Cinematography Mailing List - CML

Time Lapse At Night

Hello fellow Cinematographers,

A director I am working with wants to do a time lapse scene of stars at night. I don't have much experience doing time lapse, let alone time lapse at night. I was wondering if anyone has had any experience shooting this type of time lapse shot?

My original thought on it was to find something in the foreground (Building, tree, etc...) and light the foreground. Then do some post production work on a basically black sky. Unfortunately, they really don't want to do this, since it would be alot of time and $$$ that they don't have. So I figured I would see if anyone out there has had experience with this sort of thing, and actually pulled it off.

The basics are: we have an Aaton A-minima (since it has time-lapse capabilities), and 500T (7218) film. As far as lenses I would imagine I would need something on the longer end (so you can see the ity-bity stars), but then again, I am not entirely sure. As far as frames per second.... I am a little loss also.

Any help would be greatly appreciated.

Tarina Reed
DP - Los Angeles, CA

>>>A director I am working with wants to do a time lapse scene of stars at >>night.

Presuming you want the stars to move and the Earth to stay still, are you shooting in an area with a dark enough sky (like, out in the Nevada desert, not in LA) to see any? Light pollution is a big issue. Do you want the stars to streak, as in a time exposure? I'm not sure how you're going to get a satisfactory exposure with a lit foreground except in a post composite.

You might want to experiment with a digital still camera before proceeding. What's the point of the shot? If it's just to see the stars in an otherwise normal drama shot, you might want to do a post composite. Be aware that there are problems in digital post with using starfields. Small stars will tend to pulse on a slow pan, and disappear altogether on a fast pan due to antialiasing.

Tim Sassoon

SFD vfx & creative post
Santa Monica, CA

I personally do not have much experience in filming stars, but I know a few people who have. It's not for the faint of heart. There are hundreds of websites with information on this subject. Just Google "photographing stars". Many of these sites start with the phrase "photographing stars is not as easy as you may think".

Motion picture photography adds a layer or two of complexity to the process ;o) For instance, given the lengthy exposure times required for a single frame, the star field will appear as streaks, and will appear to have moved considerably in each subsequent frame unless you are using an astronomical mount, which has its own set of complications.

If I were you, I would try to contact a local astronomy club to see if they could suggest a volunteer to help you.

Best of luck,

Brian Heller
IA 600 DP

I have a test I shot on my D200 and if Geoff allows it I can upload to the test area. I shot jpeg(Raw should be a better choice, but it was a quick test) I used 13 sec exposure, 15 sec intervals, I wanted to do 30 sec shutter but I knew my friends would grow impatient and run out of beer, they drove me up the mountain and I was at their mercy...I chose EI400, but with longer exposure I could have brought it down to 200 or maybe even 100 to reduce noise. I'm not sure 30 sec shutter would produce streaking of the stars, or if it's possible to put the D200 shutter in bulb mode and use the intervalometer (say 2 minute intervals) do the work

This was in Brazil, I'm not sure but I think there are different things to see in the southern hemisphere-and unfortunately you can see a little bit of clouds, and there was a moon( I was hoping for no clouds, no moon, but then you have to place a special order.

You can see a meteorite in one frame, no UFO's (lol) I was just in Port Antonio Jamaica, where the night sky was fantastic, but I had no time to shoot any time-lapse. The cool thing about QuickTime is you can pick the frame rate when assembling an image sequence-23.976, 24, 30 or let's say 15 frames, or whatever you want.

Best choice really would probably be a Mitchell setup w/ 5218 or Eterna, or get a budget for 65mm like Baraka :

John Babl


The exposure time I use for stars on 7218 is 30sec at T1.4/T2.

This is long enough for a good negative while being short enough to keep the stars from looking like streaks rather than dots. I've only shot stars with clear skies away from cities. I also shoot in the southern hemisphere which has a greater density of stars and a better view of the Milky May which helps fill up the shot.

I also use a simple, very portable, battery powered rail and dolly set up which, with a bit of foreground really makes a difference to the shot .

Paul Hicks

Paul Hicks writes :

>>I also use a simple, very portable, battery powered rail and dolly set up >>which, with a bit of foreground really makes a difference to the shot .

I'm Interested in this device. How long is the track, and how does it work? Did you build it yourself?

Dan Freene

Dan Freene Director of Photography
Advertising Advantage
580 Parramatta Rd
Petersham NSW 2049
Telephone: 02 8585 3616
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The whole thing is only about a metre long which is enough to give a nice moving foreground effect while being portable enough to carry anywhere and mount on a couple of tripods or chairs or apple boxes etc. I've carried it well into a national park, where no vehicles are allowed, for instance.

It consists of rectangular section aluminum extrusion on which is mounted precision track with linear bearings, a bigger version of the type they make rotary cutting guillotines with. I drive the dolly with a small motor and have a couple of gear boxes, one for high speed and one for low, By using the right combination of gear box and voltage I can vary the tracking time from a few minutes to about eight hours. The drive from the gear box to the dolly is 3/8 Whitworth threaded screw rod.

The dolly will also work on an incline.

I also use it as a table top manual dolly and for car interiors etc. (It looks great doing time lapse tracking via the motor when in a moving car or truck.)

I know I could get a lot fancier with stepper motors and multi axis etc but this has done me very well for over ten years.

Paul Hicks

>>sounds like a great rig

I second that, this has been a great series of posts I have been shooting night sky time-lapse setups with my Eyemo and Revolution motor over the last few months...there was a great article in the New Yorker this month about light pollution and going to places to find level 1 black night sky.

I experienced this in central east Africa on the Serengetti and if you have ever seen the night sky without light obscuring all the stars you will never forget it, more stars than night!

Robert Houllahan
VP Cinelab Inc.

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