The Great British Year: Our magic ingredient

Thursday 17 October 2013, 11:32

Elizabeth White Elizabeth White Director and Producer

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The changing seasons are something that makes Britain special: the lengthening days, the turning leaves, the first touch of frost.

These little signs are things that we naturally tune into – things that make our landscape unique.

In making The Great British Year, the team and I had to bring these moments to life on camera and, thankfully, today’s technology was a tool that helped like never before!

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Perfect timing: Under a blanket of white a delicate flower makes its move

Much of the series relied on time-lapse filming - a technique that allows us to bring events in nature, that take many minutes, weeks or hours, to life - sometimes revealing things that would never have been obvious when viewed in normal time.

Take the story of the slime mould – one of my favourite characters in Autumn, the episode I produced.

Slime moulds look little more than blobs of yellow goo, yet they are fascinating and unique creatures that munch their way across the forest floor at about 1mm per second, clearing away bacteria from the leaf-litter.

The challenge was to bring their story to life and, for that, I called on expert time-lapse cameraman, Tim Shepherd.

Tim is no stranger to slime moulds, and using a carefully-constructed set where he could get in close with macro lenses and proper lighting, managed – over several weeks – to understand the slime mould’s behaviour and capture its remarkable life story through the lens.

Through time-lapse, a yellow blob comes to life as a moving, feeding character!

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A dramatic time-lapse study of yellow slime mould as it crosses the forest floor searching for food

We also needed to capture events in the natural world that happen rapidly, and unpredictably... in places it would be too hard to reactively scramble a camera team.

For that, we cast the net out wide, to the nation’s fleet of amateur time-lapse photographers.

Technology today, means that almost anyone with a good-quality digital SLR camera can go out and shoot time-lapse – you can even do it on your mobile phone.

OK, the quality we needed had to stand up to broadcast level, but using Twitter and photography forums we began to tap into a network of time-lapse enthusiasts whose work was excellent, and who were ready and waiting in locations all across the UK.

One of these locations was the northernmost tip of Scotland – one of the only parts of Britain that witnesses the aurora.

Though clear to human eyes, the aurora is too faint for most cameras to film, but time-lapse, where each frame may be exposed for several seconds, allows enough light into the camera to capture the effect.

But predicting something so enigmatic is tricky, and it would have been very difficult for a camera crew to guarantee filming when conditions were right.

Enter Barry Stewart, a builder from Wick. Barry got in touch with the team via an online forum for amateur time-lapsers. 

A keen photographer, Barry works as a joiner by day and by night, his hobby is filming with the time-lapse technique.

Barry had been photographing the night sky for a while, but one evening he happened to be out when an aurora was ‘playing’ overhead.

Aurora activity is related to sun activity, which works on a roughly 11-year cycle. It goes through phases with low activity (meaning auroras are relatively uncommon), and then phases when spectacular events occur.

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In John O’Groats the 18-hour nights are the perfect backdrop for the aurora borealis

Over the following months, Barry – along with fellow Wick time-lapser Maciej Winiarczyk – went out many times in order to document the best aurora.

Some shots were made from the sea shore, others from the local golf course – but all involved braving long hours in the cold Scottish night!

By working with people on the ground, suddenly a sequence of the Northern Lights which we didn’t dare hope to achieve, became possible.

Barry, and our other time-lapse contributors added the magic ingredient to The Great British Year – capturing ephemeral, yet magical moments in our seasonal landscape that it would be impossible to plan for or predict.

It’s a wonderful demonstration of how passionate people are about documenting Britain’s landscape – it may be our backyard, but the seasonal events on our doorstep can be an inspiration to us all.

Elizabeth White is the producer of episode four of The Great British Year.

Barry Stewart features in the Making The Great British Year section at the end of episode three.

The Great British Year continues on Wednesday, 23 October at 9pm on BBC One and BBC One HD. For further programme times please see the episode guide.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

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    Comment number 9.

    Great programme with skilled time lapse sequences but why put in those silly short speeded up sequences of people moving about on paths or roads? Not only are they ugly but they can also be disturbing for anyone with an epileptic condition. We get a warning about a sequence containing flashing lights so why not this?
    It does seem to be an obsession with BBC producers as was shown a little earlier last night in "Britain from above" on BBC4 and on almost all news programmes

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    Comment number 10.

    I found the yellow slime mould sequence (coupled with the music) the most compelling sequence of the show, If slime moulds move at 1mm per second as stated above surely I would be able to watch them moving? Is this not a mistake?

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    Comment number 11.

    Thank you once again Auntie beeb for such an inspirational programme. However you show us some of the methods employed, but more of the technical stuff like how many seconds and intervals of time used in the time lapse sequences were employed could be dropped into the how it was made follow-up also in the spring/autumn watch programmes cameras and techniques would for many be just as important as the nature stuff. We are all geeks at heart! Many thanks Rob Scott.

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    Comment number 13.

    Thank you all for taking the time to write. It is always nice to hear feedback. Thank you especially for the wonderful comments about the quality of photography - we are very lucky to work with very talented and dedicated wildlife cameramen and editors who help bring stories to life!

    I wanted to answer a couple of questions that have been asked here - particularly in relation to the technical aspects of time lapse. Unfortunately it's not always possible to cover the technical aspects of filming as part of the episode, so I'll attempt to answer your questions here.

    'Hofad' asks how lighting conditions were kept so constant in relation to surroundings. Obviously many of the landscape time lapses are at the mercy of weather conditions! Cameramen carefully choose their settings to anticipate changes with cloud cover and lighting, and many use plug-ins to the camera (like Magic Lantern) that help ramp exposure and smooth out some of the variation. It's quite an art, and often (especially with fickle British weather!) shots do become unusable because the weather conditions can change so much.

    For macro work (like the slime mould, earthworms and fungus) lighting conditions need to be carefully controlled and so these shots are filmed using artificial light – camera flash guns or lighting panels that keep the scene consistent.

    Many people have commented on the slime mould – my personal favourite! The top speed recorded for a slime mould plasmodium under laboratory conditions is indeed 1mm per second – but I don't expect the same parameters would be achieved in the wild. The slime mould we featured in the Autumn film typically moved at about 2mm per hour – according to cameraman Tim Shepherd, who had to predict its speed and behaviour in order to plan the shots. Typically he took a time lapse image every 30 seconds, or even every 2 minutes, depending on the size of frame and the sort of behaviour the slime mould was exhibiting – it moved faster when focused on crossing a narrow branch, as opposed to the broad, spreading out of the plasmodium as it moved along a log. Slime moulds have a pulsating movement, which may be visible if you look carefully.

    I wanted to pick up on the comment by Dick Catt re people in time lapse. I am sorry that you didn't enjoy those shots and feel this technique has been over-used in general across programmes. Indeed, it is unfortunate if several shows broadcast on the same day all used the same approach.

    In Autumn I felt that sequences such as Christmas shopping did suit this technique, since the story was about December days being short, hives of activity, for people too. It also allowed us to 'reveal' the Christmas lights coming on as darkness fell. Perhaps not every story had as much of a reason and I do agree that the over-use of time lapse, without a good story point, can quickly get tired.

    With regard to your concern that these images could trigger an epileptic seizure, I can reassure you that all programmes broadcast on television do go through a series of technical tests before transmission. One of these is the Harding Test, that highlights any footage that contains flashes or intense colours that could cause harm to those who suffer from photosensitive epilepsy. All episodes of The Great British Year did pass this test so there should not be any cause for concern. I do understand that the speed or style of shots, however, may not be to everyone's taste.

    Once again, thank you all for taking the time to write. I'll feed back your comments to the rest of the team, and hope you continue to enjoy watching Natural History on the BBC!


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