Time Lapse Urbanism

It seems a day does not pass without a new professional time lapse film of a city landing in my Google Rea…, Feedly or twitter stream. They all seem to follow a similar pattern; they’re shot at night and from an elevated position perhaps with a slow pan; they contain a collection of shooting angles that span highways, bridges or capture the throng of a pedestrian-heavy zone; some will have the seemingly ubiquitous (and simply annoying) tilt-shift effect (which seems to make everything look miniature) perhaps added to increase the visual metaphor of the ‘God’s eye view’ of the city engendered by such films (a good list of the best ones can be found here). Some of my particular favourites are from Dubai, Sydney, Melbourne, Quito and this rather Miévillian offering of New York. Time lapse films represent the vibrancy, complexity and gleaming aesthetics of urban life, or at least a particular kind of urban life. For me though, the increasing proliferation and professionalisation of these films is an interesting trend because it could be seen to represent a number of cross-cutting contexts and themes that have been debated in contemporary urban geography discourse of late, but also, the time lapse video could be viewed as part of urban entrepreneurial strategy. 

The first and perhaps most obvious theme is the lowering of the barriers to entry to such an endeavour. Cameras, editing software and dissemination channels are becoming ever more accessible, which makes the only real barrier to achieving a well-crafted film is access to the best vantage points within the city and the desire to do so. The fact that even I have produced some, such as the one above of Chicago, should be testament enough that even the most amateur of filmmakers can start to produce and disseminate time lapse films (albeit in my case, very poorly). That said, many of the films (particularly those in the links above) have been shot by professional photography and filmmaking companies and individuals, as such time lapse photography is becoming an industry subset in it’s own right. This dichotomous process of the uptake by amateurs of creative visual practices (armed with only a £200 camera and a filter-adding software package) against the proliferation of a professionalised workforce has its own set of problems, not least the increasing precariousness of work, but that debate, as they say, is for another time. Suffice to say, it is no doubt getting easier (from a technological perspective) to create and publish content like this, but also an industry around the practice is manifesting.

The second and perhaps more interesting context which can be teased from the proliferation of time lapse videos is the ‘mobility’ turn in Human Geography. The interest in (im)mobility has burgeoned recently, with a number of key articles, books and even a new journal. John Urry, who pioneered the field of mobility, built upon an argument forwarded by Putnam, and suggests that a ‘good’ (utopian?) society effectively ascribes the right to co-presence to everyone, i.e. limitless mobility to all. This of course is unachievable, and indeed undesirable for current processes of entrepreneurial urbanisation. Cresswell (2010: 17) argues that there are six constituent parts to the concept of mobility; “motive force, velocity, rhythm, route, experience, and friction”, only some of which seem to be articulated by time lapse videos. The constant fluidity and ‘smooth’ space depicted by these films negates the frictions of mobility and perhaps more tellingly, obscures the immobility that is part of the urban condition. Thinking of urban immobility though is not conducive, and indeed counter-productive to the wider lexicon of ‘flows of capital, people, ideas and so on – all those themes which have became the common parlance of urban entrepreneurial strategy. Which leads on to the third and (for me) most relevant theme….

…of the Creative City paradigm. The rise of creativity as an urban policy tool, as we should all know by now, is the go-to agenda for cities looking to get ahead in the global urban rat race. Bullied into global competitiveness by the endless ‘city league tables’ that are produced by economist units, public relations firms or real estate agents, cities have taken to acting like companies and spending more on building a competitive ‘brand’. The relentless search for uniqueness and the next ‘cool’ urban imaginary is very much entrenched in urban entrepreneurial strategy. Couple that with the pervasiveness of social media that is becoming inextricable from such strategies, then we find ourselves in a situation where time lapse videos that depict cities as mobile, vibrant, unconstricted and dynamic will be very favourable to city PR departments, and as such, are beginning to commission the films themselves, as was the case in Shanghai recently. “City logos and brands have become ineffective” it seems, and so time lapse films are taking their place.

Therefore, city time lapse films are highly relevant and desired vehicles for urban competitiveness as they visually articulate urban fluidity that is representative of (and indeed a pre-requisite for) mobile capital, while at the same time (re)producing a particular urban aesthetic of ‘cool’, that is much needed to attract the people and workers that are the conduits for the capture of said mobile capital. How long will it be before the time lapse film becomes part of the Creative City package that is sold by doorstep salesmen to the next city wanting a slice of the ‘creative’ action? Is it already the case?

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