The old maxim, just because you can, doesn’t mean you should, has never been more applicable than with the excessive overuse of time-lapse videos. It seems like every video I see these days has the token time-lapse shot of clouds moving over the subject. Cool, we get it: clouds move faster if we speed up the footage, which looks unusual. Time to move on! The major problem with timelapse is how superfluous it so often seems, the very definition of a gimmick: a device intended merely to attract attention. Of course, time-lapse, like any tool, has it’s place. When used in service of the story, it can be very effective.
I still remember the first time I saw time-lapse employed to augment the film’s purpose rather than purely impress the viewer – in the landmark 1982 film Koyaanisqatsi. The film’s title is a Hopi word meaning – according to the film – “crazy life, life in turmoil, life out of balance, life disintegrating, a state of life that calls for another way of living.” The technique was employed to bolster the film’s thesis that modern industrial civilization is destroying the planet and our collective soul. In this sequence (starting at 45:22), time is sped up for a reason: to give a macro perspective on our growth-obsessed, restless consumer society, painting it as an alienating, seething and insatiable machine. Massive highways pulse with streaks of headlights, looking like a giant computer chip from an observer’s distance. Waves of people surge in every direction through intersections and subway junctions. Factory workers produce endless wares for mass distribution, and are consumed just as fast at the other end. Matched with Philip Glass’ frantic, repetitive score, it came as close as pure images can to an essay. Ironically, Man with a Movie Camera used sped-up footage of factory production in 1929, 53 years before, to show Russian industrialization as a positive development.
The effect, in 1982, must have been startlingly fresh – it even shocked me watching it twenty years later, before the current epidemic of time-lapse. But now, with intervalometers built into most DSLRs, it seems like every video I watch online has the obligatory time-lapse section. It’s a fad, and like all fads, it has become predictable to the point of obnoxiousness. I’ve noticed a bunch of videos whose entire point seems to be to make time-lapse images of miscellaneous stuff happening, for seemingly no reason other than it looks cool.
So next time you’re thinking of throwing a time-lapse segment for the gee-whiz factor alone, stop to consider whether it is in service of, rather than in spite of, the message you want to communicate.