Michael Stern: It’s a Time Lapse

Feb 2, 2015

Lead_PhotoMichael Stern is a fellow Sequoyah School parent who offered a helping hand when we were begged to take on the job of the yearly student, class, and staff photos. In the years since then—and despite our being a basic natural light photographer and Michael being everything we are not—he has been unstintingly generous with his praise, time, and knowledge, for which we are emphatically grateful.

When we first saw some of his work, which is the focus of this interview and may be watched below, we knew we had questions to ask…

HP: What is your background and how long have you been a photographer?

MS: I am a full-blooded member of the creative community and photography is my chosen form of expression. My first camera was in my hands at age twelve and it’s been a wild ride ever since.

I started professionally in 1979, building out a loft above the Woolworth store on Hollywood Boulevard with a studio partner (in the studio only, not the business) right after graduation from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. I had my first client by November and really began rolling in February when I hooked my first big fish: a media company (name long ago forgotten) that hired me for numerous slide show productions throughout 1980…thirteen shoots in all. It was quite a coop for an up-and-coming commercial photographer in Hollywood. From there I worked in or built ten other studios in the ensuing 28 years and am hopefully at my last location, which I moved into it in 2006, here in Pasadena.


Behind The Scenes: Camera Set Ups


HP: What drew you and still draws you to photography?

MS: The magic of photography itself, the way this formerly chemical and now digital process transforms reality into whatever you want it to be. That’s magic for me and a boatload of others but the trick many “professional” photographers miss, however, is mastering the fundamentals, advanced techniques, studio and location wizardry that take their photographic visions to high levels of execution.

HP: Did you find an area of emphasis (photojournalism, portrait, architectural, etc.), and has that evolved, switched gears or direction dramatically, or evolved over the years?

MS: I began as a portraitist, then moved into sports and set photography before settling on product and architectural image-making for the better part of fifteen years. As time progressed, I left architectural and product photography behind and again took up portraits and sports shooting. Lately, it’s been a comfortable mix of corporate portraiture, sports photography and my latest love: time lapse filmmaking. With all the success I’ve had with what I call the time lapse narrative the past 3.5 years, it’s apparently something I’ve had a hidden talent for all along. Who knew?

I think it’s imperative that professional creatives evolve their passion, vision, and platform to take on new challenges that pit their creative loyalties against the internal voice that drives us. In addition to photography, I’ve tried acting, voice-over, written two books, was the driving force behind a 57-episode podcast, and have taught photography at various institutions since 1987. Obviously, photography was then and always has been my muse, but these other creative tendrils allowed me to learn, soul-search and mix into my creative stream-of-consciousness thinking new ideas on how to achieve my photographic goals. Very cool.


Behind The Scenes: Camera Set Ups


HP: How did you find your way to time lapse shorts? It’s so labor-intensive; what is the draw?

MS: As a small boy waiting for Great Moments With Mister Lincoln at Disneyland to begin, there was a time lapse film playing called, “Sleeping Beauty’s Castle Was Build In A Year And A Day.” It was a single camera 16mm color film time lapse of the construction and I couldn’t get enough of it. I had no idea how they did it or what it meant, but it hooked me hard and deep.

I never forgot but had to bury it for decades until I was intellectually, emotionally, and technically savvy to master this art form. It popped up on my radar finally in 2003. A colleague at Brooks Institute where we were both teaching was doing nature-based time lapse films. I was amazed at what he was accomplishing, not only visually but all the gear he had to own, to say nothing of the software needed to output such work. For me, time lapse is the perfect hybrid of still and motion photography. Add in music and sound effects and bingo, I’m a time lapse narrative short film producer. And I love it!

I insist on having an expertise in all aspects of the time lapse film making process: pre-production, production, and post-production. It’s a hell-of-a-lot to take on, let alone master, but that’s the challenge, isn’t it? To keep on growing inside one’s profession in order to get to the penultimate goal where people find you for work instead of constantly having going out to bring the work in. Mind you, I don’t mind marketing and selling but it will be great when that great ship finally docks for me. Hopefully it won’t be the Titanic….




HP: How do you choose a subject matter?

MS: I’ve always been fascinated by how stuff is built, specifically bridges, walls and buildings. When The Huntington contacted me in 2011, (the great ship?) we were both ready to take on a new challenge—they in commissioning a series of time lapse films of the building going on in the Japanese Gardens and me in moving up the food chain from single camera time lapse fireworks films….Oy!

I want to say that working with the folks at The Huntington, (specifically Jim Folsom) has been the singles greatest client/working relationship I’ve had in my career, and I worked with many professionals at Walt Disney Company for 22+ years, so that’s saying a lot. The trust that Jim inherently has in people is often rewarded by outstanding effort and work product. Or in my case, content.

I’m also very thankful that a media producer working under contract for the Port of Long Beach commissioned me for multiple projects last year, most notably the Gerald Desmond Bridge Replacement Project. Hmm, I see a pattern here, another ship has docked and how appropriate it’s at the port…




HP: How long does it take to actually shoot what will become the 4-minute pavilion piece? How do you even start to plan this out? What are the steps, or what would you like to share about the process?

MS: My latest time lapse, “The Clear and Transcendent Pavilion” for The Huntington began filming August 14, 2013, and the building itself was completed in early February of 2014. The concrete that now seats the audience for performances, walkways as well as the foundation for the next phase of the Chinese Garden build-out began in March of this year and was completed in mid-June. So the total time was ten months but only a few days from the concrete work was used, the bulk of it will be for the next phase build-out. When that is, is undetermined.

The planning goes, (in broad strokes) like this: a meeting to determine the clients goals, a site survey to determine the optimal placement of the “permanent” camera that will record the entire scene from beginning to end. This camera is removed after-the-fact but does not change position once it begins recording. After several weeks of recording and getting to know the boots on the ground workforce, and having a look at the construction timeline, I begin to place daily rover units to record what the main camera cannot see or because there’s something special going on that requires (in my fertile mind) a different point-of-view. I do this many, many times, way beyond what is budgeted for because in my head the final piece needs that footage. And because a construction environment is a dynamic situation that requires field decisions by me that further along my and my clients goals, money be dammed. Once I make an agreement, I keep it and am just so filled with joy that I get paid to do what comes naturally to me: storytelling with sound and pictures.




After construction and photography have completed, it’s into the edit phase where I breath life into all that data, thousands upon thousand of image files. Terrabytes of hard drive space is needed to house and archive all that information. I take months to edit a short film and it’s a very slow and contemplative experience. I’m in a zone and just feel my way through the material. Once I lock down the visual story, I move on to the music and construction sound effects tracks.

Over time I’ve come to appreciate two things I didn’t comprehend before 2011—editing is a process of removal. Any material that doesn’t drive the narrative forward has to go. If it stalls the story, out it goes. Period. No room for vanity. It’s all about getting the story across as fast as possible, in as comprehensible a manner as possible. The audience demands it.

The second thing I’ve grown to appreciate is sound design; I always thought that was a bit cheesy when I saw it roll by during a movie’s credit roll, but no more. Without supportive and proper sound design a time lapse film becomes distracting to watch. Let alone comprehend. Do ya hear me now?




HP: In regard to this particular piece, do you have any particular thoughts in hindsight, likes and dislikes, lessons learned, or favorite moments?

MS: The piece has one moment in it that I’m especially proud of: the second sequence depicting the laying down of 12×12 floor tiles. I watched the workers for a few days prior to filming because instinctively I knew this was worth filming. But how? I timed the work: approximately 5 minutes per tile. I crafted a plan. I would deploy one of my motion control systems and move the camera west to east as he moved east to west. In addition I would simultaneously pan the camera, in essence following him along the path. I picked the day, laid out my system, programmed the motion control device, did a test run, cleaned and leveled the camera, checked its’ settings and waited for him to begin. I had everything covered except for one small issue. I didn’t plan on having my camera placed squarely where several other workers needed to be working that morning.

Right before he began laying tiles I was informed that I couldn’t keep my camera where it was. Mind you I had spent the past 40 minutes setting up and testing and now had to have several of them help me lift up the entire setup and move it about 5 feet further north. Yikes! Between the sandbags, apple crates, dolly track and camera spread out about eight feet in length, we had to lift about 55 awkward pounds.




Once set down, I had to go through the leveling and programming procedures again. Time was ticking down, the worker was about ready to begin and he wasn’t going to wait for me…. These fellas were employees of the company hired from China and none of them spoke English and I didn’t speak Chinese. It was all gesture and trust for them to communicate to me what the problem was and they in turn helped me move the gear. The stress level shot up for me because if I didn’t get that particular row of tile lay down, the next row would have forced me into a different composition and I didn’t want that. I waited for three days for that specific row to come up and I wasn’t gong to be denied. Not on my watch!

The aspect of construction time lapse I live for is the sense of community that develops during the project. We get to know one another and when the trust builds, we accomplish great things together. The workers often suggest where I might place a camera because of what they are going to do. In turn, I often render out quick short clips after unusual days and show them the next morning what I’m up to. They appreciate the consideration and in turn it inspires all of us to work together. It’s definitely fun.

Watch Michael’s time lapse film here:




To see more of Michael’s work, please visit




Other time lapse pieces:

More on “why time lapse?”:


1 Response for “Michael Stern: It’s a Time Lapse”

  1. I love it! Thanks Kat for publishing this interview.

    Really appreciate your efforts.




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