and stars. He offered me one of the tracks off his new album to do a music video/promo for my work and he is creating a soundtrack to one of the artworks.

JP: How much did the trip cost, including the sponsor money you were given?
JM: The cost of the trip was about $50,000 NZ dollars. This included money sponsorship and kind support from other sponsors.


JP: What tips would you give other photographers looking to undertake a huge timelapse project like yours?
JM: My advice would be to get out there and shoot. Believe in yourself and your talent. If you have a clear vision then people will jump on board. Opportunities always arise if you’re absolutely committed to project.

JP: Do you have any more timelapse or photography projects on the books?
JM: I’ve got loads of exciting ideas and projects in the pipeline. For now though I’m focused on getting this one finished and exhibited so people can see it. Later this year and in 2014 we may have the opportunity to tour the exhibition so hopefully we can secure somewhere to showcase the work in the UK.


Joseph Michael is a film technician, new media artist and photographer. Having worked on music videos, documentaries and feature films including The Hobbit, where he helped work the magic on making certain actors appear smaller in real time, and other big names like Avatar. He then turned his skills to the time consuming but breathtaking art of timelpase photography.

The full video of Joe's timelapse can be seen below.

If you loved the video as much as we did then you can see more of Joe's work here and here.





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