The Milky Way whirls across the desert sky above the darkened silhouette of a twisted, spiky Joshua tree in southwestern California. In daytime, cloud formations scud across the sky in sped-up motion, billowing out, evaporating, morphing into new shapes, as if by the hand of a magician. The images are an environmentalist's elegiac tribute to the mystery of the natural world, and for anyone who contemplates the events in the year that is coming to a close, a reminder that the passage of time is a hard, (usually) invisible truth none of us can escape.
When it's done this well, a time-lapse film is a visual poem.
Time-lapse images are everywhere – in advertising, in movies, on television, websites, on those small screens you watch in the back seat of a cab. It has become a visual meme. Sometimes, the sped-up images of people moving through a city read like a comment on our hyper-fast world, in which time no longer feels luxurious and long, but truncated. The art form is both specific to our time, an expression of our frantic modern life, and universal in its thought-provoking examination of the meaning of human existence. On vimeo, a popular video-sharing website, time-lapse pieces of all sorts get millions of hits. In the past few years, Tom Lowe, Philip Bloom, Christoph Milan and other experimental directors have created a whole new genre.
Of all the ones I have watched, it was Lowe's TimeScapes, released six months ago, that mesmerized me the most – a 45-minute wordless mediation on rocks and trees and stars, set to an orchestral soundtrack. It is a hymn to the heavens, and a celebration of his patience. He spent two years working on it, travelling across the American Southwest, sleeping for hundreds of nights on a cot under the stars.
Reached in Dubai, where he is now working on an IMAX time-lapse film, Lowe helped to explain our new cultural fascination.
It has been facilitated by the advent of digital technology. The first iteration of this art form was Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance, a 1982 film directed by Godfrey Reggio with music by Philip Glass and cinematography by Ron Fricke. It featured slow-motion and time-lapse cinematography of cities and landscapes across the United States. Reggio explained the lack of dialogue this way. "It's not for lack of love of the language that these films have no words. It's because from my point of view, our language is in a state of vast humiliation. It no longer describes the world in which we live." His work, using chemical photographic film on traditional cameras, took six painstaking years and a large crew to create.
Few could afford the time or the cost to do it. But in 2008, all that changed with the introduction of the Canon 5D Mark II, a digital single lens reflex (DSLR) camera, the first to have HD video-recording capability. Suddenly, anyone could go out into nature and shoot time-lapse by himself.
Lowe describes his art form as a "great equalizer" in the film industry. Four years ago, the award-winning cinematographer and director was "dead broke," he says. "I was driving around in my truck barely able to afford gas station food and beer." He had been doing time-lapse as a hobby. But then it became a career.
"As soon as [the Canon 5D Mark II] came out, we started putting it onto a moving vehicle, and you couldn't have done that the year before because cameras were not fast enough," Lowe says. "For $400, I could now smoke these guys who had these $50,000-to-$200,000 film cameras."
The technical process is not difficult to learn. "You can learn the post-process basics of time-lapse in a day or two," he says.
Lowe started to post his efforts on vimeo. Audi commissioned him to shoot some footage for a TV commercial. A clip was used for a Hollywood film. The genie was out of the bottle. "When I started, there was no such job as a time-lapse photographer."
With sped-up film, the human eye can see things that it cannot in real time. The DSLR camera is a cosmic, spiritual eye of sorts, seeing in the dark, supersensitive to light, showing us ourselves with a detached grace. We see the movement of the universe above the Earth; the liquid stream of car lights on highways; the comical movement of boats passing back and forth in a harbour, the seeming inanity, the fleeting nature, of human activity. We are watching ourselves as we have never been able to before, fascinated by what we see, edified, and also perhaps a little bit humbled.