Overnight timelapse production for Lunar New Year 2019

This production blog describes one of the most challenging timelapse shoots I've ever done. From sideways rain to gear malfunctions and mystery SD card ejections, nothing seemed to work the way it was supposed to work. It wasn't easy, but through great prep work and backup plans we made it work. Here's how.

About two months ago the city of Sydney's social media department got in touch for an upcoming event they wanted me to capture in timelapse.

The event they wanted me to shoot was the Chinese or Lunar New Year 2019 celebrations opening night. They asked me if I could shoot and edit it overnight so that they could post the video on social media and send it to TV stations the following morning.

“Not a worry” I said. I've done that exact timelapse shoot and overnight edit the two previous years, with the client being Tourism Australia at the time. I didn't foresee any issues.

Until the date came closer and we checked the weather forecast…

The shoot would be the evening of Friday February 1st. On Tuesday it became pretty clear that we'd be in for a very wet evening. With storms forecast and torrential rain expected I started expanding my gear list.

On top of the usual gear (listed below) I added plastic ponchos, umbrellas, paper towels and weather proof bags.

Thursday 31st of January, the evening before the actual shoot I headed out on a location scout to see what I would be capturing the following evening.

The event consisted of 13 big lunar lanterns spread out around the Sydney Opera House, Circular Quay and The Rocks area (I dare say that this is Australia's busiest tourist hub).

It wasn't raining that Thursday night, so I headed out on the location scout with a basic amount of gear (one camera, a tripod and two lenses) hoping to capture at least some of the lanterns ahead of time during the lighting testing period. Unfortunately all the lanterns were surrounded by fencing and cranes as they only recently got installed and their lighting displays were still getting tested.

I headed home without any footage however I wasn't entirely empty handed. I noticed that all the lanterns were in pretty accessible locations and most of them could be captured from under cover, be it from under the circular quay train tracks or the promenade leading to the Sydney Opera House.

The next day – shoot day – started off fine. The weather in the morning seemed to cooperate, I even considered heading to the beach for a run and a swim. Until the afternoon came.

Quite quickly it became clear that the forecast had been correct. Where usually I could see a very clear outline of the city's skyline I was now confronted with a grey haze, barely able to make out any buildings at all.

I eventually made my way over to circular quay to meet up with my good friend and assistant / second shooter of the day Rob Mulally.

At around 6pm, while getting lightly drizzled on, we did a tour of all 13 lanterns and headed to the overseas passenger terminal to get ready to capture the official opening ceremony at 7pm. That's where the first gear malfunction occurred.

Capturing a low, wide angle shot of the lion dancing ceremony in timelapse movie mode on my (usually very) trusty Canon 6DMkII I noticed the camera had stopped recording without warning, and without error code.

Where usually when the camera stops running it would show you a message along the lines of ‘Stopped timelapse recording'. This time however I had no message, and no recorded video file!

Because this shot would potentially be very important for the edit (I had two different scenarios for the edit planned) I had set up a second angle from up high that was manned by Rob. Luckily this shot worked out well, and we overcame the first challenge.

After the ceremony concluded we noticed the rain getting heavier. The next crucial moment, and most important moment of the whole shoot would be at 815pm when the Sydney harbour bridge would turn red and fireworks would go off behind the Sydney Opera House.

I was briefed to capture the bridge and to not worry about the fireworks too much, as they hadn't been marketed to the crowds and the hero event was the bridge turning red.

I set up the hero shot focusing on the bridge with my second 6DMkII (the one that hadn't malfunctioned earlier) [RAW+JPEG, 3 second interval, iso 125, f4, 0,5 sec]. I started the shot slightly over exposed, knowing that the bridge would turn red before my shot would be completely underexposed. Starting the shoot only ten minutes before the key moment I knew I would end up with a shot that didn't have too many photos in the sequence. As I only had my laptop with me and I'd have to do a local render of the shot I didn't want to have to process using LRTimelapse and process 1000 images, there simply wasn't the time for that.

The setup for the hero bridge sequence.

As I had timed the shot perfectly, I ended up being able to use just the JPEG sequence (rendering a RAW sequence takes an extremely long time) as I didn't have to do any exposure adjustments during the shot (which is what you usually do for a sunset sequence). Below are the first and last images of the sequence. Started at 19:06 and ended at 19:24, resulting in 350 images.

Besides the hero bridge shot I of course tried to capture the fireworks and Sydney Opera House as well. As soon as they started I noticed that the fireworks barge was once again not where we were told it would be. A fast paced run over to the second camera and a reframing of the shot meant that I could capture the majority of the fireworks sequence. [Timelapse 4K movie mode, 1 second interval, 0,5 second exposure, iso 100, f3,5]

As soon as the hero shot and fireworks were successfully captured we headed out to the Opera House to capture the new lantern (every year there's a new hero lantern on display there). By this time the rain had changed from a light drizzle to blowing sideways.

With the hero lantern captured from multiple angles showing people interacting with it (taking photos, selfies, posing with it etc) I decided to do an initial footage offload.

As per usual I'd offload the memory cards onto an external hard drive and keep shooting on the memory cards without formatting them. This way I have a copy of the footage on the memory cards as well as a partial backup on a hard drive.

When offloading the SD card that contained the hero shot of the bridge the card ejected itself from my macbook mid-offload. As soon as I saw the error message my heart sank (you can see my reaction in the production vlog as Rob was recording me talking to the camera about the offload process). This is one of the worst things you can do to any storage medium. Worst case the card is corrupted and the footage is gone. Really not great!

Luckily Daniel Tran was around to borrow me his card reader, we initiated the offload again and all went well. Crisis averted. If the card had gotten corrupted during the offload I would have had to do an on the spot data recovery of the SD card. I've had to do this years ago at a music festival shoot in Miami, it took me two full nights off analysing a CF card using specialised software to recover almost a full day's worth of timelapse and hyperlapse shooting, but maybe that's a story for another day.

As mentioned, the rain had gotten much worse by now. Armed with umbrellas and ponchos we tried to capture all 12 remaining lanterns as fast as possible. Part of the brief was to capture people interacting with the displays. Obviously there weren't a lot of people around so for a lot of the shots either me, Rob or Dave (Katague, another good friend who decided to join the shoot after flying in from Brisbane) would wander around the displays slowly taking photos and selfies. As the timelapse shots were all long exposures I knew that you wouldn't be able to make out who is actually in the frame.

In between shots we would use dust blowers (usually used to get dust off your lens) to blow off as much of the rain off the cameras and lenses as we could. For a lot of the shots we got a bunch of rain on the lens, even though we were shielding the cameras with umbrellas. This had quite a nice looking effect because the rain drops refracted the light of the lanterns.

As it was a Friday night in Sydney we had to dodge a lot of drunken people. When drunk people see a camera, they try to get in front of the lens. This is as true as all the laws of thermodynamics. Luckily no one got too close or tried to grab any of the cameras (I've had this happen on multiple occasions, seriously).

At the end of the shoot we decided to use the Crane 2 gimbal (an electronic camera stabiliser) to shoot a hyperlapse of the flying pigs installation (one of the most popular installations of the entire event). This was by Rob's suggestion and turned out to be the hero closing shot of the sequence. Thanks, Rob!

Once we had shot all the footage, we headed to City Extra on Circular Quay (one of Sydney's very few establishments that are open 24/7) to offload the remaining footage and have a drink to celebrate a successful shoot.

Footage got offloaded onto an external hard drive (the Samsung T5 SSD), gets imported in Lightroom to organise all the files after which the footage gets imported in Final Cut Pro X. The reason I use FCPX is because it runs much faster and more efficiently than Premiere Pro on a macbook.

I had prepared the edit by key framing certain moments in the audio track (which was selected by the client earlier in the week). Basically the edit is already done when I'm starting, all I have to do is drop the footage on the timeline, make sure the timings add up, add a bit of colour grading and scale/position movements and polish it all off.

By 1:30am the first edit was done, which was promptly sent off to the client (both as a wide screen version and a square crop) for review.

At 9am I got feedback on the edit in the form of two minor changes (remove one shot and add another), I updated the videos, sent them over and voila, another overnight timelapse production done!

It's through great preparation, great help from my friends / assistants and great communication with the client that I'm able to consistently deliver these overnight productions.

Where usually a timelapse project involves days to weeks of post production, thanks to the built in 4K timelapse movie mode of the latest Canon cameras I'm able to produce these types of projects in less than 24 hours without fail.

Even when faced with multiple challenges, as long as you have backup plans and backup gear you'll be fine.

Below is a list of all the tools we used on this overnight timelapse production:

Software I used for this timelapse production:

vernight timelapse production.

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