History of Time Lapse photography

The history of Time-Lapse videos can be traced back to as long ago as the late 1800s. The first ever use of the Time lapse technique in a feature film was in Geothes Milies’ motion picture Carrefour De L’Opera (1897). Jean Comandon in collaboration with Pathe Freres also pioneered the study of biological phenomenon through Time lapse photography in 1909. F. Percy Smith in 1910, and Roman Vishniac from 1915 to 1918, also used the same technique to further study slow biological processes. In the 1920s, Time-lapse photography was further established through a series of feature films called Bergfilms by Arnold Fanck, including The Holy Mountain (1926) (The Holy Mountain [Full Movie]). From 1929 to 1931, R. R. Rife demonstrated high magnification time lapse cine- microscopy, thus astonishing journalists from all over the world.

However, when it comes to popularizing this genre of video, Dr, John Ott is the man to be credited. His entire life’s work was put together in DVD film called Exploring the Spectrum in 2008.

Exploring the Spectrum

Ott was a banker by profession, with a unique hobby of photographing subjects, mostly plants, using the time lapse technique. He started buying and building more and more time lapse equipment, eventually building an entire greenhouse of plants, who were constantly being monitored by cameras following their growth. He even built self-designed motors to control the movement of the cameras according to the growth of the plants. He used the gadgets to produce time lapse videos of his entire green house, creating a “virtual symphony of time lapse movements”. In the late 1950s, Ott’s work was featured in the TV show, You Asked For It.

Ott discovered how factors  such as the amount of water fed, or the color-temperature of the lights in the studio could affect the movement of the plants. He made discoveries of how some colors would cause a plant to flower, while others would cause it to bear fruits. He even figured out how simply by varying the color temperature of the light source, the sex of the plant could be changed.

Ott used his findings and the time lapse technique to produce choreographed animations of his plants “dancing” in a synchronized manner with pre-recorded sound tracks playing in the background.

Classic documentaries such as Disney’s Secrets of Life (1956) featured Ott’s time-lapse videos of flowers blooming, thus popularizing the modern use of time lapse photography on TV and films. He wrote books such as My Ivory Cellar (1958) and Health and Light (1979) where he spoke all about the history of his time lapse adventures.

The Oxford Scientific Film Institute in Oxford, UK has also been a major developer and refiner of the time lapse technique. They specialize in time-lapse and slow motion filming and even developed camera systems that can reach and navigate through places that were almost impossible to reach before. Their works have been appearing in Movies and TV documentaries for decades.

In 1983, the feature film Koyaanisqatsi used a lot of time lapse photography, including clouds, crowds, and cities. Years later, Ron Fricke, the cinematographer of Koyaanisqatsi, produced a called “Chronos“, a solo project that he shot on IMAX cameras, which even today is often played on Discovery HD.

Innumerable other films, advertisements, TV shows and presentations have used the time-lapse technique throughout history.Nate North’s film Silicon Valley Timelapse is perhaps the most recent film made completely using the time lapse technique.

Silicon Valley Time-lapse