This past fall, two young amateur photographers embarked on what they call Project Yosemite. They used time-lapse photography combined with controlled-motion dollies to create a video that not only captures the grandeur and emotional presence of Yosemite National Park. It has also turned into an internet sensation with more than two million views as of mid February.
Colin Delehanty and Sheldon Neill, while still basking in the success of their first project, are gearing up for an encore. Despite busy schedules, they talked with me recently about their experiences creating Project Yosemite, the reaction they've received from all over the world, and their plans to go bigger and better with their next effort.
Watch Project Yosemite:
How did you first become interested in photography?
Delehanty: I think I got into photography because the locations that I visited, like Yosemite and Bishop, were pretty amazing places to go to for climbing. It became something I was more interested in when I was going outdoors.
Neill: I recently got into photography, in general, and was more into time-lapse. It was after I saw a video online called "The Mountain" by an individual named Terje. I'm sure a lot of people have seen it. I think there has also been an article featured on Yahoo! about it. That was the moment I went out and bought my first camera and began this huge learning curve.
How did that develop into an interest in time-lapse photography?
Delehanty: I think it was the same as Sheldon. I had seen a lot of videos that were interesting. Celestial and night time-lapses were incredible. Because the resources online were so good, it made it easy for me to enter into that kind of photography. Over time, I acquired the equipment that made it possible. It was something that was difficult for me to get into at first, because I didn't have the money to get the equipment. I wanted to do time-lapse and mix that with regular video footage.
Describe the process of shooting time-lapse photography.
Neill: Basically, it's just like any kind of photography. You set up how you want your frame to look or look for something that looks interesting. You set up the tripod. Since we're using a motion dolly by Dynamic Perception, we're essentially using a six-foot rail. We determine what exposure we want, set the intervals and determine how long we want it to go for. Once we put that into the controller, the camera is basically on autopilot for the remainder of the time-lapse. [Then it's back to the computer to edit and stitch together the video.]
How much time passed between each frame?
Neill: It really depends on the environment. If you're doing sunrise or sunset, something that has a significant amount of light change, you'll do a shorter time-lapse. If you're doing something in broad daylight, something between 20-30 minutes. The ones that people find more interesting are the night time-lapses. Those are the ones that take a significant amount of time. You'll sit there for two and a half, three, four hours depending upon how long you want to go for and what kind of move you want to do.
When you're taking a still during the daytime, depending on whether there are clouds or no clouds, you could be doing intervals between three and five seconds apart from each other. Whereas, at night, they'll only be a second apart and the exposure will be a hundred times longer. In daytime, you could be taking stills that are a fifteenth of a second, or even shorter. At night you're doing stills that are 30 plus seconds per exposure.
It seems like a lot of the work is setting everything up and then just waiting. What did you do to fill those hours while you were letting the camera run?
Delehanty: Doing the time-lapses is just trying to find a place to be comfortable, talking to people as they walk by during the day or sitting huddled up by the camera at night. You strike up a lot of conversations. You spend a lot of time hoping nothing went wrong. The whole time you're thinking to yourself, maybe I set it up incorrectly. Is this time-lapse going to work out? Should I stop it and maybe restart it with a different frame?
Once you start the camera, you can't stop it if you want to shoot something else. Unless you have multiple cameras which I can't quite afford, you're dedicated to just getting one shot. You can't readjust unless you're fully committed to abandoning the time already spent in the previous set-up.
Did you have any issues with people walking in front of the camera, not realizing what you were doing and ruining your shot?
Delehanty: Both of us had that problem. Sheldon actually got one cool still shot that came out from that.
Neill: Whenever you're going to a place like Yosemite, it does happen. In one case, I had done a time-lapse for 30 minutes and a guy canoed right through the frame. I had to spend an hour and 45 minutes doing a whole new one. People are sometimes unaware of what we're doing. They're not aware that if they step into the frame, they are interrupting us, but when that does happen, as Colin said, you have to abandon your shot and start over.
I know Colin had a problem at the Tunnel View. That's a really popular spot and he was doing a motion time-lapse sequence there. By the time he was getting near the end of the shot, a tour bus showed up and it got kind of hectic over there and ruined the shot.
Tell me a little bit about the music you selected to set the mood for the video?
Neill: When we first started the project, we were looking for some audio that we wanted to use, but it really depended on the scenes that we were going to get and how we wanted the video to flow. M83 had just pushed out his new album and we thought one track, "Outro," makes a really dramatic entrance or exit. It gives you a really good cinematic feel. It's uplifting and it's inspiring. As we started the project, his music worked really well. Early in September, I started working with these companies and literally the day before we were ready to push out the video, we had finally got it all approved.
We were kind of at this stage where were asking "Do we want to risk it and just use the music and not have to pay a fee or do we want to do this the right way?" We didn't expect to hit that many views. Had it not, was the money we were going to spend for the licensing going to be worth the amount of views that we did? We tried not to look at it that way.
It was a long process with a lot of email communication, but in the end it all worked out. They had to get approval all the way back from the artist and the only thing we had to show at the time were still photographs, but it went through. Afterwards, we got a note from M83's manager saying they liked the video and they put it on their Facebook page and the M83 website. That was huge for us, because it is a popular artist and to see it go that far was definitely a wake-up call.
Delehanty: It was a good thing to do, because now we have a relationship with them. They know who we are and if we need to ask for anything in the future, it's going to be a lot easier. We use the music to really drive the motion in the video so choosing the song was really difficult. It really carries you along through the video and adds a strong element to the experience of watching the video.
Having seen the finished product, are there things that you didn't like or would do differently if you could do it over again?
Neill: For me in particular, if I were to go back and do something, I would have tried to pick more interesting subjects. Not that it's not interesting enough, but because I know I could have gotten more out of the image. For a few shots, I wish I had different exposures and different timing. If I would have done something differently, I would have done HDR time-lapses, not for the essence of actually compiling them, but for having different exposures. So, if I wanted to take all the lower exposures, I could check those out and then check all the higher exposures out as a sequence by themselves.
In some of the night scenes, the skies are criss-crossed with airplane trails. Here you are in this wilderness setting and, in those scenes, the thing that really dominates the attention of the viewer is man-made. Did you try to get all natural scenes or was that intentional?
Neill: That was definitely the goal. It was also the reason why we tried to avoid having people in the frame as the subject. The ones we really tried to include are the ones with people interacting with the environment, rock-climbers or people going up Half Dome. At night, it's hard to avoid. Anywhere you looked or anywhere you took sample shots, you were getting trails from airplanes going by.
When it comes to conservation, obviously, it's important that we protect our parks, especially something like Yosemite. It's such an amazing place. When you're up there, you can hear it. It's not like a disturbance, you don't really notice it, but it's definitely something to consider. During the day shots there were a whole series of shots where, it's that whole theory of chemtrails. They're not actual clouds and some people didn't like the fact that it made the video not as good as it could have been if they had been natural clouds. It's something that we had no control over, so we could do so we tried to make the best of it.
As you spent time in the field and later watching the playback, did your perspective change? Did you learn something through this process?
Delehanty: It's just a really good feeling, I mean, I spent a lot of time just hanging out and climbing out there, just being with the elements. It's the reason why we got together for this project: being somewhere that makes you feel good. You learn to be out there and be by yourself like that. Yosemite is really special. When you go to the far ends, the places that are away from the touristy bits and experience them for yourself you're so far from people. It's a special feeling.
Neill: The timing of it seemed really odd and interesting, because it's been a pretty deadly year in Yosemite. When we first got there, we met a ranger called Ryan Hiller who checked our permits when we arrived. We saw him the next day at the summit of Half Dome because there was a climber who had fallen going for his seventh pitch on the North Visor. That ranger and I witnessed it, and I had to fill out a witness report for the event. On the day we released the video, we found out that Ranger Hiller was killed by a sequoia that fell on his tent.
In some of the night shots, you were in wild locations where there are potentially dangerous animals, did you ever find yourself listening to sounds in the dark and getting nervous about what might be out there?
Neill: It's definitely a lot more comforting to have friends there at night, because when you're there completely by yourself, your ears become sensitive to every little sound and you just hope to God that nothing's going to happen.
Delehanty: On a previous trip that I made alone at night, as soon as it got dark, I started thinking that if something should happen, no one would know. You start thinking about things like that.
Neill: During one of the shots at night, I just took my iPhone out and played music while I set up the time-lapse then I just went back to sit in the car, locked the doors and timed the next two and a half hours. Then, I went back out to get my gear and get back to the car as quick as I could. Like Colin said, you're in an area where you're a good amount of time away from anybody. There's not good cell reception. You're on your own. You have to make smart decisions and make sure you don't do anything that could put your life at risk or put yourself in a bad situation.
Some of the locations you shot were pretty far out there…
Neill: I think the farthest we hiked was about 16 miles round trip over two days. It's not all that far, but it's the gear you're carrying and the bruises that you get on the way from carrying all that weight. I'd estimate that our packs were about sixty pounds each.
Delehanty: It definitely felt like sixty pounds. Going up to Half Dome, you just feel like you want to quit with each step, but we motivated each other to keep going and get to a certain point that we wanted to shoot.
What has the reaction been from people who have seen your video?
Neill: We've received hundreds of comments and emails. The response has been pretty overwhelming. We've gotten calls from all around the world. It's really motivating for something like that to happen, because people are urging us to continue doing this and bringing videos to them.
Delehanty: Knowing that people are so excited by this makes us want to do great things. For other people to have the same feeling that I had when I started out in photography, these are the same kinds of projects that got me into it. It makes other people want to go out and do the same thing, which is cool. There are so many places on Earth that aren't captured. When you see the amazing videos of that, it's what inspired me to go out. That was really our goal, to do something that hadn't been seen before.
Were you surprised by the popularity of the video?
Neill: Overall, when we pushed out our video, we had no idea what kind of response we were going to get. We didn't consider how far the video would go. After the first day, we were like "Wow, that's really a significant number of views." Then, after two or three days, it crossed the half million mark and it just kept going and going. It was really cool to just sit back and watch, because it was something that we weren't expecting. It was amazing.
Delehanty: It was interesting to see the Internet work like that.
Is there any thought now to trying to monetize the popularity of the video?
Neill: We have definitely considered it. When we started the video, we tried to get the site ready and make sure our presence in social media was out there, so that in the event that this video did take off, it would present us with opportunity and maybe with future projects, but we haven't done anything yet to capitalize on it. It's something that we are definitely going to do and we're looking into continuing this and doing something interesting. We haven't decided where or what we're going to do, but we'll just say that our summer plans will be pretty busy.
Delehanty: This has never happened to us before, so it's nice to have a supportive online community of people who have been through this before that can help us with suggestions about what we should be doing and answer our questions.
Have you picked out locations for the next project?
Neill: Not yet. We have a couple of locations in mind, but we're not sure when we're going to execute that. It depends on our schedule. It's been a month since we pushed out this video, so we're still waiting to see what happens. By the time it hits April or so, I expect we'll have some final decisions. I know if we continue this to another project, it's going to be something local to us. Not to give out any hints or anything, but it could potentially be something like Zion National Park or Joshua Tree. I know Colin had mentioned a few other ideas. When we pushed out the video, we asked for people to give us suggestions, so we're open to doing other things.
You're really focused on natural environments rather than cityscapes or something like that?
Neill: Yes. It's something that interests me more. I work as a technician, so I basically sit in a closet all day fixing stuff. I like getting out and getting away from everything. I'm sure Colin can relate to that because he's a climber and he likes to get out. It's super cool to be in an area where you feel like you're away from society and at the same time, you're really not. Yosemite is a place that really hits that mark.
Delehanty: One of the reasons that I'm interested in doing these projects is that I go to these places to backpack, hike or climb and before you even go there, you look at pictures on the Internet, but there's no real way of knowing what it's going to be like. It's nice to have resources or a reference point when you're going somewhere.
With this first project as a reference point for the creativity and quality that Neill and Delehanty bring to their work, fans can hardly wait to see where they'll take us next.