Sam Woosley — Framing Up
Posted on March 1, 2015
Sam Woosley’s hyper-lapse photography covers Melbourne.
I woke up on the morning of August 18th feeling great. I’d only been back home in Charlotte, North Carolina a few days, so my body was still getting used to how good my bed felt. I had just released my first ever time-lapse video on Vimeo and I wondered how many people had viewed it overnight. I was getting around 500 per day on average for the previous week so a few hundred would have put a smile on my face. It had amassed around 60,000.
I was never one of those people who didn’t know what they wanted to do in life. I remember my parents buying me a copy of Jurassic Park when I was 11 and my sister being furious because she wasn’t able to see a PG-13 movie before she was 13. I took acting classes at the Children’s Theater in downtown Charlotte a few years later and decided pretty fast that it wasn’t for me. Despite this, I loved movies so much that by the time university came around, I had no idea what part of film I liked the most, just that I knew I belonged in the film industry.
I ended up attending the University of North Carolina at Greensboro partly because it was close to home and it was the only film school that accepted me (I didn’t try very hard in high school). I was a judge for the Carolina Video and Film Festival and was extremely focused my freshman year, where I immersed myself in many aspects of filmmaking. I loved stories so I tried screenwriting; I was kind of nerdy and slightly OCD so I enjoyed editing video and I actually really liked directing.
I feel I can read performances well and describe what I am looking for with words. It wasn’t until my sophomore year when we got into camera work that the light switched on in my head. There is just something about the art of framing the camera up in a scene to provoke a feeling or emotion that resonates with me. My nerdy side loves different types of cameras and lenses, my OCD side helps me get the shot just right, and my artistic side can focus on the scene layout and the emotion I am trying to evoke with the shot. Cinematography just fits me as a person.
Because I knew what I wanted from university, I was able to complete my majors relatively quickly. By the time my senior year came around, I had only a few elective courses left to take before I was eligible to graduate. With a reduced course load, I looked for options to travel abroad during my final semester. A friend had been to Melbourne a year earlier and she convinced me it was the place to go. I decided to switch my film studies to photography in Melbourne. I asked myself, what could I create while traveling abroad that combined my film studies with my photography courses?
Just before my senior year started, I had been saving up money for a few months and I bought a Canon 5d Mark III. Around the same time, I had become extremely interested in time-lapse photography. As soon as I got my new camera, I started exploring time-lapse, just to get used to the workflow (which is quite tedious). I knew when I went to Melbourne that I wanted to make a big epic video of my experience through my eyes. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to make a video of the city, or a video mixed with time-lapse footage, but I ended up siding with time-lapse for the whole project. I practiced as much as I could with my camera, when I wasn’t working on other projects in school. I spent hours on the Internet finding ways to get certain shots, which is how I stumbled upon filmmakers Chris and Oliver (ChrisandOliver.com) — the first filmmakers to use a time-lapse technique called “hyper-lapsing”. Most people who have seen time-lapse videos have seen the generic mechanical dolly shot that travels maybe 2 – 3 feet over a 4 – 6 second shot. The technique of hyper-lapsing allows you to move literally any distance (for me, around 20 – 40 metres) over the same amount of time. The effect is fascinating. I think viewers (including me) are drawn to it because of the depth. Moving across that distance really shows the subject’s dimensions and captures the viewer’s attention. I realised quickly that this would be the focal point of my video I intended to make of Melbourne.
Achieving a hyper-lapse is as “do it yourself” as can be. You need a good amount of free space, so it can easily take just as long to scout for a location as it does to shoot one. The idea is to take a picture every few inches (depending on how much space you have and the effect you are going for). I keep the subject I am presenting at around the same location in the frame for every shot (this makes things easier to edit later). After color grading, all the photos are stabilised in postproduction. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out. If your subject isn’t close to where it was in the previous shot, the stabilisation can get confused and cause twitches in your video. Also, you can’t travel long distances (more than 5 – 10 metres) if your subject isn’t large enough. Moving too fast without something large in the frame can look disorienting and have too much movement to enable the viewer to focus. It took a lot of practice. The process is tedious and complicated, but through trial and error I eventually got the hang of it. Feeling confident in my practice, I finally headed down under.
Australia is just incredible. Melbourne is huge, the people are great, the food is tasty, and the city is pretty. Luckily, I lived right next to RMIT University in the heart of the city, which is basically next to everywhere I wanted to be. I got shooting right away. I had my own equipment, an efficient technique, and six months of time.
My professors at school knew about my project and even let me turn in pieces of what I was working on as assignments. I was shooting 2 – 3 times a week for hours at a time, and putting more hours in editing footage on my crappy laptop. Everything was working out great until just before the Easter break. All of a sudden, my computer crashed. This had never happened to me before and I really took a hit. Luckily I had some shoots backed up on my external hard drive but I lost footage I thought at the time was integral to my personal project. It hit me hard. I was at the bottom of the world and out of my home country for the first time in my life, and I was putting most of my time into a video I was making just for fun. I stepped back from what I had been planning on for months and went on vacation.
My roommate and I took a two week trip to New Zealand, which was life changing to me. It’s the most beautiful place I have ever visited, just as, if not more breathtaking than Australia, and the people were just amazing. It was like Australia but in slow motion. No one is in a rush and you can relax and enjoy the view. Exotic green mountains come straight up out of the lakes and into the clouds. It’s unbelievable. If I were to ask someone who the Miami Heat were playing the first round of the NBA playoffs, they would have asked me what a ”Miami” was. It was the most relaxed I have ever been and it left me wondering if the video I had been working on was worth it.
I had planned around this video and practiced for so long that I needed something to show for it. One thing I did have was time. You can do a lot in six months’ time, especially if you’re focused. But there are other factors. You can’t just say, “I’ll go shoot tomorrow”. For me, the elements have to be right. I learned quickly that you have to have a Z-axis (that is, the three-dimensional plane). To create this, there absolutely have to be clouds in the sky during the day and there have to be light trails from cars at night. You need to show depth in the frame otherwise time-lapses get stale. If you watch my videos, you will see there isn’t one shot without clouds or light trails. I ended up shooting until the second-last day I was in Melbourne.
I had a computer crash, I had the cops called on me in some locations (because my tripod scares people at night, I guess) and shooting always with clouds in the sky meant it was inevitable I was going to get rained out at least a handful of times. There were multiple challenges, but I am partially appreciative that I had a specific date to come home, otherwise I would probably still be shooting. The video was made from 8,159 photographs and 88 different time-lapses over 50 shoots. It was approximately 150 hours of work in total.
I woke up on the morning of August 18th with 60,000 views because I had been featured on BuzzFeed, something I am proud of and greatly appreciate. It wasn’t part of the plan, and has created opportunities in my life that otherwise may not have been there. I have been featured on a few sites, made a little money, will have my video shown on the big screen in Melbourne’s Federation Square, and was offered a job on the West Coast of America. Really, without those 60,000 views you could be reading someone else’s words right now.
Despite this, all my friends still know me as the unlucky one. I’ve been lucky with the big things in my life but the small things still seem to go wrong. Two days ago, I spent 20 dollars on a frisbee and lost it to the middle of a pond within an hour. Yesterday I had my car windows down when driving through a puddle in the road and a passing tow truck sent a tidal wave into my car. That’s just a regular 48 hours!
At this point, it’s hard to get upset. As my professional life is just getting started, I am just trying to get better at what I do and hope my luck for the big things continues in my favour. Even without luck, I’m just excited to be on the creative path I always knew was meant for me.