The time lapse approach wrangles intense online viewership and requires time, money, and often personal risk. Why does a snappy film speed have such a hold on us?

ON JUNE 30TH, a short film entitled “The Mountain” became the most viewed HD video on Vimeo. Terje’s photographic achievements haven’t missed the eyes of National Geographic, Huffington Post, nor my own during fits of obsessive travel video browsing – and understandably so with a quick look at his work and what he endures to ensnare this imagery.

“Struggling to swim ashore after falling into the Arctic sea twice, breaking lenses, filters, tripod, computer, losing the whole dolly rig and controller into the sea, and even falling off a rather tall rock and ending up in the hospital…I am glad I stuck it through though because there were some amazing sunrises waiting. At 1:06 you see a single scene from day to night to day which is from 9pm to 7am. Think about that for a minute. Ten hours with light like that.”

From the practical, economical, artistic, passionate…from most points of view, the benefits of shooting a time lapse video have to outweigh the actual and potential costs. And as we’ve illustrated with our nearly 18 million views of Terje’s work online, that’s arguably the case.

Why time lapse for storytelling?

As a member of the MatadorTV triad, I appreciate the whole spectrum of travel video production, from the cinematic to the gritty. Video is an accessible vehicle for storytelling that can avoid the obstacles ever-present with language. And even though written word can facilitate a sensory experience, the combination of visual and audio elements is powerful on fleeting attention spans.

In browsing TV’s most popular posts to date, time lapse comes away a clear front-runner of stylistic and technical approaches, and these videos tend to follow a different editing pattern than most. Cuts are longer. Static shots are still dynamic. The resident audio is usually stripped from the footage and replaced by a soundtrack, and people still manage to follow a storyline and maintain focus on the evolving subject matter. Warped time appears to keep viewers engaged.

Matador TV Editor Joshywashington explains, “I personally like time lapse, beyond the fact that it is stunningly beautiful and downright trippy, because it can give you a sense of standing apart from the regular flow of time. The perspective becomes a sort of omniscient, godlike view, detached. You can watch the motion of the world in a way that is otherwise impossible.”

Why time lapse the subject matter?

Among the most popular subjects for the time lapse technique is nature, as evident by Terje’s work. This isn’t a shocker considering time lapse was made most well-known by Dr. John Ott, a photographer who documented growing plants. From the first time I watched a bud morph into a full blossom and added my own soundtrack of “whoaaa,” it seemed clear we could forever capture these natural elements and continue to amaze virtually everyone.

Of course, simply pointing the camera and tripod at any old vista won’t make for a viral, compelling, and timeless video. Ross Ching, a filmmaker in Los Angeles, stipulates, “There needs to be originality. There needs to be pioneers. There needs to be something more than beautiful shots. There needs to be a human element. There needs to be a story.”

In this approach, filmmaker Chad Richard combines real-time speed of lapping waves and walking children in conjunction with dramatically evolving skies (seen at 1:05). Speeding up the movement of clouds hints at the magnitude of the half dome above us, and I like to imagine how fantastical that would feel to witness whirling skies in real-time. With this film speed manipulation, Chad aims to elicit more awe from his over-exposed audience than a picturesque beach normally can evoke these days.

Time lapse videos make you feel somewhat omniscient…like you’re watching the world happen from afar. – @cbaumgarten

Maybe our obsession comes from relating the natural world to our own human interaction with it at an altered speed, warping our day to day, minute to minute perceptions of being present and active with the surroundings.

On occasion, I feel the perspective time lapse affords me is akin to a mini-spiritual awakening, an out-of-body experience while armchair traveling.

I am aware of greater realities than the ones visible to me regularly: seeing the clouds unfurl above a possibly unfazed San Francisco population, viewing the Northern Lights with the awareness that few humans witness them first-hand, studying the ebb and flow of breaking waves, a reminder that we are on a massive, moving orb and definitely not the most important thing even in our own lives.

Another favorite is studying the change in people, both a singular person and undulating crowds. Ironically, I feel that, in the same way I look for human attributes in nature, I look for natural rhythms and patterns in humankind. Bodies buzzing across Times Square remind me of bee hives. Immovable cityscapes refracting light look like blades of grass reacting to their natural stimuli. By speeding up film, time lapses seem to facilitate an understanding of big picture concepts I often wish I had the clarity to see at my own daily pace.

Why time lapse to gain perspective?
Because it shows people things that they would otherwise never see. – @evannrachel

I am 5’7″, don’t wear glasses, and walk with a speedy gait. Whenever photographs or videos offer an altered perspective from my own – waist-height angles, varied film speeds, birds-eye views, smooth dolly shots, etc. – I am intrigued. I watch longer than I would imagery that simply recreates my own vision of the world. Unless there’s some super power circulating that I don’t know about, no person can view the world at any other rate than the speed of life we all share. To alter any of these experiential factors is to bring about the new perspective of a flying animal, a superhuman, a celestial power, someone or something vastly different from ourselves.

To me, this is one of the beautiful abilities of video and photography and one of the reasons it’s so applicable to the travel realm.

I travel because it alters my perspective, among many reasons. To never have your vision of the world rattled or challenged could lead to an insulated worldview, which can be a dangerous thing. And when those travels and destinations have something to teach, I like to document with the hope that those lessons are transferrable via video to others. If that lesson is more experiential than can be vocalized, words may distort what the world is trying to say; and heck, she’s probably saying something very different to each of us.

Time lapse is one of the many vehicles through which filmmakers and storytellers have learned to transmit concepts from the world to the world effectively. And with the amount of attention we give these works today, it appears to be an approach that works.Feature video Arctic Light and The Aurora created by Terje Sørgjerd
Fiji video created by Chad Richard