An interview with time-lapse filmmaker Gavin Heffernan

Posted by Sarah Scoles
on Thursday, May 01, 2014

There are star trails, and then there are star trails. Filmmaker Gavin Heffernan specializes in the latter. As the founder of Sunchaser Pictures and a seasoned screenwriter and director, he’s well-versed in the ways of shots, lenses, and frames. Those skills have brought special cinematic qualities to his time-lapse videos of the night sky. To make his astronomical films, he animates sequences of long-exposure wide-field images — images taken in amazing western U.S. landscapes, with carefully thought-out foreground elements (like, you know, dinosaurs and Joshua trees). I was able to interview Gavin about his work. Check out what he has to say for himself.

To learn more, visit the album of timelapse movies and his official site and follow him on Twitter @GavinHeffernan

How did you first become interested in time-lapse projects? How was the learning curve?

It was kind of an accidental thing! I didn’t have a lifelong passion for time-lapses. I remember finding them cool and interesting in movies like Oliver Stone’s The Doors and Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi, but it was really only a passing interest. About four years ago, I bought a Canon DSLR to shoot HD video, and somewhere along the way, I started fiddling around with the time-lapse functions, doing some tests on our turtles, skaters at Venice Beach, traffic stuff. I found the experience a soothing creative outlet from my main occupation as a screenwriter in LA — a slow process by its own nature.

The Milky Way passes over as a giant steel scorpion and cricket battle it out in the video Borrego Stardance. // Photo: Gavin Heffernan; Sculptures: Ricardo Breceda.
Looking back on it, though, I think my first experiments with astrophotography started to solidify the obsession. There was just something totally intoxicating about the movement of the stars across the night sky — like I had suddenly gained and lost perspective at exactly the same time. I’d always had a fascination with space and stars, but for the first time, I almost felt they were within my reach. Because of the long exposures, you’re able to see far more than the naked eye can ever reveal, so it’s an enlightening experience, to say the least.

As for the "learning curve,” I really do see myself just at the beginning of the curve, which actually is more of an exciting feeling than a shitty one! I’ve been lucky enough to get a surreal press response for my work over the past two years (which gives a tremendous boost of encouragement) but I really believe I’m just getting started. Every time I go out on a shoot, I feel like I learn twice as much as I knew before I left.

The silhouetted Sunchaser team shoots the first installment of the Joshua Tree Journey time-lapse series. // John C. Brookins
How do you get the ideas for the videos, in terms of location, framing, etc.?

A lot are planned well in advance, but some happen by chance or impulse. Icelight Toronto came about because I was in Toronto during the epic ice storm of 2013. Roombacalypse was a product of my obsession with our new robotic vacuum cleaner. Most of the heavy-duty night sky shoots take a lot more planning. Because time-lapsing is still just a side gig until I secure sponsorship or some other funding, I try to find the best “dark sky” locations within a day’s drive of Los Angeles, to keep the costs down.

Despite the immense size of the city and its crazy light pollution, there’s a number of wonderful stargazing locations less than a day away: Death Valley, Joshua Tree, Borrego Springs — to name a few. Once a location is selected, I read as much as I possibly can about it. I view all the pictures, maps, comments, and any videos that have shot there. Because the star shoots are usually limited to three days and two nights, it’s important to be as organized as possible.

Producers Michael Darrow and Rachel Darrow (left to right) start a much-needed fire on a frigid Death Valley morning, where they are shooting Death Valley Dreamlapse. // Gavin Heffernan
For a lot of these adventure shoots, I team up with a group of my former American Film Institute classmates, many of whom are considerably more adept at camping and wilderness survival than myself! While my focus is lasered in on the photographic qualities and challenges of the location, these team members (usually Michael Darrow, Ben Dally, John C. Brookins, Rachel Lee Payne, and Briana Nadeau) deal with supplies, campsites, hiking challenges, and so on. They’re also a very creative bunch, so we’re able to bounce ideas around during the shoot and also have a good time catching up over a campfire and adult beverages. Planning for the best lunar phase is also very important, as a large, bright Moon will completely drown out the stars. The darkness of a new moon is best for stargazing, but I find one with a nice small sliver can be helpful in “painting” the foreground vistas.

I’m sure some of our readers will be interested in the software- and equipment-related details. So what are they?

Equipment varies from shoot to shoot, but for the astrophotography stuff, I typically shoot with two cameras simultaneously for “total coverage.” Lately I’ve been using a Canon E0S 6D and a Canon 5D mkii with very wide, fast lenses to maximize the amount of light that comes in. My favorite lenses of late are the Canon L Series 24mm f/1.4 and a 28mm f/1.8 lens. I then attach a cable remote control (intervalometer) to each body and prep the settings. For night-sky stuff, I’m usually firing between 25- and 30-second exposures per picture. So if you consider that you’ll need 240 pictures to animate a 10-second video at 24 frames per second, you can see how the shooting time starts to add up! (See earlier comment about campfires and adult beverages.)

At Racetrack Playa in Death Valley, the team shoots the moving rocks for the video Death Valley Dreamlapse 2. // Gavin Heffernan
Sometimes, I also use a Dynamic Perception Stage Zero dolly for motion control shots. For software on the post-production side, I use a Mac, QuickTime, Final Cut, and a freeware program called Starstax to manipulate the star trails.

Do you have a “goal” in mind for what you’d like the audience to ‘get’ from a given time-lapse?

I don’t really think about it too consciously. I guess I’m sort of just experimenting, trying to make something that I like, and my hope is that that’ll translate to a good audience response. With the Dreamlapse shorts, and quite a few others, I guess I want them to feel as immersive as possible, with the basic structure of a roller coaster.

In Part 1 (featured vid), you can probably see the rough three acts of the ride divided up. The first third is the Introduction: the calm before the storm, the vistas, the climb to the top of the roller coaster drop. The song on this vid has the added bonus of a "clickety-clack" sound on the track as we rise up the mountain.

Then comes the Big Drop: all the best star shots, star trails, and other fun dips and turns on the ride.

Then, the film finishes off with slow, calming energy as we come back home.

It can be a dangerous strategy in the Web world, as you really want to hook people hard in the first 10 seconds or fear a click-away, but I try to put any rules like that completely out of my head. The shorts tend to work best when created in a “no rules” state of mind. I’ll often use a variety of sound effects (thunderclaps, howling wind, vintage radio broadcasts) to add as much intensity or creative context as possible. My longtime girlfriend Briana Nadeau is also a professional session singer on lots of big commercials and movies, so she’ll often put some great vocal effects on at the end in her studio, most recently in Roombacalypse.

Music is a huge part of the shorts. Briana’s music partner, Adam Jeremy Williams, composes the scores for a lot of my time-lapses, or I also sometimes use Moby’s amazing license program.

Gavin Heffernan and Producer Michael Darrow (from left to right) take a break on the Borrego Stardance shoot. // Sculpture by Ricardo Breceda.
How do you think creative work (films, books, static art) affects people’s ideas about science and/or the natural world?

It’s a very interesting time right now. It really feels like the lines between art and science have never been thinner. Sure, the ’50s–’60s had their fair share of sci-fi classics, but it feels like we’re entering an incredible new phase of alignment, and hopefully enlightenment.

Look at the mesmerizing Hubble Space Telescope shots of distant multicolored galaxies and try to decide if they’re art or science — you’ll never be able to pick just one. The irony is that in grade school, my two worst subjects were science and art — and now I’m unexpectedly operating at a weird crossroads of the two, definitely something I never imagined. If anything, I think creative work can help illuminate the wonder of science, help push people to expand the boundaries of their own imaginations, and encourage us to keep asking questions about who we are, where we came from, and where we’re going — instead of claiming to have all the answers.

It seems like every day, new science reveals more galaxies, more planets — more possibilities to our existence. These revelations are incredible stimulants for artists, but also hopefully a unifying force for civilization as a whole, at a time when we need to rise above our petty differences. It truly is the final frontier!

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