“The Holy Grail” is a term often used among time lapse photographers when referring to complete day to night transitions. These are notoriously difficult and time consuming to pull off. When I first started this weird hobby of filming time, there were very few of these done. Now-a-days with the introduction of many new intervalometers and software programs aimed at de-flickering, you can find quite an abundance of very well done day to night transitions. I admit, I have never successfully done one. But my interests lie elsewhere. More on this subject later.
There is a certain amount of technical difficulties I expect when working with these sorts of systems. Especially since most equipment was not meant to be run days/weeks at a time without a break. Most of the issues I have worked through, but two of them had been plaguing me off and on ever since I built Otto and started using Dragonframe. The first issue is when the camera shuts off for no reason, and the second is when it fails to capture an image.
Both of these finally appear to be resolved, if you want more on this check my Dragonframe Troubleshooting page. Top menu, Robots > Dragonframe > Dragonframe Troubleshooting
THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING
Those last two issues were holding me up. I was hesitant to start longer term work until I had everything worked out. (this is the reason for all the flower timelapse I had been doing, short shoots, low commitment) Now I have a high level of confidence that the system is working properly, I am able to start doing the things I always wanted to try.
There is not a lot of botanical timelapse work out there. Generally all you find are flowers blooming, or grass growing. You find other plants, but it is often really shitty work with lots of flicker and jumps and such done by a webcam as a novelty and thrown up on Youtube low res. You do find some folks doing stuff similar to what I am doing, and some of it is quite impressive for sure! I have seen some excellent set building and some amazing results. But the motion is still normally very limited to basic moves, a turntable, a slide, not much else. The duration of the filming is often measured in hours with quick growing plants, spanning a few days, seldom breaking a week.
Botanical Timelapse is pretty difficult. First you have to be able to predict the plants, which seldom behave. Filming a flower blooming over the course of 8-9 hours is chalk full of challenges, but filming a flower for a slower 2-3 day bloom has a much higher chance of failure. If you go more than a few days, depending on the plant you may have to introduce day/night sequences which makes it even more difficult. You might film for 4 days and screw it up by watering the plant incorrectly which may cause an unwanted jump in growth. Adding Motion Control increases the complexity and increases the potential failure points. Not only does your lighting have to work, and camera has to work, but even if those work perfectly if your MoCo fails the whole shoot is ruined and days of effort are down the drain. I think this is why most motion control you find with this work is limited to a turntable. If the subject is in the middle and growing straight up, it will probably stay in focus.
What about plants that grow differently though? If the plants growth takes it out of the area in focus, you have to be able to predict it and work with it, which requires a more advanced Motion Control system that can handle focus control as well as Keyframing. Then you are playing the game of “I hope the plant grows as I predict”, and you pre-program the camera motion and start it up and hope that the plant behaves as expected. If the plant overshoots/undershoots, then you just wasted days or weeks of shooting.
Correcting Bad Behavior
This is where Dragonframe brings something amazing to the table. This is the only system I am aware of that gives you the ability to observe/react/respond real time to changes in the plants. And that is exactly what I am doing right now with my current shoot, and to say I was excited about this is an understatement.
In my current scenario. I started out by moving the camera to its starting point, and logged its current position which created its first keyframe. I then moved the camera to the next position and logged that, then the next, and the next and so on until the entire move was mapped out. I then moved it back to the first position and checked the focus, and moved it forward along the path on each keyframe, and between the keyframes checking the focus, and anytime it drifted I would make an adjustment and add a new keyframe for just the focus.
I am shooting a leaf on a Nepenthes(Pitcher plant). This leave shoots way out, and the tip starts to grow and reach to the ground, where it will land and the tip forms a pitcher. I don’t know exactly where it will be so I am doing a rough guess with the motion sequence. I have been filming the past 7 days, and periodically check the progress. Last night I noticed that the pitcher was moving further out than I expected, and the angle of the leaf is starting to pull the pitcher bud out of focus. If I let it continue, the shoot will be ruined, and I would have lost a week of filming.
At the moment, I was at frame 210. The last image had been taken 5 minutes ago with 40 min left until the next image is taken. I stop the routine and apply a new keyframe on the focus where it is currently at to lock that position down, then move the camera to frame 230, which is the position it will be after 20 more frames. I then adjust the focus, and them move up another 60 frames to frame 290, and do the same. Once I feel I have corrected the course for the focus, I return the camera back to the position for frame 210 and verify everything lines up correct on the live view vs the last image taken at frame 219 and re-start the system at frame 219.
I can correct for the plant, in the past, I was stuck making the decision of hoping things correct themselves, risking losing another 5-6 days of shooting, or scrapping the whole shoot and lose the last 7 days of filming.
This morning I checked again and the pitcher had started its downward drop to the ground. It was placing it in a spot where it would land slightly out of frame. The current path was going to continue a slight tilt drop, But I was worried it would not be enough. I stopped the system, locked in a new keyframe at its current spot. Then moved about 60 frames in the future and sure enough the tilt was not enough, so I deepened the tilt until the area the pitcher would land was in frame, saved the adjustment, then moved back to the current spot. And that is when things went to hell.
The Z axis started dropping, and the Y axis started pulling in. Both were moving very slow but they WERE moving and I never told it to. I immediately disabled the stepper drivers to stop the motion, and in the ARC motion page I managed to get the motion to stop. I knew all the other motors had returned to the correct spot, it was only the Z and Y that had moved. I hit the button to return the motors to the current position and re-enabled the stepper drivers. I manually moved Z and Y until they were lined back up at what looked like the correct spot. This took a little bit of back and forth looking at the current position and prior until I had everything in place. Then I disabled the drivers again, told it to return to the shooting position, and re-enabled the drivers. Now everything was back where it was supposed to be, the shoot had not failed.
I don’t know why Z and Y did what they did. But it only took about 5 minutes to correct the mistake, and I re-started the program. I ran a test shot and verified that everything was lined up fairly well. There is a tiny slight bump, but it is difficult to notice and can easily be corrected using the warp stabilizer in Adobe After Affects.
The shoot is saved, and currently things are moving along smoothly. Making these adjustments is always risky, and should never be done arbitrarily, but only when absolutely required. But even when the Z and Y axis started running free I was still able to recover the shoot.
I hate the term “game changer” because that is used so often. Oh this camera has a slightly higher FPS than the old version, what a freaking game changer. In this case though, it is not hyperbole, because this level of botanical timelapse would be impossible without the flexibility of Dragonframe.
This shoot has 2 weeks left before it ends. If the pitcher develops quicker or slower than expected I can adjust for that. When it gets towards the end, I may even pull the camera back a bit and shift over to one of the two smaller pitcher plants on the set and see if one of them has a new pitcher forming that I can film and maybe even the other small one as well, all in the same clip! The point is I now have the ability to film things as they happen, rather than pre-programming a move and hoping it all works out. As far as I know, nobody has ever done this before.
So what does this have to do with the “The Holy Grail”? ‘
I remember when I first started getting serious about photography 8 years ago I heard a quote. I don’t know who first said it, I believe it came to me as a re-quote, but one of the best bits of advice in life is “If you ever find yourself surrounded by other photographers, you are in the wrong spot” I have found that quote to be absolutely correct in so many ways, in so many times, and so many subjects, and well beyond photography. Find your own path, find your own vision, find your own self. This is my personal holy grail. This is the capability I have spent the last year trying to achieve, and It means I will be able to produce botanical time lapse unlike anything that has ever been done before, and show people something they have never seen. I am so close!!!!!