Time-lapse photography is a technique whereby the frequency at which film frames are captured (the frame rate) is much lower than that used to view the sequence. When played at normal speed, time appears to be moving faster and thus lapsing. For example, an image of a scene may be captured once every second, then played back at 30 frames per second. The result is an apparent 30-times speed increase. Time-lapse photography can be considered the opposite of high speed photography or slow motion.
Processes that would normally appear subtle to the human eye, e.g. the motion of the sun and stars in the sky, become very pronounced. Time-lapse is the extreme version of the cinematography technique of undercranking, and can be confused with stop motion animation.
The technique has been used to photograph crowds, traffic, and even television. The effect of photographing a subject that changes imperceptibly slowly, creates a smooth impression of motion. A subject that changes quickly is transformed into an onslaught of activity.
The first use of time-lapse photography in a feature film was in Georges Méliès‘ motion picture Carrefour De L’Opera (1897). Time-lapse photography of biologic phenomena was pioneered by Jean Comandon in collaboration with Pathé Frères from 1909, by F. Percy Smith in 1910 and Roman Vishniac from 1915 to 1918. Time-lapse photography was further pioneered in the 1920s via a series of feature films called Bergfilms (Mountain films) by Arnold Fanck, including The Holy Mountain (1926).
From 1929 to 1931, R. R. Rife astonished journalists with early demonstrations of high magnification time-lapse cine-micrographybut no filmmaker can be credited for popularizing time-lapse more than Dr. John Ott, whose life-work is documented in the DVD-film “Exploring the Spectrum”.
Ott’s initial “day-job” career was that of a banker, with time-lapse movie photography, mostly of plants, initially just a hobby. Starting in the 1930s, Ott bought and built more and more time-lapse equipment, eventually building a large greenhouse full of plants, cameras, and even self-built automated electric motion control systems for moving the cameras to follow the growth of plants as they developed. He time-lapsed his entire greenhouse of plants and cameras as they worked – a virtual symphony of time-lapse movement. His work was featured on a late 1950s episode of the request TV show, You Asked For It.
Ott discovered that the movement of plants could be manipulated by varying the amount of water the plants were given, and varying the color-temperature of the lights in the studio. Some colors caused the plants to flower, and other colors caused the plants to bear fruit. Ott discovered ways to change the sex of plants merely by varying the light source color-temperature.
By using these techniques, Ott time-lapse animated plants “dancing” up and down in synch to pre-recorded music tracks.