Jan 14

Q&A: Time-lapse video of Burning Man 2007

Since the debut of my time-lapse video of Burning Man 2007, a whole slew of people have asked me a myriad of questions about the video. These questions have ranged from “How did you do it?” to “How much did it cost you?” to “Where did you get the idea?” to technical questions on the specifics of my cameras and equipment. Instead of tell the story over and over ad nauseum, I figured that a good FAQ style question-and-answer session would cover most of the bases and if any other questions arise, I can always update this FAQ later.

Q: Where did you get the idea to do a time-lapse movie of Burning Man?

A: As a kid, I was always fascinated with stop-motion animation, so time-lapse photography was just a natural extension of this curiosity. The idea to try this was planted in my head when I saw another time-lapse video of Burning Man called the Folding-Time project. This project was very well done, but the thing that frustrated me most about the videos from Folding-Time was that it was not really possible to see the faces of people and what they were doing. Having been to Burning Man a few times before, I wanted to sort of “spy” on my campmates (as well as myself) to see what the hell we were all doing in and around camp during the week. (If you have ever been to Burning Man you will likely nod knowingly that it is nearly impossible to remember all that you did while you were there…)

Q: How did you pull this off? What sort of equipment did you use?

A: Some time last year (in 2007) I stumbled upon a website called Mr. Lee Cat Cam. The website featured the photographic adventures of a man’s cat known as “Mr. Lee” — It seems that the owner of Mr. Lee decided to equip his cat with a tiny digital “keychain camera” which he had altered with a microchip to enable the camera to take a picture at a set interval. The result was a set of images documenting his cat’s journey through the surrounding neighborhood.

The camera that this gentleman hacked is a low-cost / low-tech device that you can pick up from Walmart for $20 called the VistaQuest VQ1005.

Q: What are the specs on this little camera?

A: The VistaQuest VQ1005 is a 1.3MP digital camera (1280 x 1024). It operates on a single AAA (1.5v) Alkaline battery. It also has an SD memory card slot which is able to support up to 512MB SD cards. Unfortunately, it eats batteries like they are going out of style.

Q: How much did it cost you?

A: I figure I spent a little under $250 on the whole project.

Each VistaQuest VQ1005 camera cost approx. $20 — I bought 5 of them, so $100.  I also picked up 7 SD memory cards (512MB) for $10 each, so $70. Since these cameras have a voracious appetite for batteries, I purchased 5 single D-cell battery holders from Radio Shack for $2 each to solder into each camera unit, so $10. Plus I had to get a mess of D-cell batteries to power me for the week at Burning Man. I think I bought a 20 pack of D-cells on the notion that each battery would last 2 days.  I don’t remember how much I paid for these. I also had to order the camera controller chips from the guy at Mr. Lee Cat Cam five for $5 each, so $25.

$100 + $70 + $10 + ??? + $25 = $205+

Q: At what interval were these cameras taking pictures? What speed is the time-lapse movie played at?

A: Because I only had so many memory cards and batteries and I did not want to spend all week maintaining my time-lapse system, I decided on 1 frame per minute. This translates to 60 frames per hour or 1,440 frames per day.  The end results was that each 512MB memory card had enough space to go for 2+ days while the batteries seemed to hold up for about 1 to 2 days.

The time-lapse movie is played back at 15 frames per second, approximately half the frame rate of television in the US. This means that 4 seconds in the time-lapse video equates to about 1 hour of activity at Burning Man.

The trip back in the shipping container was shot at approx. 1 frame every 5 minutes. This was done to preserve battery life and prevent the 512MB  memory card from filling up. It seems that I could have gotten away with 1 frame every 2.5 or 3 minutes as the memory card was only half-full when the truck got back to Boston.

Q: What sort of problems did you run into during this project?

A: Too many to mention all of them. I’m really surprised that the project came off as well as it did.

Some of the early problems were just getting the controller chips properly soldered into these tiny camera. I managed to correctly solder in the first 4 chips, but royally messed up the last soldering job so much so that I effectively destroyed the camera.  It was also difficult determining memory / battery usage and estimating what usage would be like during the week. I was definitely surprised at how quickly these cameras burned through the beefy D-cell batteries.

Other problems were just making sure that the camera lenses had not become jammed with dust. Sometimes cameras would get blown down in dust storms and need to be remounted.  The Black Rock Desert is a harsh mistress.

I also had a strange file system corruption problem with 2 of the cameras where the camera would record multiple files with the same name (which is technically illegal according to filesystem specs, but apparently possible.) Unfortunately, I did not realize until later in the week that these files were recoverable using the Windows “chkdsk” utility, so I lost a few hours worth of footage here and there.

These cameras do not have very good low-light sensitivity, so they will not even try to take a picture if there is not enough light. As a result, there are times in the video where the nights seem very short. This is because I didn’t have any footage for that night.

Q: How did you convert those thousands of individual JPGs into a workable video?

A: I used two Open Source video processing programs that I am pretty familiar with: AviSynth (a frame server) and VirtualDub (a linear video editor) — AviSynth assisted me in serving the individual frames as a video stream to VirtualDub. The video stream was encoded using HuffYUV so as to preserve each frame as losslessly as possible. (Each JPEG image is already lossy, but I did not want to incur any more noise/artifacts by using a lossy video codec.)

Q: What music did you use for your video?

A: I used a few tracks from a Trance artist known as DJ Markitos. I purchased his album through Magnatune.com which is a music label that sells music exclusively through DRM-free downloads and splits the profits with the artists 50/50. Magnatune also engages in free licensing of music for non-commercial purposes (which my video is) using the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-ShareAlike license.

Q: Where did you get the great idea to record the trip from Burning Man back to Boston?

A: During the week while at Burning Man, one of the cameras was dutifully recording frame by frame every day, even though it was taped to the sidewall of one of the shipping containers. I am not entirely sure how the idea to record the trip from Burning Man back to Boston transpired, but I distinctly remember talking about this with my friend Doug, who is also a photographer.

We were both chatting about how neat it would be to leave that camera up for the whole trip (instead of just at Burning Man) when Doug struck upon the idea of mounting the camera on the inside of the truck looking outward. To help the camera make it for the whole trip, I soldered on 3 more battery packs so that I had 4 D-cell batteries wired in parallel. I also increased the interval from 1 frame per minute to 1 frame every 5 minutes, though as I mentioned above, I probably could have gotten away with once every 3 minutes. Needless to say, the camera faithfully recorded images all the way home to Boston until we unloaded the truck.

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