Time Lapse Videos and the Power of Art

Why does time lapse photography hold such power? Why do some feel so artful, or make viewers yearn so much? Let’s start by explaining what a time lapse can do. A time lapse can help put in perspective the biggest events in our world. Timestorm Films generated this spectacularly suspenseful time lapse of the Calbuco volcano in Chile.

A time lapse can also shine light on moments so small you’d never see them. They help illustrate how the world is put together at the most fundamental level. Check out Beautiful Chemistry’s series of time lapses about chemical reactions so strange and alien, they feel like something out of a science-fiction movie.

A time lapse can grant you insight into events you’d never experience yourself. If you’re sad the last winter didn’t give you enough snow, you can take a look at Boston’s Snowpocalypse through the lens of a time lapse. What does 30 inches of snow in one-and-a-half days really look like?

They help viewers gain access to somebody else’s experience. A time lapse can put an audience in someone else’s shoes over the course of a day or two.

Time lapses are even useful in scientific study, such as when glaciers melt. Check out this TED talk from James Balog, in which he uses several time lapses to illustrate the effect of climate change. Watch the whole video or start at 8:30 to see his use of several time lapses.

Some of the most effective time lapses incorporate a dolly track or a programmed pan, so the camera moves incrementally across hours or days. Once accelerated, these emulate the real-time shots audiences associate with viewing movies. When you see them taking place in a time lapse, it creates a cognitive dissonance between what you expect and what you see. This is what can make a time lapse feel dreamlike.

Take a look at this National Geographic time lapse to see the effect in motion, and to witness some of the most beautiful wild spaces in the United States:

Remember, when you see the night sky spinning around, it’s not the sky spinning – it’s the Earth. Try not to get dizzy.

This video of Norway feeling jealous of Skyrim speeds through an incredible number of time lapses – months of work are fit into five minutes. What the video lacks in the ability to situate you in a single setting and make you feel its texture, it makes up for in the diversity of its settings. Rustad Media’s effort is a highlight reel of spectacular time lapses.

On the other end of the spectrum, try this Timestorm Films time lapse from New Zealand – it’s slower-paced and more soothing. Its pacing tells the story of a place. It communicates more of the experience of being there. It’s less an ad, and more a tone poem. More than anything else, a time lapse can be an ode to the places a filmmaker loves. A time lapse can be a way of wordlessly dedicating emotions for others to see.

A time lapse can be powerful because it evokes nostalgia for experiences viewers have never had. If there’s one experience many wish for, it’s being in space. There’s a host of time lapses taken from NASA collections and set to music. The fidelity is incredible and the spectacle is jaw-dropping. None of this is CGI. You can find all the raw images on the Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth website and other NASA-made time lapses on the Crew Earth Observations Video Page. Editor David Peterson edited the images together and produced an incredible time lapse:

If you’ve had a stressful day and you need something quick to unwind or take your mind off things, go enjoy a time lapse video, or go out and make a few yourself. If you’re interested, PetaPixel and Canon’s Digital Learning Center offer some excellent tips, tricks, and tutorials.


Share your favorite time lapse video with us. Do they make you want to visit any of the places featured?

Additional Image: Our Progress



Gabriel Valdez
Gabriel Valdez
Gabriel is a movie critic who's been a campaign manager in Oregon, an investigative reporter in Texas, and a film producer in Massachusetts. His writing was named best North American criticism of 2014 by the Local Media Association. He's assembled a band of writers who focus on social issues in film. They have a home base.