How to convert a photo into a time lapse video

How to convert a photo into a time lapse video

The idea of an artificial time lapse started to grow on me when I returned from China in the summer of 2019. We had a short layover in Hong Kong and decided to shoot a sunset time lapse at Victoria Peak, which is known as THE place to take photos of the city. Located at the top of one of Hong Kong’s many surrounding mountains, this spot gives you the perfect view of the urban jungle. After we had rigged and framed the shot, heavy monsoon rain started to pour down. We left in a hurry (and I spent the rest of the night blow-drying my clothes). We ended up with just one picture. Naturally, I was annoyed, but it got me thinking. Is it possible to create an artificial time lapse video from a single photo?

Back at the office, commercial jobs swept the experiment under the rug. Then the pandemic hit and swept the commercial jobs under the rug. I finally had time to give it a go, and so “The Pentagon Project” was born. To make things more interesting, I tried to convert a single image from a stock footage platform into a time lapse video and sell it as stock footage again. Let’s jump in.

Two things to consider before choosing an image

  1. Check the details

Before you choose an image, take a good look at it. Then another one. My time lapse animation of Victoria Peak in Hong Kong came to a grinding halt when I saw the white swell of the boats. I could not come up with a feasible solution to animate them. A small detail can bring down your whole project, so think twice before you commit to a specific shot.

Screenshot of the Hong Kong time lapse photo
The Hong Kong time lapse up to the point where we needed to add white swell

2. Make sure to obtain the right licence

If you opt for a stock image, buy the right licence. Many standard licences only cover print or web. Make sure you can use the result on TV or sell it later. You’ll find amazing images for $5 (or even less) on many platforms, but I got mine for $200 with an extended licence. This license makes sure that you are allowed to resell your result later on to other customers.

Stock image of the Pentagon Building
The original image I bought on Shutterstock for $200

So, I headed straight to post-production for which I use Adobe After Effects. I always use it. It’s my favourite software for time lapse editing. Sounds nerdy? Good.

Remove all moving objects

The second step is to remove all objects in your shot that should move (if it were a video) but don’t. I removed all the cars on the highway, some trucks in the middle of the other street and all the people walking in the park in the centre of the Pentagon. I used the Clone Stamp tool in After Effects. Time for some action.

Create moving objects

I cut out different cars that were on the highway before and some parked ones in the parking lots. I also cut out little dots in the centre of the park, which I assumed were people. Then I started to animate these little objects along paths. If that sounds like a lot of work, it’s because it was. Maybe I started giving the dots names and began talking to myself, but you have no proof of that, so let’s move on. Millions of hours later, I had a static shot with lots of cars rushing up and down, and people moving like ants. Be careful about when these objects would actually be visible. In my case, I masked out the bridges over the busy highways to make it look like the cars were driving underneath them.

But something was still missing.

Add some camera movement to your artificial time lapse video

To make the whole scene more interesting, I recommend adding some camera movement. You can easily keyframe the “position” or “rotate” parameters to simulate camera movement (the so-called Ken Burns effect). Depending on your subject and framing, you should consider 3D movement, as I did. I wanted a slow zoom in with some rotation of the camera around its own axis. The first thing I did was mask out the Pentagon building for two reasons:

  • To create a parallax effect, I needed the building separated from its background on its own layer.
  • I also needed the background without the building and the transparent black mass left behind to use the content-aware tool of After Effects.

With the content-aware fill tool of Adobe After Effects, I filled the void with one click. It doesn’t look like the landscape would look like without the building, but it helped me to simulate some parallax. When it comes down to numbers, we see less than one percent of this automatically created surface, so it’s okay that it looks far from perfect.

visual breakdown of masked Pentagon building
Cut out building, generate fill, position cut-out building over fill

Create a 3D space

I then had two layers. The background layer with the automatically generated landscape and the layer with the Pentagon building. I continued by assembling them to a 3D space to create a 3D camera movement. To do this, simply turn your layers into a 3D layer by clicking the 3D cube symbol next to your layer name. Next, create a 3D camera to control your movements. The setting I used for this specific project was a one-node camera with a focal length of 50 mm.

Imagine you look down the camera to determine which objects are closer to you. The roof of the Pentagon building should be closer to me than the rest of the background. If I were a perfectionist, I would have cut out the treetops because they would also be closer to me than the surrounding meadows, but I chose to ignore them since the parallax effect between them and the ground would be so small that most people would not notice.

So, in this virtual space, I moved the roof of the Pentagon building closer to my camera. Moving objects closer makes them appear bigger, so you must compensate for that by scaling down the objects closer to your camera until they fit. All of this is trial and error; there is no right or wrong; you’ll need several attempts to find the right ratio of the position and scaling of your foreground object. By moving your camera closer and further away, you can test if the whole scene feels natural. If you do this more often, you will develop a feel for this.

This already looked good, but there was one more thing I could do…

Add additional time lapse layers

To sell the impression of movement through 3D space, I needed to add more layers. There are lots of stock footage marketplaces where you can buy elements with an alpha channel included or some 3D objects. So, within my 3D composition, I added two layers of clouds in front of my 3D camera to frame the Pentagon building and to add depth to the scene.

For your scene, you could add a tree trunk or a fence or something else. Be creative!

Balance the colour

After compositing your artificial time lapse video, don’t forget about colour correction. You may have bought a photo that was already graded, and you don’t agree with how it looks, as was the case for my Pentagon Project. If you used additional elements that were not part of the original picture, you need to apply some basic colour correction. This will help to tie the different objects within the scene together.

The last thing to do is to properly export your creation.

The final result

Upload your time lapse video

Screenshot of our shutterstock sales
We have already sold our artificial time lapse twice on Shutterstock!

This is an advanced tutorial of how we converted an image into a time lapse video. If you are new to the time lapse game, please check out this section for beginner tutorials. Please consider subscribing to our newsletter to never miss any updates or exclusive deals in the future.

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