Weather Stop-Motion “how-to”, vol 2

You’ve all seen it on Survivor: someone takes an interesting weather feature, such as moving clouds or a sunset, and either uses stop-motion techniques or radically speeds up the footage to create an interesting effect.  It’s a fun technique that can make for a useful clip to use as an intro, outro, scene-setter or transition.  The big-time moviemakers probably use something fancier than what I’m about to describe here, but virtually anyone can do this with consumer video-editing software.  As I found out, however, it’s a little tricker than I thought.

For this tutorial, I’m going to use a sunrise as an example, and Adobe Premiere Elements (version 7).  Most of the home editing programs can do the same, though.

The first thing you need to do is to predict a really amazing sunrise (no problem, right?)  I had the idea after running outside with the camera and tripod when I saw a great sunset coming up.  I figured it would be a cinch to do the same thing with a sunrise – but it was kind of tricky.  This time of year, depending on where you live, sunrise happens at a reasonable hour so you don’t have to get up at 4 am.  To predict such a sunrise, it takes a bit of practice:

  • Try to get out during sunrise a few times and identify when the most spectacular lighting effects take place.  Where I live, it’s not when the sun comes up, but about half an hour afterward.
  • How much time are you going to need to get the full effect?  Make sure you have enough battery power to handle it.  Switching batteries halfway through is possible, but you’re going to have to use creative editing to make sure the two pieces line up without a “jump cut.”
  • Pay attention to the level of clouds and wind you see.  Start checking the internet to see when these conditions happen again.
  • If you do manage to get out and see a spectacular sunrise a few times but don’t have your camera handy (or you realize it too late!) use this as an opportunity to find the best place to set up.  You want a place where there aren’t going to be too many nearby moving objects such as trees or bushes – these will blur when you speed up the footage.
  • Be prepared to get up a few times and find out that the sunrise ends up really lame.  Use these opportunities to adjust your site and timing.

All set?  Now just keep your camera charged, your tripod handy, and keep checking the weather!

I thought this was all I would need to have a really cool video clip, but I learned the hard way that I missed a couple of key points:

  • If it’s a windy day – which by the way makes the video better because of the moving clouds and changing lighting – it doesn’t matter how good your tripod is, your camera is going to move.  Which will screw up your clip.  To fix this, try and anchor it as solidly as possible (I sank my tripod legs in a few inches of soft mud, but it wasn’t enough).  I would have done better to put the tripod as low as possible to the ground.
  • Turn off your camera’s auto-focus function.  Inevitably, cloud movement and birds and bugs – and gremlins – will cause your camera to change focus from time to time.  when you speed up the footage, these unfocused frames will definitely show up in your final product.
  • If you can, consider turning off your camera’s auto-lighting function.  This can be a good thing or a bad thing.  If it’s too cloudy, the moving clouds will cause a flickering effect as they block and unblock the sun.  In my case, I left it on, and hoped there would be no sudden changes in lighting, and the camera automatically adjusted as the sun rose.

For my clip, I managed to snag an awesome sunrise.  I captured about 90 minutes of footage, from near-darkness (at which point the footage may be too grainy to be useful) to complete sunrise.  I edited out the grainiest part, and then simply faded in the video at the beginning.

Next, I deleted the audio (it’s just wind noise anyway).  If you don’t have a lot of noise in a section, you can save it for later, and add in a section of ambient sound – maybe birds or traffic, whatever.  I deleted mine.

Now  you can use your software’s speed-up feature.  On Premiere Elements, you right-click the clip and select “time stretch”.  Premiere Elements allows you to run a clip at 10,000% percent original speed, or 100 times the original.  If you want to go faster, you have to render it, and then speed up the resulting clip again.  I opted not to do this, because each time you render, you lose some quality.

Now for the problems.  I thought I was done at this point.  But because the wind shifted the camera ever-so-slightly throughout the 90 minutes, I had to go back, frame by frame, and adjust the sections where the camera moved.  In Premiere Elements, the best way I found to do this was:

  • Find a constant point on the clip.  In my case I used a light, and where the light turned off, I shifted to a horizon feature.
  • Use the subtitle function to create a subtitle, and draw two crosshairs alongside your unmoving point.  Use a color that contrasts with that point AND the background.
  • Move forward frame by frame, and every time you see movement, use the “edit effects” feature to adjust the X and Y coordinates of your clip.  In Premiere, it’s the “motion” effect.  You’ll see two numbers at the top that you can change.  Every time you adjust one of the coordinates, the clip should shift slightly.  The first number moves it left to right, the second moves it up and down.  Every time you make an adjustment, a keyframe is created.  Ideally, from one keyframe to the other, the program adjusts the frames to make the movement gradual.  But because it’s sped up 100 times, everything literally jiggles back and forth, up and down.  So it’s literally frame…by frame…30 frames per second…and in my case 40 seconds total.  Hours of work.
  • As you go through this process, you may discover an out-of-focus frame every now and then.  In Premiere, when you’re seeing the blurry frame, select the “cut” button, move one frame to the right, and cut again.  Delete that frame.  The slight jump from losing the frame is better than the effect that was caused by leaving that frame in place.

Now you can go back and adjust the lighting if you want – by using the “auto balance” feature, or adjusting RGB, brightness, contrast, and saturation.  Don’t overdo it though – if it was a really great sunrise you don’t want to ruin it by making it look unnatural.  People can tell.

Now you’re ready to save your clip.  Of course you can add appropriate music, re-insert ambient sound, subtitles, whatever.  Or just make a raw clip to use in other projects.

Below you can see the result of my efforts.  I went through the frame-by-frame process 3 or 4 times, and show the result of each effort in the clip.  Each time I thought it was good enough, it still looked jiggly afterward.  I’m not completely happy with the end result, because it still looks like the camera is being slowly moved back and forth.  Good luck with your project!

Check out this helpful article on the above topic for more info: stop-motion article

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