Behind the Costa Concordia timelapse
Giglio harbor, Italy
By Tony Gentile
I have always been keen on cinema and documentary video. I study and create multimedia projects and like telling stories using still photos, video and audio.
After receiving the assignment to cover the Costa Concordia “parbuckling”, I had the idea to create a timelapse. Definitely not an original idea because in Giglio, there were more cameras shooting timelapses than there are island residents.
A timelapse is a cinematographic technique used to shorten the action. It allows us to see very slow actions or natural events that we cannot see naturally using the technique of shooting pictures at regular intervals. Then we edit to create a video of about 24 or 25 frames per second. In this way you can see the action accelerate.
In the pre-digital era, this technique was only possible with certain types of movie cameras but now almost all digital cameras have this option and the process has become much simpler.
In my opinion, there are different ways to do timelapses: artistic and narrative. I chose to create a narrative timelapse as it was the perfect technique for this event. The “parbuckling” process took 19 hours during which the ship’s motion was so slow that it made the progress impossible to see with the naked eye.
One of the most difficult things to control during a timelapse is the exposure, especially in this case as it went from night to day to night again. It’s not possible to sit for 19 hours behind a camera to change the exposure. I had to continue doing my regular job, taking pictures of the ship from different points of view during the operation. I then put my camera on manual exposure. At dawn I changed the settings following the change in light. When the light stabilized during the day, I didn’t change the exposure because it was important to record how the light changed when a cloud passed overhead. This would show the passing of time.
The second important thing was to decide on the right position for the camera and the right framing. In my opinion, it was important to see the structure of the “parbuckling” as much as possible and also to include the others ships involved in the operation. I needed to ensure I had a frame that was not too tight because there was the risk that after the straightening of the ship, it would change position and go out of the frame. I decided to use my 135mm lens at f.2.
Another key factor was the intervals at which the images would be taken. Usually it is a simple calculation but in this case there was no guarantee of the duration of the operation. It could go on for an extended time, which in fact did happen. I decided to shoot at 30-second intervals to aim for a final video of about one minute.
The operation should have begun on September 16 at 6.00 a.m. I was in my position at 5.30 a.m., ready to start. My tripod was set up on a balcony of the Saraceno Hotel, which overlooks the sea in front of the Costa Concordia. Unfortunately, a storm during the night forced the start of the operation to be delayed.
I shot the first series of pictures at dawn. Afterwards, I waited for the official start. As it sometimes happens, when the “parbuckling” began, the timer that I had used just two hours earlier did not work. After a couple of panicked moments, I fixed it and started the timelapse. During the first hours of the “parbuckling” the motion of the ship was really slow, but after four hours I started to see something and decided to go back to the hotel and check that everything was okay. I downloaded the first series of pictures and edited them with a software that builds timelapses and the effect was good. It worked!
My Reuters TV colleagues, excited by the idea of having the first video with visible motion of the ship, sent it for broadcast immediately. Throughout the day and the following night, I carried on running from one side of the island to the other, looking for different pictures such as 360 degree panoramic pictures. I would then return to the hotel to check if the timelapse camera was shooting okay and edit another block of video. After only three hours of sleep, I ventured out again to await the final moments of the operation. At exactly the same time that my alarm clock went off, I heard the sound of the trumpets of the ships celebrating the end of the “parbuckling”. I went running out to take pictures and found the head of operations, Nick Sloane, talking with reporters. I took some pictures but my mind was focused on the timelapse. Was the camera still working? And the position of the ship? I saw it in the harbor and it had really changed. Was it still in the frame of my camera?
I went back to the hotel to check and it was working properly. The ship was perfectly in the frame in the position that I had guessed 19 hours earlier. I edited it immediately and the result was amazing. The ship’s motion was perfect and the video was ready for broadcast. Not bad: 19 hours of shooting, 2,500 pictures, five hours of sleep, over the course of 64 hours. At least it was for a good assignment.