Stop, Go, Stop, Go: Rob Whitworth and Time Lapse

Rob Whitworth's equipment
Rob Whitworth's equipment

Passport? Check. Sneakers? Check? Ramen and espresso maker? Check. Oh, and a couple of Nikons with prime and zoom lenses, a tripod, the all-important ND filters for extended exposures, and a laptop loaded with After Effects.

Shanghai based time-lapse filmmaker Rob Whitworth is ready to hop on a plane to any of the world’s capital cities and take you on a dazzling tour of its vistas and the intricate patterns of its frenetic people and traffic.

In 2009, Whitworth moved from Great Britain to central Vietnam in order to live cheaply and stretch his resources. He had graduated from Norwich School of Art and Design in the U.K. with a degree in photography. He arrived in Vietnam at Da Nang, and soon began a time-lapse video in Ho Chi Minh City (the former Saigon). The city is known for its erratic traffic, especially the seeming chaos of its motorbikes, but his overhead perspective revealed an ant-like industry to the flow of people and vehicles. The resulting video gave him the inspiration to begin a series of video explorations of Asian cities, several of them so intricate in their movements and patterns that he enlisted the collaboration of “city-branding pioneer” JT Singh to help him find and secure locations. The Ho Chi Minh City video features a central traffic roundabout that Whitworth explores in its many moods and light conditions. Even here, in his first video, you can discern the template for his developing style.

Whitworth describes the value of his high-angle perch:

I actually get teased quite a lot for spending too much time on rooftops, looking down on the world. When you're on the ground in a busy city, it all feels very human and individual. Your attention is caught by an advert, a pair of shoes, an old lady crossing the street — there is far too much going on to be able to take it in. This is why time lapse is the perfect medium for capturing cities. By putting a camera on a rooftop, suddenly all of the individuals below become a blur of consistent movement, and a scene that on the ground appeared chaotic becomes very orderly and predictable. 

Rob-Whitworth-Interview-on-Time-Lapse-Italia-5

When Whitworth recently had the opportunity to do a video in North Korea’s capital city, Pyongyang, he (along with Singh) took an unexpectedly bold and surprising approach. A citadel of the enigmatic, the dangerous and the oppressive, Pyongyang is a place that conjures our worst fears of the automaton society with its Potemkin Village façade. However, Whitworth’s video reveals otherwise; often shot at street level, the camera records not just the massed and regimented spectacle we often associate with North Korea, but also a place where we mingle with individual citizens as they stream down escalators, into subway cars and skate parks. What is all too apparent is the lack of auto traffic so typical of other Asian capitals, and the generally drab dress worn by most people — browns, grays and blacks. A measure of Whitworth’s skill is just how inviting he can make this urban gulag look.

The Malaysian city of Kuala Lumpur, with its super-modern skyscrapers and grand shopping pavilions, lends itself to a different approach. Here, Whitworth holds on certain sites as time lapse reveals the changing light of day and afternoon, and then the transition into neon night. Though many identical camera techniques frame all of the videos, each video also seems to have its own stylistic mode, as individual as its music soundtrack. Despite the quick pace of Kuala Lumpur, the viewer does experience a kind of telescoped sense of lingering time, along with a return to the same exact site under differing conditions.

Whitworth summarized the technical facts of this video this way: 5 months. 400 hours of solid work. 4 cameras. 40 shoots. 640 gigabytes of data. 19,997 photographs.

In early September, as a guest of gallery owner David Fahey, I flew to Shanghai for its first international artist and gallery photo exhibition, Photo Shanghai. I knew Whitworth was headquartered in Shanghai, and I emailed him and suggested we meet and talk about his work. No surprise to find that he would be on the road, this time for a shoot in San Francisco, one of the first American cities to get the star treatment of his Nikon cameras.

He did, however, offer me some advice. If anyone could tell a visitor where the best city view is, it’s Rob. I told him I would be staying at the Le Royal Meridien Hotel. He answered, “The Meridien has the best views of Shanghai, looking over Puxi towards the skyline of Pudong. In my opinion one of the most stunning manmade views currently available. Hope you have a great trip.”

He was right, of course. I had a room on the 50th floor with exactly the view he described. Most of the days were gloomily overcast or smog polluted, but the night views were spectacular, especially looking across the adjacent Peoples Park, across the blue-lit elevated freeways, and across the Huangpu tributary of the Yangtze River toward the new skyscrapers of Pudong.

Yan An Lu Gap Jia, Shanghai, China
Shanghai

Everything you’ve heard about the bustle and construction craze of this historic port city is true, and here is Whitworth’s video as visual testimony:

Greater Shanghai now boasts 24 million people, more than the total population of Taiwan. A decade ago, Kodak sponsored my lecture tour of China, including Shanghai, Hong Kong and, finally, Taiwan. Looking across the river from Shanghai’s old colonial area, The Bund, in Puxi, is the Pudong New Area of super-skyscraper banks and business. Even a decade ago, the skyline consisted mostly of hundreds of construction cranes and few finished buildings.

The Bund circa 1927
The Bund circa 1927
Screen shot 2014-10-01 at 5.20.59 PM copy
Pudong today

In April 2013, Nikon Pro Magazine featured an interview with Whitworth in which he responded to many ardent questions about how he creates his videos. Here is how he describes his technique of tracking and panning moving action:

A lot of the time, I shoot static shots then add the motion in post using motion tracking in After Effects, which allows you to ‘follow’ a subject on screen. If you shoot D800 NEF files, you have 36MP images, which are then reduced to 1080p, or around 2MP, so you can zoom in and crop a lot in post. Nikon NEF files are just amazing, as they give me so much flexibility to pan, track, and explore a scene. To get the extreme zoom shots, though, like the car or the pedestrian the camera follows through traffic, I shoot freehand or use a tripod to track subjects and then stabilize it in post. At one point, the camera is spinning around the circular center of a shopping mall, which was done by smiling at the security guards and using the railings as a tripod. I moved around the atrium and again and steadied the clip using specialist software.

As the vote for Catalan’s autonomy from Spain approaches, and threatens to reach a flash point for the city of Barcelona and its proud cultural history, Whitworth’s profile video becomes even more arresting. Its constantly shifting perspective interplay between swooping aerials and pedestrian, street-level tracking gives it a rhythmic changeup that represents a rich urban kaleidoscope.

A recent SMPTE meeting at the Academy’s Linwood Dunn Theater focused on the still-emerging possibilities of UAVs — drones, or (my new favorite name) “multi-rotors” — now that the FAA has begun to issue licenses for commercial photography. I can only imagine what new dimensions actual camera flight will introduce to Whitworth’s fertile imagination. Stay tuned.

Rob Whitworth
Rob Whitworth

NEXT: Freddie Francis and "The Innocents"

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