How to Smooth Out Your Timelapse Footage

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Finding ways to improve the way in which I work with my timelapse footage as well as ways to create unique looks is a huge passion of mine. Whether through refining the look and feel or total experimentation, this desire definitely keeps me on my toes. As of recent, I set out to find a way to replicate a plugin I used to rely on heavily for smoothing out timelapses while creating a ‘silky’ look. The plugin itself was called CHV Time Collection.

CHV Time Collection’s Long Exposure added up a certain time range and created an effect as if you have used a long exposure time with your camera. Moving objects appeared as a blurry mass. Non moving objects don’t change their shape and will stay clearly visible.

Unfortunately, the plugin wasn’t updated and was only compatible with Final Cut Pro 7. Because of that, I was forced to look elsewhere for a solution. I was able to come up with three different approaches based on the type of shots you are trying to work with. Each of these approaches has a different look – while each also won’t work for every situation. Shooting your shots correctly in camera is ALWAYS a better approach but if for whatever reason you forget your ND filters or mess up your shutter speed (or you want to create a unique look), this one is for you!

Now before I jump into the three ways to fix the staccato effect in post production, I’ve attached a list of filters I use for my shots.

  • LEE Filters 150 x 170mm SW150 Soft Edge Graduated Neutral Density Set
  • LEE Filters 150 x 150mm SW150 Big Stopper Neutral Density 3.0 Filter (10 Stop)
  • LEE Filters SW150 Mark II Lens Adapter for Lenses with 77mm Filter Threads
  • LEE Filters SW150 Mark II Lens Adapter for Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm f/2.8G ED Lens
  • LEE Filters SW150 Mark II Filter System Holder for Wide Angle Lenses

There is a slight cool colour cast from the Big Stopper but I find that for the most part, this can be fixed when working with your images in post. Without futher ado, I’ve attached the post production methods below. With each of these methods, keep in mind that they will only work with static timelapses. If you are doing a motion controlled timelapse, you will want to make sure to use ND filters.

1. Echo Effect

This is the quick and dirty approach. This effect is a great way to quickly modify the look of your shot. It will help remove some flicker and smooths out clouds to create a unique look. However, it won’t work well for objects moving close to the camera.

The image on the left is the before image and the image on the left is the after image.

coit-tower

To apply the effect, navigate to the VIDEO EFFECTS / TIME folder in the effects panel. Once applied to your clip, use the echo time, number of echos, intensity and decay sliders to refine the look of the effect. You will need to play a bit around with these settings as the effect each shot slightly different.

echo-effect

This approach is definitely not as flexible as the plugin but helps in a pinch. It is great because the effect is built right into premiere pro.

2. Effect Layering with Opacity Shifts

The second approach is the effect layering approach. To utilize this approach, you will need to use After Effects as it is much easier to assemble based on the way the program works versus trying to do in Premiere Pro.

The image on the left is the before image, the image on the right is the final image.

gg-bridge

To apply this effect, you will need to create multiple copies of your given timelapse. Once you create multiple layers in your composition, bump each layer over 1 frame.

golden-gate-timeline

Once you have bumped each layer over one frame, you will want to select all layers and hit ‘T’ to toggle open the opacity settings.

golden-gate-opacity

Below I have attached the opacity settings I use when applying this effect. The reason each layers opacity decreases is to ensure that all layers remain visible, however subtle that may be. Choosing the amount of layers you want to use is totally up to you and the look you are going for.

1st layer = 100% (100 / 1)
2nd layer = 50% (100 / 2)
3rd layer = 33% (100 / 3)
4th layer = 25% (100 / 4)
5th layer = 20% (100 / 5)
6th layer = 17% (100 / 6)
7th layer = 14% (100 / 7)
8th layer = 12% (100 / 8)
9th layer = 11% (100 / 9)
10th layer = 10% (100 / 10)
11th layer = 9% (100 / 11)
12th layer = 8% (100 / 12)
—-
13th layer = 7%
14th layer = 6%
15th layer = 5%
16th layer = 4%
17th layer = 3%
18th layer = 2%
19th layer = 1%

3. Pixel Motion Blur & CC Wide Time

The last option and in my opinion the best method is the Pixel Motion Blur approach. For this approach, I use both the Pixel Motion Blur and CC Wide Time effects. Essentially, this is taking the stacking method and adding motion blur to the hard edges.

Below I have attached two images – one with the Pixel Motion Blur effect applied (top left) and another where ND filters were used (top right). Although not perfect, you can see that we are able to get a look that is pretty similar to what it would look like if shot correctly on location.

long-exposure_edits-vs-in-camera-copy

To apply the effect, you will want to navigate to the pixel motion blur and CC Wide time effects.

screen-shot-2016-10-06-at-10-04-29-am screen-shot-2016-10-06-at-10-04-37-am

Once applied, I leave the Pixel Motion Blur at the default settings and then change the CC Wide Time to 16 forward steps and 0 backward steps.

screen-shot-2016-10-06-at-10-03-59-am

Once completed, I then duplicate the layer (Command + D).

screen-shot-2016-10-06-at-10-04-55-am

From there, I then delete the CC Wide Time from the top layer inside the layer effects panel. Once deleted I then change the Shutter Samples to 10.

screen-shot-2016-10-06-at-10-05-15-am

At this point, you can start to refine the effect to work for your given scenario or to create the look you want.

Composites

The last thing I want to talk about with this tutorial is how you are able to use this effect to create a more pleasing images by removing the staccato effect from distracting elements through compositing. To apply this effect, you will want to pre-compose your sequence that you created using one of the methods outlined above.

screen-shot-2016-10-06-at-10-30-13-am

After you precompose your composition, drag a copy of your original shot into the sequence you are working in.

screen-shot-2016-10-06-at-10-30-42-am

Now, use the pen tool to cut out the element you want to localize for your timelapse.

screen-shot-2016-10-06-at-10-20-10-am

Once you have trimmed your layer, you will then have your final composited image. The image on the left is the before image and the image on the right is the final output. You can see that the water is smoothed out.

cleanup-water

Wrap Up

As always, capturing your timelapse correctly in camera is the best way to go. However, if for whatever reason you want to clean up your shot, one of these methods should work for you. If you have any way to improve the process, please let me know as I am always open to better methods!

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  • Matt Adame

    Thanks so much Preston. I’ve got so many sequences that I sort of abandonded because of staccato and now I can go back and work on them with these awesome strategies. I also have to commend you for your willingness to share your hard gained knowledge. Your generosity is inspiring.

    • prestonkanak

      Amazing! I’m so glad that it might bring some shots back to life. Make sure to share some of them when you have them completed!

      • Matt Adame

        Hi Preston,

        I am experimenting with the stacking technique vs. the pixel motion blur + wide time. I rendered out a 35 second sequence that used the stack technique and it took about 75 minutes. I went back and applied the pixel motion + wide time and the AE is estimating it will take about 10 hours. Does this seem right? Thanks in advance for your reply.

        • prestonkanak

          It definitely shouldn’t take that long. What type of computer are you using? Latest version of After Effects?

          • Matt Adame

            Hi Preston. Thanks for the reply. I’m using a 2015 MacBook Pro and the latest version of AE CC. It seems like something strange is happening given how relatively quickly it renders the footage using the stacking technique compared to essentially not being able to render out using pixel+wide.

          • prestonkanak

            You most definitely should not have issues with what you are using. Feel free to send over a few files and I can process on my end to see if it is a shot specific issue or a hardware issue. Do you have rendering issues with any other program or effect?

          • Matt Adame

            Thanks again. Maybe I am missing a step in the process. I’m following the video and the written description above. In the video at the 10:57 mark you transition from the pixel+wide method back into talking about masking. What I did was make the adjustments to the pixel and wide effect layers that you described and immediately sent it to the render queue. Is that the correct process or should I do a precompose of that layer, then bring in the original, do the mask then render? Could that be the issue?

          • prestonkanak

            That process shouldn’t cause an issue. Are you stacking multiple instances of the plugin? That may cause rendering issues. I’ve also found when you have your cap locks key on (disables previews) that it renders faster as well. I think After Effects may have disabled frame previews in the latest version by default though so you may not need to have the cap locks on in the latest version (would have to check – I just always do it by habit).

          • Matt Adame

            I brought 1 instance of each plugin into the sequence and made the adjustments as you described. I just ruled out the hard drive being an issue by bringing the file onto the computer hard drive and it is still calculating render time as 55 hours to render. Can I send you the mov file, it’s about 9GB, and have you attempt to render it using the pixel+wide process?

          • Matt Adame

            I have another question, and thanks again for all the help. When I render the sequence for a second time with the stack, or pixel+wide, what should I be choosing in the Output Module section? For example, the original sequence was rendered using prores 422 with a size of 3840×2160. The default is “lossless” so should I leave it at lossless or go in and change the codec again to prores? Thanks.

          • prestonkanak

            How you want to export is totally up to you. I will always use prores verses the animation codec on export. One of the main reasons is that the finder is able to preview the file whereas with the animation codec, it needs to open the file.

          • prestonkanak

            Yeah, hard drive wouldn’t cause that much of an issue. Feel free to send it over using cinescapes.wetransfer.com.

          • Matt Adame

            Sending now. Let me know where to send payment for all this help. You’re so great man!!!

          • Matt Adame

            File sent. Please let me know if you encounter the same issue. I need to figure out what is going on when I try to render…it’s killing my creative flow!!!

          • Matt Adame

            I got a message that you are away on a trip….a very special trip. Congrats!!!

  • Brian_Forwood

    I too have many blown sequences I wrote off for the same reason.. I can’t wait to reimport and see if I can bring them back to life with these techniques. You have taught me so much over the years and I am very grateful, not just on a technical level but a personal one as well. It’s hard to balance out personal family life with the time/stress of shoots and your blogs are always inspiring and helpful to stay focused and positive. I feel like I have an invoice coming from you at some point for your training/advice, ha. Cheers Preston, let me know if you’re ever in the SLC/Utah area.

    • prestonkanak

      :) – Thanks for the kind words. Share, share, share! I would so love to see some of these sequences – and I will definitely hit you up when I make it that way!

  • Great, detailed work flow, thanks for sharing!

  • Lee

    Thanks for these great tips. What can you suggest for a filter holder and glass for the Nikkor 14-24 that won’t leak and has a wide range of ND glass?

    • prestonkanak

      Lee Filters carries a filter holder built specifically for the lens that I love. It needs to be installed on the lens but works flawlessly. I leave mine installed at all times. You also need to buy the filter holder to use it as well but here is the main part to attached the filter holder. For the filters themselves, huge fan of the firecrest and they aren’t crazy expensive. https://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/1153784-REG/lee_filters_sw150n1424_sw150_adaptor_for_nikon.html

      • Lee

        Thanks for the response. I’ve just ordered the Lee from B&H (crazy expensive is right). Got the polarizer and 15 stop ND; excited to try them out.

  • Andres Bonilla

    You saved my life, I did my first time-lapse but I think my shutter speed was to high and I also forgot to disable auto white balance, in my case the echo filter saved me, I will try the other methods.

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