The Curious Case of Tom Lowe: From Writer to Master Time-Lapse Photographer
It is no easy feat for any aspiring filmmaker to work with Terrence Malick or be called a "master of the skies and stars" by filmmaker Vincent Laforet or be voted the Astronomy Photographer of the Year. But time-lapse filmmaker Tom Lowe can claim all three honors. Lowe didn't set out to be a renowned time-lapse photographer but, he philosophizes, "if you get somewhere accidentally, that's where you're supposed to be."
Lowe started out as a writer of everything from novels to corporate and political speeches. In 2006, he tried his hand at writing and directing his first feature. "It was a total disaster," Lowe recalls. "I lost tons of my savings. I did everything wrong. But while I was out scouting, I kind of got into shooting time-lapse just because there was nothing else to do."
Lowe was camping in Mount Whitney when the beauty of the stars and rocks demanded to be captured. He started actively asking his cinematographer friends if they knew of a camera that could do what he was seeing justice.
"Eventually [cinematographer] Francis Kenny [ASC] mentioned to me on the RedUser forum that you can get a Canon camera and that would be good for that. So I ordered a 350D, I shot an experiment the day it arrived and I was amazed it actually worked. I mean, the footage was incredible compared to what you could get out of something like the [Panasonic] AG-HVX200 which was the standard indie camera at that time. "
As a hobby, Lowe started shooting and posting his own time-lapse videos. He received positive feedback and also realized that his favorite part of his earlier attempt at making his feature film was the creation of cutaway nature shots. The new shots he was getting with the Canon DSLR helped plant a seed and set him in a new direction.
"My end-goal was to become a feature film director," he says. "And I realized I could go out and shoot one of these [time-lapse] films on one of these new digital cameras basically for nothing, I could do it all myself, I wouldn't be dealing with any actors, no B.S.
"It's almost like being a writer in that sense. A feature film you're relying so much on all of your collaborators, whether it's your crew, your cast or whatever, whereas being a time-lapse shooter, it's much more like being a writer in that you sit down with a blank piece of paper and you write. Well, with time-lapse you just go out with your camera and you create what you want to create and you can distribute it directly."
With his end-goal in mind, Lowe posted his short "Mountain Light" on his Vimeo page with a note saying that he was looking for a producer to help him make a feature film. He was contacted by Nigel Stanford of Rubber Monkey Studios who eventually agreed to send $100,000 and a RED camera with the MX sensor.
The result is the 45-minute TimeScapes, a time-lapse feature that shows the American Southwest at its most stunning. Just the trailers and short clips Lowe has so far released have caused the entire time-lapse world (including Laforet) to wax lyrical.
To shoot the impressive footage--a mix of about 60% time-lapse and 40% cinema shooting--Lowe relied on Canon 5D Mark IIs and a Canon 1D IV with 14mm, 16mm-35mm, 24mm/1.4, 50mm/1.2 and 70mm-200mm lenses. Canon was a sponsor and sent him $20,000 worth of gear. The live-action parts were shot on the RED MX and a Red Epic with a set of Zeiss primes, all of it over cranked. "I never ever shot anything at 24p," he says. "It was all 50 fps on the and 96 fps on the Epic."
The time-lapse and high-speed footage really complement each other, he says. "In many ways, I think high-speed shooting is just a different side of the same coin as time-lapse shooting. You're showing people things in a new way. If someone gave me a Phantom right now, I would do shots that are similar to time-lapse. I would use dollies. [The approach to either kind of shooting] is almost exactly the same in my mind. "
The dollies that Lowe used when he first started were all hand built with the help of a local blacksmith, but the technological world of time-lapse has come a long way since then. For TimeScapes, Lowe got another sponsorship from camBLOCK and used their 3-axis system for the first year of the shoot. He also later used the Kessler CineSlider and Shuttle Pod.
"I did it all on a gaming PC!" he confesses. "A PC that most people would use to play Battlefield 3, I'm using to edit 4K video in Premiere Pro. Probably the reason for that is the Mercury Playback Engine in Premiere, which is accelerated by CUDA. It's pretty amazing to me that I'm able to sit at my house and edit in 4K. This is something that wouldn't have been dreamt of even a year ago probably."
TimeScapes is slated for an independent Blu-ray/DVD/direct download release in May 2012, but Lowe is going to be looking at other distribution options as well. He plans to approach IMAX, for one, with what he calls "a perfect, ready-made project" for them. He's also looking into possible deals with channels like The Discovery Channel and BBC. At a 45-minute running time, TimeScapes would be ideal for any of those outlets.
Even with the exciting prospects ahead of him, Lowe is just as surprised as anybody at how much time-lapse photography has taken off in the past few years, thanks, in large part, to his own popular time-lapse forum, also called Timescapes.
"I figured there was some sort of natural cap, at least initially, that there were only a certain number of time-lapse shooters in the world," he says. "But that base started to expand as time-lapse videos became popular on Vimeo. Back in the day, though, I felt like a lone gun out there."
And what expert advice does Lowe have for all those filmmakers looking to make a successful time-lapse?
"I'm under the impression that you can't just bombard people with nothing but time-lapse. There's some disagreement about that within the time-lapse community but I feel that it just gets a little boring after about 5 minutes of straight time-lapse. I think you really need to have human beings in the picture. Human beings make it more interesting right away.
"As soon as you see a human being surfing, or jumping a skateboard over the camera or whatever it is, suddenly you're drawn back into it," Lowe sums up. "This is the model that Ron Fricke and Godfrey Reggio basically pioneered, which was mixing beautiful time-lapse and landscapes with these amazing shots of human beings doing things in interesting ways. "