Our 2018 Guest of Honor discusses her celebrated time-lapse method of filmmaking in detail.
In the publicity practice, the term time-lapse documentary has been established, which means that the films labelled with this term are perceived as a stand-alone film form, and the label also indicates that “lapse of time,” that is, the period or duration of filming, is a distinct characteristic of this form.
Time plays a dominant role in all aspects, in all angles of view of a time-lapse documentary. It influences not only the filming process itself but also the production, production-related considerations, editing, and screening, as well as how the film is received by the audience.
But today, I wish to discuss a topic which is not mentioned in the designation of time-lapse documentaries but which I consider to be at least equally important because it concerns the reason why time-lapse films are made over such a long period of time. However, it is only natural that the aspect of time will be implicitly contained in this topic, too, because time cannot be separated from any discussion of time-lapse documentary.
The topic I will speak about is the construction of a story in a time-lapse documentary.
First, I will deal with a story as such, a lived story and an invented story; I will state the differences in the nature and origin of a story in a time-lapse documentary, and then I will summarize the means by which a story is created in a time-lapse film.
Story and Its Telling
Psychology literature states that human memory stores facts and episodes. The brain is able to use facts to create a synchronic picture of the world, its links and working principles in the present, at the same time. The objective scientific findings, the paradigmatic mode of knowledge, and the awareness of “how things are,” are based on this.
Episodes, which are stored in memory, are used for a different purpose. The brain strings them together into stories and the telling of these stories is then the content of the narrative mode of knowledge. The predominant part of human experience is in a narrative form. We grow up in stories; we are surrounded with stories; and we perceive our own life as a story. Even where the episodes stored in memory are not interrelated in any way, the brain will interconnect them with a story in order to be able to work with them and in order to be able to store them.
Narrative Memory and Self-concept
We ourselves are just stories that we tell about ourselves. By interconnecting the episodes kept in our memory, we interpret ourselves and create a meaningful story of our own life. The seeming chaos of episodes is configured by us into a story that becomes our identity. The configuration of individual episodes does not have to be permanent; it can evolve and sometimes even change substantially. We may also make a mistake in it and the story of our life may contain a crack that gradually grows until we encounter a crisis of self-concept and we are forced to try to formulate our story once again, on our own or with the help of a therapist. For our topic, it is important to emphasize that first an enormous amount of episodes is deposited in our memory and it is only after some time that our conscious and subconscious minds choose the important ones and use them to construct our life story and, consequently, our personality.
Civilization of Stories
We live surrounded by stories, but also we ourselves are parts of stories. Since time immemorial, not only the individual experiences of individuals but also the experience and self-interpretation of mankind as a whole are stored in stories. Through myths, religious stories or fables, this is handed down from generation to generation, and this process is incessant; it still continues in literary fiction, drama or live action films at present times.
A Lived Story and an Invented Story
For our topic, the difference between the origination of a lived personal story and the origination of a fictional story in a book or a film is important. A lived, authentic story emerges from integration of the episodes previously accumulated in memory. From among the almost infinite amount of chaotic fragments of events, situations, attitudes, speeches, and feelings, which are available in memory, the conscious mind chooses some of them, gives them meaning, interprets them and uses them to compose a whole, which has logic, causality, and overall meaning.
With an invented story, a story in literature, film or drama, the process is mostly the reverse of that. The author starts with a vision of a story, a notion of its meaning and message and then, based on this vision, invents characters, situations, scenes and speeches, which create the arc of the story. The author invents all the characters and situations, which they need to capture the story; the author is not limited by anything. After reading a book or watching a film, we rate the power of the story, its credibility, its structure or its message; we look for the ways in which it expanded our life experience, and we also rate how skilfully, comprehensibly and economically the story was constructed. The credibility of characters, the power of the story, its message and the means through which it was conveyed are the qualities of an authored work.
Story of a Time-lapse Documentary
Even after watching a time-lapse documentary film, the audience rates the credibility of characters, the power of the story, its message and the means through which it was conveyed. Thus, the same criteria applied to an invented story are used to rate a story, which originated under completely different circumstances. I will concentrate on those differences between a “lived” story, an invented story, and a story of a time-lapse documentary, which I consider to be most important.
Extent of the “Memory” of Episodes
When a person is configuring their own “lived” story, they use an almost unlimited supply of episodes, attitudes, feelings, and situations, which the person accumulated in their memory. The person gives them the meaning, which they need to give them; the person accentuates them or, conversely, downplays them.
The author of an invented story has the vision of its purport and of the arc of its meaning; the author appropriately executes the pivotal moments and intersperses the previous episodes with hints leading to such moments or with illustrations of character traits, which explain the behaviour of characters. While the author of an invented story starts with the meaning or message of a story and then creates episodes around it, the author of a time-lapse documentary proceeds the other way round, from episodes to the meaning of the story.
As opposed to a “lived” story, a time-lapse documentary has an incomparably lower amount of usable episodes. It only has what was filmed. That is not even a hundredth, not even a thousandth of the possible extent; that is an amount lower by many orders of magnitude.
Unlike an invented story, a documentary cannot work with imagination; it cannot make up situations or speeches, which it would need for construction of a story; it even cannot reconstruct the ones, which objectively occurred but were not filmed.
Interpretation of a Story
Meaning is given to a lived story by the person who lived it because they have all the source materials, which they need, in their memory; meaning is given to an artificial story by the author because they prepare all the source materials, which they need, on their own. The story of a time-lapse documentary is a hybrid. The source materials were lived, even if their extent is insufficient; and they were often captured just randomly, but meaning is not given to them by the protagonist but by the author of the film.
Impact of Time
Every story has its beginning and its end and the time of the story lies between its beginning and its end. If we recap the “lived” story of our life, the end of the story’s time is usually also the time of storytelling, the time of interpretation.
An artificial story has its own time, independent of the time in which it is invented or the time in which it is told.
The nature of the time of a time-lapse documentary is more complicated. The time of the story is simultaneously the time of its recording but it is told in retrospect like when we interpret a lived story. From the point of view of the protagonists, time does not run; only episodes, needs, and situations are piling up. But from the author’s point of view, the time of the story runs from the very beginning, from the first day of shooting.
Building a Story of a Time-lapse Documentary
The pursuit of a story starts with a decision about the protagonists or the main theme. One option is to choose a protagonist in whose case an interesting theme can be expected (Václav Havel, Dagmar Pecková, and the like). However, it must be said that the “fame” of the protagonist is not a theme in itself. The protagonist’s fame is the result of a story, which preceded the filming, and does not belong to the new story. The film must follow a story, which is just beginning.
Another option is to choose a theme (marriage, drugs, crime, career, etc.) and then look for suitable protagonists. With this second option, the author enters a complete unknown, and bets everything on the hope that they will get a story over time. The risk does not lie in “dullness” of the protagonist’s future story because every life is interesting enough to produce a story. Literature and film have known this for a long time; all those pearls on the bottom, ordinary people, mountain men (…) confirm that. The risk is that the protagonist’s story will not be captured. The choice must reduce this risk at least to the extent possible. The most important qualities of a protagonist are responsiveness and willingness to be filmed; spontaneous communication; ability to express themselves; availability.
But not even all these characteristics guarantee a good result. The protagonist may withdraw their consent to the filming for serious personal reasons, may fall ill, or may relocate out of the production’s reach. This is why it is necessary to choose multiple protagonists for each chosen theme.
With a time-lapse documentary, the “filming” stage does not mean merely the days of shooting or the agreements on them. The director must be in constant contact with the protagonists in order to have an idea about how their situations are developing. The protagonists will draw attention to some opportunities on their own but for the most part, it is up to the director to notice them and approach them with a camera out of his or her own initiative. Therefore, “filming” also means occasional telephone calls and meetings “for no particular reason.” Also, during every project, unexpected situations arise which need to be filmed immediately. This is one of the reasons why the director must have multiple camera operators and sound engineers at their disposal so that filming can be carried out quickly on an impromptu basis.
During interviews and throughout the filming process, it is necessary to carefully follow what the protagonists are saying and not to react only to what one wanted to hear, expected, and asked about. Many important and interesting themes, which carry the story forward, are brought up by the protagonists unexpectedly and appear inconspicuously in the interviews, and if the director does not react to them in time, they are lost. The film must follow multiple parallel themes simultaneously because certain themes may take a back seat and may be pushed out by new themes of greater significance.
Simple open-ended questions (So, what is new? How do you feel?) give the interviewee an opportunity to mention issues which he or she finds interesting and which he or she considers being important, which can then be important even for the film itself.
Before each day of shooting, it is necessary to carefully go over the previously filmed material and preferably its transcript, to remind yourself of the main themes and to decide which ones you will not go back to and which ones, conversely, you will build on; which of them carry the main plot of the story and which it will be possible to use in editing, for example, as refrains setting a rhythm.
The gradual growth of the transcript generates a sort of a retrospective script but it is a script of “everything,” not of the future film. In spite of that, it becomes a basis for the script-editing management of the project and the most important work tool of the author.
Situations cannot be reconstructed or staged. A situation which the director wishes to film can sometimes be postponed to a date more suitable in production terms but if this is not possible and filming cannot be arranged, it will simply not be filmed. The same is true for choice of the setting. The director does not seek out settings, which would be, let’s say, symbolic or visually attractive, but they must let themselves be guided by the activities of the protagonist.
Editing in the editing room is preceded by the “editing” of the transcript. Based on this, the director will prepare a list of statements and scenes, which are being considered to be included in the film, to get the first rough draft of the idea of what the finished work will look like.
The great amount of material, which has been accumulated over several years of filming, can be interpreted in various ways. From twenty hours of statements from the same person, it is possible to extract an hour, which will present the person as a witty optimist, as well as a different hour, in which the person will come across as a gloomy killjoy. The same is true for the choice of the main themes of the film. Therefore, it is up to the director to keep a detached perspective of the material and to try to interpret it in a balanced and objective manner as early as at the stage of “transcript editing.”
The purpose of the filming is to capture reality as truthfully as possible, to adapt to its truthful course and the possibilities of the protagonists as much as possible. However, in the editing room, there is the additional task of shaping the material into a film. There is the additional regard for the viewer, the obligation to create a work that will have its own comprehensible logic and will be a distinct understandable testimony.
When live action film and literary fiction cover a longer period of time, they often switch between different time frames, use reverse chronology, put the beginning at the end and so on. We have tried to use similar elements in a time-lapse documentary on several occasions but the results were never good so we always eventually returned to linear storytelling. Although the difference in the expressions or maturity of faces at the beginning and at the end of the filming tempts to present a confrontation, we have not found a way of using this functionally, without decelerating the rhythm of the film or introducing disparate expressive elements into it.
Older material makes the impression of a “sentiment of history,” while newer material is more dramatic because it is more current, it is nearer to the “resolution,” the end of the story. This influences the optics of perception of individual time layers and their inclusion in the finished film in the way that the newer layers sometimes become more prominent.
In the lives of the protagonists, certain situations sometimes repeat either in terms of content or setting or both, and it is possible to find repetitive phrasing in their statements even years later. This is due to the habits and stereotypes of the protagonists as well as the generation cycles. These repetitions can be used to set the rhythm of the film or to enliven the film with refrains.
Archive news footage provides not only visual variety but also completes the picture of the times and helps the audience determine the period. Its use is justified by the frequent contact of the protagonists with a TV screen and the assumption that this is footage which the protagonists probably watched or could have watched. In this case, I do not even consider chroma keying such footage into a TV screen in their apartment or another setting of theirs to be substantial violation of authenticity.
Sometimes, protagonists themselves write journals, keep letters, amateur videos, or recordings of telephone calls. It is possible to have the protagonists read journals and letters even years later and use this, same as videos from family events, in the film.
As a rule, we do not use voiceover commentary; I try to make commentary completely unnecessary for the film. We would consider a stranger’s voice, a stranger’s opinion or even evaluation to be an inadmissibly disparate element. The information, which does not follow sufficiently clearly from the content of the scenes, is only communicated to the audience in subtitles. In any case, we use subtitles to identify the time layers.
We build the film chronologically from individual sequences contained in one time layer and we put each layer after another. The first result finished in this way is usually four hours long. The following work, preferably after a several-day break, consists in gradual shortening, that is, in abandoning secondary motifs, shortening dialogues, increasing the pace through editing. Sometimes, a version approximately three hours long is created but more often the process leads straight to a two-hour version. That is the cut which we screen to script editors and producers, to interested colleagues in general. We need to know the opinion of a “fresh set of eyes” on the overall structure, pace and comprehensibility.
The version approximately two hours long is also the version that we show to the protagonists of the film. We consider obtaining their consent to the presentation to be our moral obligation arising from the previous several-year collaboration.
Production agreements determine the approximate end of filming regardless of how the story evolves. It is necessary to adapt to that and it also has a certain logic of authenticity because, theoretically, just as the film started at a random point, it can also end at a random point. But since the resulting work cannot be a demonstration of some rigid principles of authenticity but needs to be an autonomous film work, it is necessary to strive to create an arc of meaning with a clearly comprehensible end. Additional shooting may serve this purpose well. Before editing is finished, it is possible to organize additional shooting. It is already known where exactly the film is headed and the content of the additional footage can complete the picture or follow through on the main motifs and to give the film a point.
In a greatly simplified manner, I have discussed the “script-editing” aspects of building a story in a time-lapse documentary. However, there are also a number of technical and production-related aspects, which are important for the result but discussing them would exceed a reasonable time frame of this lecture. Nevertheless, in conclusion, I will cover one more topic, which I consider to be especially important. It is the author’s responsibility.
When a person constructs their own life story from the fragments stored in their memory, they are only held responsible by themselves for its truthfulness, openness or tone. We know that a person is often unable to bear this responsibility and creates an enhanced story or even a fake story and must radically re-create the story perhaps several times during their life either under the pressure of their conscience or under an external pressure. But it is their own responsibility.
The author of an invented story is not held responsible by their characters. An invented character cannot be harmed; the character’s disagreement or opinion cannot be heard. The author of an invented story is only held responsible for their work by their audience or readership. The author is responsible for the quality of their work, for its moral implications, for its inner truth and logic, for its meaning.
The author of a time-lapse documentary is held responsible both by the protagonists of the film and by its audience. Neither of these responsibilities is smaller or less important.
The author is held responsible by the audience for the quality of the work. For its inner truthfulness and honesty. The author is obliged to offer a well-built and comprehensible story to the audience.
A protagonist voluntarily makes a part of their life and a large portion of their intimacy available to the director often completely guilelessly. The more the protagonist gives, the greater the chances of a good film. But the more the protagonist gives, the greater the obligation of the director towards them. The director must fulfil this obligation in all stages of the process.
When making a selection, the director must not conceal the purpose of the filming from the protagonists; on the contrary, the director must warn them that the initial “attractiveness” will fade away and they may perceive the filming as a nuisance.
During the filming itself, the director establishes not only a friendly relationship with the characters of the film but a relationship of equals. The director must not approach an interview with the aggressiveness of a TV reporter, create tension intentionally, push the interviewee to give some kind of a testimony at any cost, callously dwell on sensitive issues or elaborate on them unnecessarily, try to catch the interviewee in a contradiction or inaccuracy. With a time-lapse documentary, such methods are inadmissible not only because they are stressful for the interviewee and weaken their will to continue the collaboration, deform their spontaneous testimony and, consequently, its truthfulness; not only because they bring artificial and therefore false tension into the material. This is inadmissible mainly for ethical reasons. The purpose of a time-lapse film is to present as truthful a testimony of the people and the times as possible but this testimony must be deliberate and voluntary even from the point of view of the protagonists. When filming, the director must not steal the “truth” against their will, must not ask questions to attack those issues, which the protagonist does not want to confide. The interviewee must always remain a partner and the director must constantly care about their inner well-being and dignity.
But the director must feel their responsibility towards the protagonists in the editing room, too. The film must not embellish and idealize its characters but, by the same token, must not ridicule or ironize them either. For example, it must not unnecessarily cumulate unflattering shots or half-baked answers just for the entertainment of the audience. It must not judge or evaluate. In spite of this, it must maintain as “truth” that which the director personally considers to be an objective testimony. I put the word “truth” in quotation marks here because what the truth without quotation marks is will often be found out only years later, sometimes never.
Although contracts with protagonists do not and cannot contain a requirement for their explicit consent to the finished film, the director must maintain such relationships with them so that the director can show them the film before it is finished. If the director had strived for a fair presentation not only during the filming but also during the editing, there are usually no problems with the consent. Even sensitive scenes, if they are presented in the correct and logical context, are accepted by the protagonists. If there is any disagreement, it usually concerns unimportant details the elimination of which poses no problems at this stage and does not have any negative impact on the overall message of the film.
Thus, the purpose of a time-lapse film is to offer the audience an expanded experience of the world and to offer the protagonists such an interpretation of their lives which they could accept as their true life stories.
Photo by Coen Dijkstra.