In this article I’d like to share with you 2 of my main timelapse post-production workflows. Although the simplest timelapses might be put together using just a set of JPG files and a Quick Time Pro, being a professional and willing to achieve better results requires a bit more complicated approach and you’ll need both tools and software to do it.
This article is dedicated to advanced users and is not intended to be software manual, so I assume you’ll find your way basing on the general directions I give.
This workflow was designed be myself to get the most of your RAW files and take the advantage of the rich 12-14 bits color depth of RAW files from DSLR. It is based on a philosophy which remains true for all other digital image processing disciplines be it a photography, astrophotography, film post-production or motion design. The rule is simple – in order to get the best image at the end you need to retain the original rich information contained in the source files as long as possible during the workflow and use as few transcoding steps as possible to prevent image degradation.
The technical details regarding the timelapse shooting are not subject of this article, so I don’t want to get into details here.
The only things to note here are:
Assuming you have the JPG files stored separately form RAW footage, you can generate the quick preview using Quick Time Pro or other software. Quick Time is really fast and is just right for this purpose, so simply import a sequence and render to any preview format you like at decreased resolution for a smooth playback.
Here is where the real thing begins. The goal at this stage is to initially develop RAW files, import them to to Adobe After Effects, which is the only program that is capable of converting a sequence of RAW files to footage, and render the source sequence in high resolution.
1. Isolate stills sequence
First thing that needs to be done is getting the clean set of stills into one folder. Isolate the beginning of your sequence, the end, check for missing frames (Adobe AE will be so nice to tell you if frames are missing) and copy/move it to the separate folder.
2. Develop first frame
Open the first frame of the isolated sequence in Adobe Camera Raw (or Lightroom if that’s what you prefer) and apply the basic adjustments of the exposure, color, contrast etc.
If you have a sophisticated look in you mind that needs a lot of image manipulation it is better to get as close as possible at this stage.
If you head for more less natural look of images try to focus on setting the exposure and other development details in a way that will get as much details as possible form the RAW files. In this case what you want to pull out from RAW files is not a punchy an visually stunning image, but the image that is as rich in details as possible. So don’t exaggerate with contrast and color manipulation, but focus on getting rich details from shadows, preventing the highlights from being overblown and reducing the image artifacts.
Remember, that at this point you have the most options in your hand as you work on a RAW material from the camera. Depending on your camera the RAW files are up to 14 bit of colour depth resolution. At any point further your processing options will be limited and the working space will not be as flexible as your RAW files are.
An important note on white balance settings. If you shoot a scene that is changing in terms of lighting, it is worth it to shoot on AWB setting. Unless you do so, be sure to set white balance as desired. However, if you shot AWB and need to take the advantage of the WB settings recorded in each of frames, it is absolutely necessary to keep the WB setting in ACR to “As Shot” – this is the only way to tell AE later that it should read the WB setting from each frame. If you override WB of the 1st frame, all further frames will be developed with the setting you set accordingly.
3. Test your settings for other frames
It is wise to save your development settings and copy/paste them to other frames in your sequence, especially if you shoot in light-changing conditions. This will let you assure you did the right way and that the developments will make sense on further frames.
After you’re done with checking, be sure to go to the folder with the sequence and delete all XMP sidecar files generated by ACR or Bridge in that folder during the testing process. Be sure to keep the first file for the first frame however! This is necessary to prevent AE from changing the settings during the sequence.
4. Set the color depth and the resolution of RAW development
There is a small link at the bottom of the ACR interface, just underneath the picture. It allows to choose either the spacial and color resolution of the developed images. Be sure to set it to 16 bit. If you shot small RAWs, use the original spacial resolution, but if you shot full res RAWs, set it to about 150% – 200% of your delivery format resolution.
5. Import sequence in AE
This is pretty simple. All you need to do is create a new project in AE using 16 bit color depth, then drag the previously prepared folder to the file browser in AE and the software will recognize and import a sequence for you. If you add the stills sequence to render queue, AE will create a sequence with the right settings for you. Real time saver.
6. Apply initial effects
At this stage you may apply the GB Deflicker filter, motion blur or other filters of your choice to the footage and/or perform motion tracking to remove any camera shakes. At this stage apply only the basic effects for the initial processing of the footage. The final look will be created later, so don’t worry about that.
7. Render to a rich format at 100% color resolution.
Up to this point we’ve been working on a rich material. What I mean here is that at each of stages the original bit depth of the RAW files was preserved. Rendering to an intermediate format is the first step in the workflow where you lose information. It is essential to understand it and keep in mind.
Choose the format depending on the project you do and the processing power or storage available. I usually work with Apple Pro Res 422 here, but you can get the great results with Cineform codecs or Lossless Animation (which is storage consuming however). My recommendation is a Pro Res 422 (standard) or Pro Res 422 HQ format for more demanding projects. If you have enough computing and storage resources choose Pro Res 444. Be sure to render to 10 bit color resolution to preserve as much of the color space as possible.
At this stage you have the high resolution 10-bit footage ready to edit and grade. Although this workflow recommends Apple Final Cut Pro, you may do the edit in Premiere or Avid. Be sure to work with the rich format of the working sequence not to kill the information in the files. If working with FCP use the same codec as was used for the rendered master footage. Do your final processing applying effects and grading either in Magic Bullet Looks or Apple Color.
If shooting in SDR and processing using the workflow above is not enough, you may try the HDR workflow. Be conscious however, that it is really time-consuming and processing power demanding.
The basic approach is mainly the same, however some other techniques and software are used to merge multiple exposures to HDR 32bpp images. To keep things simple, I’ll describe only these steps, that differ from the workflow presented above.
The same rules as in SDR workflow apply.
Additionally, you need to shoot stills using exposure bracketing. +2/-2 is fine, less demanding scenes might work with +1/-1 EV.
Be sure to shoot with low ISO, on a 5D use native ISO settings (160/320/640/1250) to get as low noise as possible.
The goal at this stage is to merge the subexposures into HDR frames at 32bpp, develop in the similar way as in SDR workflow, import them to to Adobe After Effects and render the master footage in high resolution.
1. Isolate stills sequence
As described above.
2. Batch-merge using Photomatix Pro
Using the batch feature of Photomatix Pro (PMP), run a batch on a set of files to generate a sequence of HDR images. There’s an easy way to tell PMP to process files in group of 3 files to match your -2/0/+2 bracketing subexposures.
At this stage we get the set of 32 bpp HDR images that will be developed in the next steps. This will take time, so grab your kettle or play some music.
If you’re not heading for HDR tone-mapped look with a lot of local contrast enchancement, consider using exposure merging instead of generating HDRs.
3. Develop one frame of HDR sequence to find your settings
At this point we do the development of the source files in a similar way as described in SDR workflow, but we have HDR files instead of RAWs and use PMP’s tone mapping feature as a development tool.
Play with all settings that PMP provides you with and keep in mind that the more aggressive the development, the more time you’ll need to spend checking the settings on multiple frames.
Be sure to save your settings at the end in an XMP file.
3. Test your settings for other frames
This step is even more important than in SDR workflow. Since the HDR development might produce much more artifacts, so you need to carefully check further frames in different points of the sequence against the artifacts of the deveolpment recipe. Simply open a few files across the sequence and develop using the stored setting. If any artifacts appear you’ll probably need to apply less severe processing and re-test.
4. Batch-develop the sequence
This is the second batch you need to run. Basing on HDR files and your well-checked recipe, convert the HDR files to 16-bit TIFF files. Unfortunately this is storage consuming and PMP won’t offer you any other of convenient intermediate formats to keep your 16-bit data.
5. Import sequence in AE
As described above, but use TIFF files instead of RAWs.
The rest of the workflow remains unchanged.
Thanks for reading and your interest in my blog. The skills and know-how are provided to you free of charge, but please leave a comment below and forward it to a friend if you only find this information helpful.