For most of the history of cinema, directors have had only two options when it comes to moving shots: handheld, or on a crane or rail. Handheld’s dynamic – you can film anywhere the camera operator can carry and point the camera – but it’s also shaky, while the smoothness of a rail or crane shot is countered by only being available where there’s room for the rail or crane.
It took the invention of the steadicam in 1975 to make smooth handheld footage an option. The first ever scene to make use of it in a Hollywood movie, from the Woody Guthrie biopic Bound for Glory, is essentially a technical demonstration of the steadicam’s range – the shot starts high on a crane, but then moves to ground level and follows the lead actor as he winds between the tents and crowds of a Great Depression migrant worker camp. (You can watch it here.) Unspectacular by today’s standards, but that’s what 40 years of familiarity can do.
Yet, while it’s all well and good for professional filmmakers to take advantage of camera stabilisers, it’s a bit more difficult for amateurs. The cameras that the average consumer can afford, like the ones in smartphones, are technically excellent but limited by their form. Try holding a phone out at arm’s length for a significant period of time, while walking, and changing direction, and moving between patches of sunlight and shadow. It’s going to be shaky and unfocused and a bit crap, no matter what Instagram filter is used afterwards. Some people might shell out for smartphone steadicam-like products (seriously), but once you’re doing that it seems as if saving up and spending a little bit more would be better for getting a professional-looking shot.
Instead, the cheapest way to fix up shaky footage is in post-production. That’s what image stabilisation is for – it looks at two consecutive frames from a piece of footage, matches them up as much as possible, and centres them both around the same point to create the illusion that the camera was being held steadily the entire time. It’s not perfect, though, because it only really works if the person holding the camera is standing still. Trying to smooth out moving shots from a shaky handheld camera in post-production is extremely tricky.
The above video demonstrates one cool solution to that problem, though – a “hyperlapse“. It’s the work of a team at Microsoft, who were working with GoPro cameras (those are those tiny, rugged ones that are beloved of extreme sports enthusiasts), and it’s for creating extremely fast timelapse videos that are also surprisingly smooth. It’s not merely a case of stabilising the video and then speeding it up, or even the other way around. Rather, it’s a combination of some very nice mathematical models to create a kind of hyperreal drif through space. It’s a fast-but-smooth effect reminiscent of a game like Quake, which isn’t a surprise considering it’s done by modelling a virtual path through space based on mapping the frames within the video and mapping from the real frames onto it. It’s like Google Street View, extended along an extra dimension.
Towards the end of the clip is the most impressive bit, a rock-climbing video that comes out seeming more like the first-person view of some kind of bird drifting over the cliff face. The team responsible say they’re planning on releasing a consumer version of the hyperlapse program eventually, which could open up all kinds of interesting new shots to amateur directors. Who knows – maybe even Hollywood would be interested.