River City Company’s Passageways project to bring life and art into the alleys of downtown Chattanooga was a huge success, bringing thousands out to see the transformation of these empty spaces into lively, interactive experiences by teams of creative architects and engineers from around the world. It was a beautiful sight to see in person, but it was the videos compiled from the multiple time-lapse cameras that brought out the beauty we don’t get to see in “real time”…
Passageways is a community outreach project of the 2016 AIA Tennessee State Convention held August 24-26 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. It is a public architecture exhibit focusing on the urban fabric that exists in the space between our city’s buildings. These forgotten and often times overlooked voids exist throughout our city. The intent of the exhibit is to exemplify the potential of these spaces and the benefits they have in creating a healthy urban environment throughout Chattanooga. All five winning installations, the result of an intense competition between architecture/design firms from around the world, can be found on the 700 blocks of Broad, Market and Cherry Streets in Downtown Chattanooga.
Holt Webb Art & Photography was tasked with the responsibility of documenting the construction of these exhibits and the reception that followed through time-lapse photography… squeezing two weeks worth of work into 2-3 minutes of video. It was a challenge we were happy to accept.
We had four criteria that had to be met.
- Weatherproofing -the cameras would be outside, exposed to the elements;
- Long battery life or constant power – the cameras would run continuously so we could leave them up for the duration of the project without manual interference;
- WiFi access – some cameras would be mounted on city rooftops, making manual access for control and image download difficult;
- 1080p or higher resolution – higher resolutions allow for panning and zooming in post production
Our original intent was to use Brinno Construction Cameras, specifically the TLC200 Pro, which we had already been using on another project. The great thing about the Brinno cameras is that it is designed for long-term use. Brinnos run on 4AA batteries and are completely sealed off from the elements by their weather-proof housings.
The batteries last up to four months and it would take at least that long to fill up a 32GB SD card. That means we could let the cameras run on their own for the full two weeks and simply collect the SD cards when it’s all done. Put ’em up, Leave ’em up, Take ’em down. Simple and easy.
Unfortunately, the resolution of the footage only went up to 720p (we needed a minimum of 1080) and the image quality, though good for simple construction sites, lacked the quality needed for a project of this magnitude.
So we did some tests with the GoPro Hero 4 camera, which not only has 1080p but can go up to 4K, allowing us to do pans and zooms in post-production without significantly degrading the video quality. The Hero also shoots true time-lapse video in addition to time-lapse stills, which is a nice feature and one we were hoping to capitalize on.
This video was shot with two Brinno TLC200 Pro Construction Cameras
Note: Brinno is currently working on an upgraded model with WiFi that should be out some time in 2017, so maybe they’ll be able to offer something comparable to the GoPro quality in an autonomous unit.
The problem with using GoPro Hero 4 cameras in a long term outdoor situation is power. The GoPro Hero cameras have a rechargeable battery that limits the maximum recording time to about 2 hours. The cameras do, however, have a micro USB power input that allows for
long term power, but the standard weather housing doesn’t have an opening to access the USB port. There is a Skeleton housing available with an opening to access the ports and the microSD card slot, but that makes the housing open to the elements and not completely weatherproof, which begs the question… why have a weatherproof case that isn’t even remotely weatherproof? But that’s for another discussion at another time. 😉
So, we asked the GoPro techs what other options we might have. In addition to manually sealing off the opening in the case with tape or silicone, they suggested we try the GoPro Session cameras, a small cube of a camera with many of the same basic functions as the Hero cameras but which don’t require a weather housing because they are already weatherproof by design (something GoPro has since implemented in the new Hero 5). However, they, too have a short battery life and suffer from the same design flaw that the “weatherproof” housing of the
Hero 4 cameras have in that the weatherproofing becomes a moot point when the side door of the Session cameras is opened up to access the micro USB power port and microSD card.
But, after discussing it with GoPro tech support, it seemed easier and more efficient (not to mention half the cost) to use the Session cameras and just seal the open door with silicone and tape. So, that’s what we did. And, it seemed to work. What we weren’t told, and didn’t realize until we’d started filming, was that the Session cameras weren’t capable of true time-lapse video, only HD video and time-lapse stills. But, as you can see from the videos here, the time-lapse stills (at 8Mp each) worked out just fine.
The most useful feature of the cameras (for our situation, at least) was WiFi control (something the Brinno promises for 2017). You can access the cameras, change the settings and even see a live feed by simply using a smartphone or tablet. The software even allows for wireless downloading of images/video from the camera directly onto the device, but our tests revealed that you have to be within 30 feet or so for a good signal and downloading hundreds of 8Mp images from the camera via WiFi would literally take hours (not to mention that many of these cameras would be mounted on rooftops and we’d be well out of range.)
So, we needed to be able to manually access and remove the microSD card periodically (which would also mean removing the weatherproofing tape and silicone each time).
But, we made it work. And the footage looked good. It was just a bit of a hassle to set up. And, in order to reduce the frequency of our visits to each location (and there were four locations) we had to use the largest microSD card approved by GoPro (128GB) which still required removing the card and downloading the images manually every 3-4 days.
One potentially major problem we discovered with some of the Session cameras is their need for a firmware reboot. We rented 6 cameras from LensRentals.com and purchased two cameras (that would also be used for the year-long extension of the project). We didn’t have any problems with the rented cameras, but the two purchased cameras didn’t work properly and required a firmware “update” right out of the box… even though they already had the most recent firmware. I put “update” in quotes because this wasn’t a true update. We didn’t update anything. We merely replaced the most recent version of the firmware already on the cameras (v02.00) with the most recent version of the firmware (v02.00) from the GoPro website. This was a bit of a hassle because we had to call tech support, go through the normal Q&A about how we were using the cameras, and follow the “try this first” steps given to us by the support representative. Only after the support rep was confident we had done all we could did they suggest replacing the firmware (though they won’t use the word “replace”. They still call it an upgrade.) It took about an hour to do this with each camera. The reboot process itself is simple and quick, but you have to do it manually by downloading the firmware from their website, saving it on an empty microSD card, inserting the card into the camera and then restarting the camera. It’s just a few steps, but they do add up.
But, the new firmware seemed to work. And once we had the cameras operational, we set about our own installation process.
The project required the placement of two cameras on each of four alleys in downtown Chattanooga. Since each design installation was different, and each location was unique, we had to get creative with where we placed our cameras. Some were bolted directly to the masonry walls, some were mounted on building rooftops and some were mounted on balconies or inside windows overlooking the alleyways. The most difficult part of mounting the cameras was providing constant power. We had to run hundreds of feet of power cables and outdoor extension cords through windows, up 5 story walls and across massive rooftops to ensure constant power to each of the eight cameras. And we had to do this in the August heat of the Deep South. If you aren’t familiar with city rooftops, they can get incredibly hot in the summer… hot enough to melt the soles of your shoes and burn your hands if you aren’t wearing gloves. Fortunately, the cameras stood up to the heat.
Once everything was in place and passed the operational tests, we were good to go. There were a few instances where we had to move the cameras for a better angle, but the end result was everything we could have hoped for.
The physical effort to set up the cameras, weatherproof them and get them in consistent working order was a difficult task, to say the least. But post-processing was where it really got intense. It was a multi-step process to get the images from the cameras and into Adobe Premiere Pro for final output. We used the GoPro software, Studio, for importing the images, correcting the fisheye distortion from the wide angle lens and compiling all the individual images into a smooth video sequence. It’s fairly quick and automatic when you use the built-in batch feature. We then took each sequence and stitched them together in Premiere Pro, cutting out repetitive imagery and dead space where nothing was happening and adding the finishing touches with image stabilization, smooth cuts and transitions, text overlays, pans and zooms and a soundtrack.
It took quite a while to produce the four separate videos and to keep them under 3 minutes, but the results were everything we hoped they would be. Because this was a new experience for everyone involved and the learning curve was pretty steep, it took more effort than expected to get the footage we needed. It’s not perfect, but it’s good. And we’re happy to show it off as a successful project.
If you are unable to view the videos in this blog, you can see them on Vimeo here: Passageways timelapse videos
The only thing that’s left is the year-long documentation of the monthly events that take place in the alleys (movie screenings, concerts, etc.), resulting in one last video compiling twelve months of events into three minutes.
A special Thank You goes out to the people at River City Company, AIA Tennessee, Cogent Studio and the many other supporters of this project. I consider it a tremendous success and a wonderful learning experience and I’m grateful to have worked alongside such professionalism.
Will Holt Webb Art & Photography do more time-lapse work in the future? Now that we’ve worked out most of the details of how something like this should work and know where our limitations are, I’d say “yes”. With time-lapse capture methods improving (just check out the latest iPhones) and video streaming capabilities increasing, you’ll see a lot more time-lapse videography coming from a lot of different sources. And as long as there is professional quality work needing to be done, we’ll be there to do it.